The return to Afghanistan: Collateral damage

The first anniversary is approaching of the attacks of
11 September and the subsequent 'war on terror'. To
mark the date, The Independent today launches a major
new series of special reports by our Middle East
correspondent Robert Fisk. In his first dispatch from
Afghanistan, he relates the untold story of
Hajibirgit, a tiny village in the south-west of the
country, where a raid by US Special Forces left a
tribal elder and a three-year-old girl dead . . .

06 August 2002

President George Bush's "war on terror" reached the
desert village of Hajibirgit at midnight on 22 May.
Haji Birgit Khan, the bearded, 85-year-old Pushtu
village leader and head of 12,000 local tribal
families, was lying on a patch of grass outside his
home. Faqir Mohamed was sleeping among his sheep and
goats in a patch of sand to the south when he heard
"big planes moving in the sky". Even at night, it is
so hot that many villagers spend the hours of darkness
outside their homes, although Mohamedin and his family
were in their mud-walled house. There were 105
families in Hajibirgit on 22 May, and all were woken
by the thunder of helicopter engines and the thwack of rotor
blades and the screaming voices of the Americans.

Haji Birgit Khan was seen running stiffly from his
little lawn towards the white-walled village mosque, a
rectangular cement building with a single loudspeaker
and a few threadbare carpets. Several armed men were
seen running after him. Hakim, one of the animal
herders, saw the men from the helicopters chase the
old man into the mosque and heard a burst of gunfire.
"When our people found him, he had been killed with a
bullet, in the head," he says, pointing downwards. There is a
single bullet hole in the concrete floor of the mosque
and a dried bloodstain beside it. "We found bits of
his brain on the wall."

Across the village, sharp explosions were detonating
in the courtyards and doorways of the little homes.
"The Americans were throwing stun grenades at us and
smoke grenades," Mohamedin recalls. "They were
throwing dozens of them at us and they were shouting and
screaming all the time. We didn't understand their
language, but there were Afghan gunmen with them, too,
Afghans with blackened faces. Several began to tie up
our women  our own women  and the Americans were
lifting their burqas, their covering, to look at their
faces. That's when the little girl was seen running 
away." Abdul Satar says that she was three years old,
that she ran shrieking in fear from her home, that her
name was Zarguna, the daughter of a man called
Abdul-Shakour  many Afghans have only one name  and
that someone saw her topple into the village's 60ft
well on the other side of the mosque. During the
night, she was to drown there, alone, her back
apparently broken by the fall. Other village children
would find her body in the morning. The Americans paid no attention.
From the description of their clothes given by the
villagers, they appeared to include Special
Forces and also units of Afghan Special Forces, the
brutish and ill-disciplined units run from Kabul's
former Khad secret police headquarters. There were
also 150 soldiers from the US 101st Airborne, whose
home base is at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. But Fort
Campbell is a long way from Hajibirgit, which is 50 miles into the
desert from the south-western city of Kandahar. And
the Americans were obsessed with one idea: that the
village contained leaders from the Taliban and Osama
bin Laden's al-Qa'ida movement.

A former member of a Special Forces unit from one of
America's coalition partners supplied his own
explanation for the American behaviour when I
met him a few days later. "When we go into a village
and see a farmer with a beard, we see an Afghan farmer
with a beard," he said. "When the Americans go into a
village and see a farmer with a beard, they see Osama
bin Laden."

