Muhammad Wazir was drinking morning tea at his brother’s home in southern Afghanistan when, he said, a panicked neighbor called his cell phone.
“‘The Americans have attacked your house and killed your entire family!’ he shouted to me,” said Wazir, 35.
That news of the nighttime rampage by what the U.S. Army says was a single soldier launched Wazir, a farmer, on a frenzied, four-hour drive with his youngest son from the town of Spin Boldak to his own mud-walled village compound.
“When we got to my home, more than 1,000 people were standing with sticks and hunting guns, saying they wanted to attack the American base,” Wazir said yesterday. The killings that took his family have escalated tension between the U.S. and Afghanistan and added to election-year pressure on President Barack Obama for a quick American exit from the 10-year-old war.
“I went inside and found the dead bodies of my two sons, four daughters, my mother, brother and my wife,” Wazir said in an interview in Kandahar. “Also my brother’s wife and his nephew, who had come from Spin Boldak and was our guest. All their bodies had been brought into one room and burned.”
“There was blood in the beds of my family, where they were killed. The bodies were all in my mother’s room, piled together and burned black. The Americans had put blankets and pillows and wood pieces they ripped from the window frames and set it all on fire.”
Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will be charged with 17 counts of murder in the killings, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The charges are expected to be released today and presented to Bales where he is being held in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, one of the officials said.
Sitting in a mostly bare office, Wazir, a bearded man in traditional tunic and turban, gazed at the floor. He looked up at times as he spoke softly, his voice tense with anger, in Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s main languages. He had driven to the interview about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Balandi, the village where his family has farmed wheat and pomegranates for four generations.
Eleven of at least 16 people killed around the U.S.-run Camp Belambay in the early hours of March 11 were Wazir’s relatives, he said. In Afghanistan, the story and images of their deaths have redoubled what Kabul-based political analyst Waheed Mujda calls America’s overwhelming problem now in the country: a deeper-than-ever loss of trust with ordinary Afghans, especially in the ethnic Pashtun south.
‘Shock and Sadness’
While Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai “to express his shock and sadness” and pledged “to hold fully accountable anyone responsible,” Karzai said the shootings show “great oppression and cruelty” toward the people of Afghanistan, according to a statement from his office. Karzai on March 16 told victims’ relatives he doubted whether only one soldier conducted the attacks.
With the Army preparing to prosecute Bales, Wazir said he knows of only one eyewitness to the attack on his house: a woman named Palwasha from a neighboring home.
“Most of the neighbors heard the attack but they stayed hidden in their homes because they were afraid,” Wazir said.
“Palwasha told me that the gunfire woke her about 2:30 in the night, and she came out and saw the light flashes from guns -- not one gun, but different guns -- at my house,” Wazir said. “It was too dark to see the soldiers’ uniforms, she told us.”
Palwasha ran to hide, and “when the firing ended, she came and saw a fire burning in my house,” Wazir said. “When the sun rose, she went in and saw that our people were dead.” He said his neighbor’s family has told him they are willing to make Palwasha available to testify at a U.S. trial.
Lone Soldier Question
Wazir’s account of Palwasha’s description, like those of other Afghans since the attack, disputed the U.S. statement that the killings were by a lone, rogue soldier.
“While not getting into details of an ongoing investigation, we continue to have no indication at all that anyone other than the suspect perpetrated these attacks,” said Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, in an e-mail yesterday.
Amid repeated battles around his village between U.S.-led forces and the Taliban since 2006, residents have struggled to survive, Wazir said. His farm’s fruit and wheat harvests, sold in area bazaars, last year earned the family the equivalent of $6,100, he said.
Though details of Bales’s life, family and finances have become public knowledge in the U.S., little has been reported even in Afghanistan about those who died that night. Wazir mourned his relatives today by name: his mother, Shakarina; his wife, Zahra; and their four daughters: Nabiya, Farida, Massoumeh and Palwasha.
In the tradition of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribes men especially prize their sons, and Wazir spoke of his two who died. Faizullah, about 9, was a bit of an imp, he said. “He would find any chance to get someone’s cell phone in his hands and find the games on it to play.”
“My oldest son, Esmatullah, was 16. He was becoming a man, helping me with the farming, bringing me my lunch in the fields. Now I have no helper and I feel I have no life.”
The sole survivor of the American’s attack was Wazir’s youngest boy, Habib Shah, a four-year-old whom Wazir had taken with him on the visit to relatives.
“Habib Shah doesn’t know that his mother and brothers and sisters are dead,” Wazir said. “I have told him they are living in a different place, because I cannot upset him by telling him the truth.”