RIGI, Helmand — The issue of civilian casualties has once again assumed center stage in Afghanistan.
The number of civilian war deaths rose 6 percent in the first seven months of 2010 when compared to the same period last year, according to reports released over the weekend. Meanwhile, the bodies of 10 members of a medical team were flown to Kabul on Sunday from where they were gunned down last week in the northern province of Badakhshan.
Not to mention the furor over the Wikileaks Afghanistan War Diary, which is still raging in some circles. The Pentagon has called on the secret-busting website to “do the right thing” and avoid any further releases.
But the more than 75,000 documents already published have given new information about some of the worst incidents of civilian deaths in the nearly nine-year war, and Afghans are feeling that their concerns are finally receiving world attention.
The new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, has freed troops from some of the more onerous restrictions imposed by his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose counterinsurgency strategy relied heavily on the protection of civilians. Soldiers on the ground say that the prohibitions against using air support tied their hands, resulting in a higher level of military casualties and a bolder, more defiant insurgency.
But many worry that the new rules mean a return to the days when noncombatants died in large numbers, often as a result of an airstrike that hit the wrong target or missed its intended quarry.
One such incident, say Afghans, was in Rigi, a village in the Sangin district of Helmand province. On July 23, residents there reported that a cruise missile hit a large family compound, killing as many as 52 civilians.
NATO officials deny the strike. A press release issued on July 26 by the press office of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), emphasized that there had been no military operations in Rigi on the specified date.
“Any speculation at this point of an alleged civilian casualty in Rigi village is completely unfounded,” said ISAF Communication Director Rear Admiral Greg Smith. “We are conducting a thorough joint investigation with our Afghan partners and will report any and all findings when known.”
There had, in fact, been a joint ISAF-Afghan operation about 10 kilometers away, continued the press release; precision-guided missiles were used against insurgents. But ISAF insists that all missile strikes were accounted for and reached their intended targets.
On the same day, President Hamid Karzai’s office issued its own press release, condemning the missile strike in Rigi.
“Based on reports by the National Directorate of Security, a house in Rigi village in Sangin district of southern province of Helmand was hit with a rocket launched by NATO/ISAF troops leaving 52 civilians dead including women and children,” said the press release.
Karzai apparently could not resist getting in his own digs about the Wikileaks documents, which he insists support his long-standing contention that Pakistan is the source of the problem and that Afghan civilians are being unfairly targeted.
“The President stressed that the recent documents leaked out to media clearly support and verify Afghanistan’s all-time position that success over terrorism does not come with fighting in Afghan villages, but by targeting its sanctuaries and financial and ideological sources across the borders,” the press release continued.
Given the conflicting reports from Sangin, it was almost impossible to establish what actually occurred without first-hand information.
Aziz Ahmad Shafe, an Afghan cameraman for the BBC, traveled to the area to interview victims.
Here is his own account of the trip:
I kept getting phone calls from local people in Sangin, asking me to cover this tragedy. First I tried to get information from the provincial authorities in Helmand, but they told me that nothing had happened.
First I searched the hospitals, but could find no evidence that any dead or wounded had been brought in from Sangin. Finally Dr. Qayum Pukhla, the head of the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, told me on the telephone that, at 1 a.m. on July 24, they had received seven injured children from Sangin.
I decided to go there myself, regardless of the danger. Sangin is almost completely under Taliban control. The Taliban commander in Sangin told me by phone that the situation was too unstable for me to come. But I persisted. I told him that I needed to cover the story and would take responsibility for my own security.
An hour later, Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi called me.
“The Taliban in Sangin will let you through, no problem,” he said. “Go ahead, do your work.”
I found a driver who was willing to take me, and we set off from Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
Up until Dorahi, where the road splits off for Kandahar, the road was paved and there was no problem. But as soon we entered Sangin district, I could feel that we had entered Taliban territory.
Suddenly bullets hit our car from all sides. I saw gunmen by the side of the road, but it was not clear whether they were Taliban, government forces or simply thieves.
When they saw we were unarmd, they came no closer.
“Go back!” one of them shouted.
We prepared to do just that when some dust-covered vehicles arrived from the direction of Hyderabad. They told the gunmen that the operation in Sangin was finished.
“It is okay, you can pass,” said one of them. I understood that these men belonged to a local militia that was fighting the Taliban.