All the women and children were ordered to gather at
one end of Hajibirgit. "They were pushing us and
shoving us out of our homes," Mohamedin says. "Some of
the Afghan gunmen were shouting abuse at us. All the
while, they were throwing grenades at our homes." The
few villagers who managed to run away collected the stun grenades
next day with the help of children. There are dozens
of them, small cylindrical green pots with names and
codes stamped on the side. One says "7 BANG Delay: 1.5
secs NIC-01/06-07", another "1 BANG, 170 dB Delay: 1.5s."
Another cylinder is marked: "DELAY Verzagerung ca.
1,5s." These were the grenades that terrified Zarguna
and ultimately caused her death. A regular part of US
Special Forces equipment, they are manufactured in
Germany by the Hamburg firm of Nico-Pyrotechnik  hence
the "NIC" on several of the cylinders. "dB" stands for

Several date stamps show that the grenades were made
as recently as last March. The German company refers
to them officially as "40mm by 46mm sound and flash
(stun) cartridges". But the Americans were also firing

bullets.Several peppered a wrecked car in which
another villager, a taxi driver called Abdullah, had
been sleeping. He was badly wounded. So was Haji
Birgit Khan's son.

A US military spokesman would claim later that US
soldiers had "come under fire" in the village and had
killed one man and wounded two "suspected
aliban or al-Qa'ida members". The implication  that
85-year-old Haji Birgit Khan was the gunman  is
clearly preposterous.

The two wounded were presumably Khan's son and
Abdullah, the taxi driver. The US claim that they were
Taliban or al-Qa'ida members was a palpable lie  since
both of them were subsequently released. "Some of the 
Afghans whom the Americans brought with them were shouting
'Shut up!' to the children who were crying," Faqir
Mohamed remembers.

"They made us lie down and put cuffs on our wrists,
sort of plastic cuffs. The more we pulled on them, the
tighter they got and the more they hurt. Then they
blindfolded us. Then they started pushing us towards
the planes, punching us as we tried to walk."

In all, the Americans herded 55 of the village men,
blindfolded and with their hands tied, on to their
helicopters. Mohamedin was among them. So
was Abdul-Shakour, still unaware that his daughter was
dying in the well. The 56th Afghan prisoner to be
loaded on to a helicopter was already dead: the
Americans had decided to take the body of 85-year-old
Haji Birgit Khan with them.

When the helicopters landed at Kandahar airport 
headquarters to the 101st Airborne  the villagers
were, by their own accounts, herded together 
into a container. Their legs were tied and then their
handcuffs and the manacle of one leg of each prisoner
were separately attached to stakes driven 
into the floor of the container. Thick sacks were put
over their heads. Abdul Satar was among the first to
be taken from this hot little prison. "Two
Americans walked in and tore my clothes off," he said.
"If the clothes would not tear, they cut them off with scissors. They
took me out naked to have my beard shaved and to have my photograph taken.
Why did they shave off my beard? I had my beard all my life."

Mohamedin was led naked from his own beard-shaving
into an interrogation tent, where his blindfold was removed. "There was an
Afghan translator, a Pushtun man with a Kandahar accent in the room, along
with American soldiers, both men and women soldiers," he says. "I
was standing there naked in front of them with my hands tied. Some of
them were standing, some were sitting at desks. They asked me: 'What do
you do?' I told them: 'I am a shepherd  why don't you ask your soldiers what
I was doing?' They said: 'Tell us yourself.' Then they asked: 'What kind
of weapons have you used?' I told them I hadn't used any weapon.

"One of them asked: 'Did you use a weapon during the
Russian [occupation] period, the civil war period or the Taliban period?' I
told them that for a lot of the time I was a refugee." From the
villagers' testimony, it is impossible to identify which American units were
engaged in the interrogations. Some US soldiers were wearing berets
with yellow or brown badges, others were in civilian clothes but apparently
wearing bush hats.

The Afghan interpreter was dressed in his traditional
salwah khameez. Hakim underwent a slightly longer period of
questioning; like Mohamedin, he says he was naked before his interrogators.

"They wanted my age and my job. I said I was 60, that
I was a farmer. They asked: 'Are there any Arabs or Talibans or Iranians or
foreigners in your village?' I said 'No.' They asked: 'How many rooms are
there in your house, and do you have a satellite phone?' I told
them: 'I don't have a phone. I don't even have electricity.' They asked:
'Were the Taliban good or bad?' I replied that the Taliban never came to our
village so I had no information about them. Then they asked: 'What about
Americans? What kind of people are Americans?' I replied: 'We heard that
they liberated us with [President Hamid] Karzai and helped us  but we don't
know our crime that we should be treated like this.' What was I supposed
to say?"

A few hours later, the villagers of Hajibirgit were
issued with bright-yellow clothes and taken to a series of wire
cages laid out over the sand of the airbase  a miniature version of
Guantanamo Bay  where they were given bread, biscuits, rice, beans and bottled
water. The younger boys were kept in separate cages from the older men.
There was no more questioning, but they were held in the cages for
another five days. All the while, the Americans were trying to discover the
identity of the 85-year-old man. They did not ask their prisoners  who
could have identified him at once  although the US interrogators
may not have wished them to know that he was dead. In the end, the
Americans gave a photograph of the face of the corpse to the International Red
Cross. The organisation was immediately told by Kandahar officials that the
elderly man was perhaps the most important tribal leader west of the

"When we were eventually taken out of the cages, there
were five American advisers waiting to talk to us," Mohamedin says. "They
used an interpreter and told us they wanted us to accept their apologies
for being mistreated. They said they were sorry. What could we say? We were
prisoners. One of the advisers said: 'We will help you.' What does that
mean?" A fleet of US helicopters flew the 55 men to the Kandahar football
stadium  once the scene of Taliban executions  where all were freed,
still dressed in prison clothes and each with a plastic ID bracelet round the
wrist bearing a number. "Ident-A-Band Bracelet made by Hollister" was
written on each one.

Only then did the men learn that old Haji Birgit Khan
had been killed during the raid a week earlier. And only then did
Abdul-Shakour learn that his daughter Zarguna was dead.

The Pentagon initially said that it found it
"difficult to believe" that the village women had their hands tied. But given
identical descriptions of the treatment of Afghan women after the US bombing
of the Uruzgan wedding party, which followed the Hajibirgit raid, it
seems that the Americans  or their Afghan allies  did just that. A US
military  spokesman claimed that American forces had found "items of
intelligence value",weapons and a large amount of cash in the village.
What the "items" were was never clarified. The guns were almost certainly
for personal protection against robbers. The cash remains a sore
point for the villagers. Abdul Satar said that he had 10,000
Pakistani rupees taken  from him  about $200 (130). Hakim says he lost his savings
of 150,000 rupees $3,000 (1,900). "When they freed us, the Americans
gave us 2,000 rupees each," Mohamedin says. "That's just $40 [25]. We'd
like the rest of our money."

But there was a far greater tragedy to confront the
men when they reached Hajibirgit. In their absence  without guns to defend
the homes, and with the village elder dead and many of the menfolk
prisoners of the Americans thieves had descended on Hajibirgit. A group of men
from Helmand province, whose leader is Abdul Rahman Khan  once a brutal and
rapacious "mujahid" fighter against the Russians, and now a Karzai
government police commander raided the village once the Americans had taken away
so many of the men. Ninety-five of the 105 families had fled into the
hills, leaving their mud homes to be pillaged.

The disturbing, frightful questions that creep into
the mind of anyone driving across the desert to Hajibirgit today are
obvious. Who told the US to raid the village? Who told them that the Taliban
leadership and the al-Qa'ida leadership were there? Was it, perhaps,
Abdul Rahman Khan, the cruel police chief whose men were so quick to pillage
the mud-walled homes once the raid was over? For today, Hajibirgit is a
virtual ghost town, its village leader dead, most of its houses abandoned. The
US raid was worthless. There are scarcely 40 villagers left. They
all gathered at the stone grave of Zarguna some days later, to pay their
respects to the memory of the little girl. "We are poor people  what
can we do?" Mohamedin asked me. I had no reply. President Bush's "war on
terror", his struggle of "good against evil" descended on the innocent
village of Hajibirgit.

And now Hajibirgit is dead.


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