We had survived our first confrontation, but there were many more. We were stopped frequently by the Taliban. I was expecting to be killed at any moment, but they just looked at our car and let us go.
When we got to the district center of Sangin, I saw Afghan Army bases, which reassured me a bit, but just a kilometer outside the center we were once again in Taliban country. The place is called Ghargarai — on one side you can see the black, red and green of the Afghan national flag, while just 300 meters away the white Taliban banner waves.
About three kilometers outside of Sangin district center I began to see NATO bases. There were heavy vehicles and tanks, driving across planted fields as if they were on a road. We passed them, and entered Sarwan Kala, which is controlled by the Taliban.
The area is full of mines, and we did not know which way to go. The Taliban told us how to avoid the explosives. But soon we were lost and the driver wanted to turn back.
I saw a village and asked local people the way to Rigi.
“Why would you want to go there?” they asked. They told us there had been a NATO strike and civilians had been killed. They also said Taliban would kill us if we went. But I told them that I was a journalist and wanted to give the victims a voice.
“I am going with you!” said one of the villagers. His name was Abdul Karim, a strong, healthy man with a white turban who looked about 40. He used to be with the Taliban, he said, but now he was just sitting at home.
“You cannot go by road, it’s too dangerous,” he said. “Not even a cat could make it. But I know a back way, and I will show you.”
Abdul Karim took the wheel and seemed very competent. There were Taliban checkpoints every 100 meters or so, but he managed to talk us through them easily.
Finally we got to Rigi. The first thing we saw was a cemetery, called Faqir Baba. Residents told me they had buried 24 bodies from the strike there. I counted the graves.
From the cemetery there was a small, thickly wooded road to the village itself. Suddenly, about a dozen armed Taliban jumped out of the trees and demanded to know where we were going.
When we explained why we wanted to get to Rigi, they said, “Okay. But if you are killed, it is your own responsibility.”
We found the compound that was hit. There was a gathering in front of it.
The compound was almost completely destroyed. All the household goods were mixed together, kitchen things with children’s toys, and wood for the stoves, all lying in heaps.
Mohammad Khan, a 15-year-old boy, told me the story.
”It was Friday when all this happened,” he said. “Down from this village, there is another one called Joshali, where I live. The Taliban attacked the American and Afghan forces and a short fight broke out between them. The people of Joshali decided to evacuate the village, so we came here to Rigi — women, children, old and young, all of us.
“When we got here, the people of Rigi helped us and gave us shelter,” he continued. “They put the women and children in one big compound and the men stayed outside. It was around three in the afternoon that we saw helicopters in the air. The men fired on the helicopters from the ground with AK-47s. I ran towards the compound and told the children to go inside. Some obeyed me and some just stayed outside to see what was happening. Suddenly I heard a big boom and I was knocked down. There was dust everywhere. I could not hear anything. When the dust settled, I ran towards the compound. I saw human bodies scattered everywhere. I started looking for my mother, and finally found her, covered with blood and dust. I pulled her out of the ruins. I found three of my little brothers too, near my mother. They were all dead.”
Khan began to cry. “I want my mother back,” he said, and left me.
Haji Hussain, another man from Joshali village who had taken refuge in Rigi, was visibly angry as he told of his ordeal.
“We don’t know why they’re killing us,” he said, his voice rising. “The foreigners say they try to protect civilians, but they are killing us. They are supposed to have very advanced technology that can detect a nail on the ground from the air, so why the hell could they not see a house full of women and children? No one survived the strike. They talk of humanity and civilization, where does their humanity and civilization go when they decide to kill women and children? It’s all lies. They’re just our enemies … ”
Hussein was unsure of the exact number of casualties; he thought it was about 45.
Haji Shah Wali, another refugee from Joshali, agreed.
“In total we took 39 bodies out of the ruins and buried 24 of them in Faqir Baba cemetery,” he said. ”Some others are in Ghargarai. At least six other bodies are still under the rubble; we have not managed to get them.”
Suddenly a frightened villager came running up.
“Go go, the Americans are coming!” he shouted.
Everybody started to run. The driver and I left Rigi and went back to Lashkar Gah. We arrived at about 8 p.m.
I went straight to the governor’s office and talked to his spokesman, Dawood Ahmadi. I wanted to explain what had happened in Sangin.
He would not listen.
“Nothing happened there,” he said. “Why are you so upset?”
Aziz Ahmad Shafe reported from Rigi. Jean MacKenzie reported from Boston.