SBS, March 8, 2009
A Survivor’s Tale: How five children were killed by Australian troops
“We were at home and suddenly they burst in. Soldiers and fighters.. those Australians.” Zaher Khan
This is how Australia first learnt that five children had been killed by ADF soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
Zaher Khan tells us that aside from his daughter Malalai, seven people in total were killed by the Australian troops. Photo: SBS
LIEUTENANT GENERAL MARK EVANS, CHIEF OF JOINT OPERATIONS: During the conduct of this operation there was an exchange of fire between our forces and the Taliban. Tragically, a number of people were killed and wounded during this incident. Current reporting indicates that those killed include a suspected insurgent and, sadly, local nationals including five children killed and two children and two adults injured.
REPORTER: Can you give us any more details about how the children came to be caught in the crossfire? Was it dark? Was there a mistake?
LIEUTENANT GENERAL MARK EVANS: The operation was conducted in the hours of darkness. I don't want to go into the tactical details with regards to the operation. What I can say is that we're conducting an investigation and the outcomes of that investigation will be made available to the Australian public.
REPORTER: Were they shot dead or was there an air strike called in?
LIEUTENANT GENERAL MARK EVANS: I won't go into the tactical aspects of the operation.
But what actually happened that night? Who were these five children? How exactly did they die? And how did Australian troops make such a terrible mistake?
FAZEL RESHAD, JOURNALIST: He drove from Kabul to Kandahar - about seven hours.
We turned to a producer Dateline had previously worked with in Afghanistan, Fazel Reshad.
FAZEL RESHAD: It's very difficult for a journalist to get to Kandahar and to this village, it’s very very hard, it's not easy.
Fazel now lives here in Australia, but on our behalf, he asked his brother in Afghanistan, Wahab, to find survivors from that night. Wahab managed to track down people from the village of Surkh Morghab, 12 kilometres from the Australian base at Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan province. They had fled to Kandahar, where Wahab, who is not a professional cameraman, found them sheltering in this house. And for the first time, we are able to hear a version of events from the Afghan side.
This is Zaher Khan, and inside are his wife, and his children.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): Can you tell us from the beginning how this incident took place?
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): It was the worst time. Why should you care? God never visits this upon any other Muslim. We were at home and suddenly they burst in. Soldiers and fighters.. those Australians.
Khan says his sister-in-law, next door, heard the commotion and thought there were thieves at the house.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): She shouted to my brother, Amrullah Khan “Hurry up, there are thieves!” they thought there were thieves. And the soldiers threw bombs at them, killed him, his wife and their baby and blew them to pieces. So they were killed, my daughter got killed.. dear Malalai.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): How old was your daughter?
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): My daughter was seven.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): Do you remember what kind of weaponsthe Australian soldiers used in the attack? Heavy or light?
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): They didn’t use heavy weapons, they had machine guns and grenades, but they threw the grenades at us.
Ferzad is Khan's 9-year-old son.
FERZAD KHAN (Translation): I was asleep that night and suddenly I heard bangs. Grenades were exploding and I woke up to see the foreigners taking my father away and there was still gunfire and other stuff. After that there were pieces of flesh everywhere. My uncle was killed and that was the worst incident.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): Were you scared, and are you still scared?
ZERZAD KHAN (Translation): Yes, I was scared, my sisters, my brothers, we were all very scared.
Khan says the Australians placed a bag over his head and that he was taken away for questioning but released the next day.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): They took me to Tarin Kowt air base. My brother was blown to pieces - he was murdered on the spot. They returned the dead body to us and they released me the next day in the afternoon and they took the injured to the hospital. Well, they took some of the injured to Tarin Kowt air base.. and the others were taken to Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar.
Wahab, the local cameraman, went to the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar to see if there was any official account of the death of Khan's daughter Malalai.
DR KARIM SAYDI, SURGEON (Translation): We get many civilian injuries from Helmand, Urozghan and nearby provinces. Let me check the record to see when the injured girl came in.
Dr Karim Saydi is a surgeon at the Mirwais Hospital.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): Please, could you tell me first of all, was it a boy or a girl?
DR KARIM SAYDI (Translation): It was a girl.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): How old was she?
DR KARIM SAYDI (Translation): She was seven years old. When they brought the girl in, she had been severely injured and was already dead. She had died from severe shrapnel wounds - she had been critically wounded and didn’t survive.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): On what date was she brought in?
DR KARIM SAYDI (Translation): It was February 13. When we asked them who carried out the attack, they said the attack was carried out by NATO and Australian troops on our homes and village. And this little girl was wounded and now is dead. We asked the people who brought her in what her name was and they said it was Malalai.
Zaher Khan tells us that aside from his daughter Malalai, seven people in total were killed by the Australian troops.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): One was Amrullah, my brother – God bless him. His wife, 25 years old – she was killed. A six–month–old baby was killed – still breastfed – very small. A three-year-old and my daughter, who was seven, were killed. My sister, who was staying with us, was injured and my sister-in-law’s nephew was killed.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): Those who were killed, in what way did they die?
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): One of them was struck in the neck.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): Was it a man or a woman?
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): It was a woman, my brother was blown to pieces from the waist down, I can’t describe how bad it was below his stomach. They killed him very savagely. What they did was criminal. Kids were hit in the stomach, one had a leg blown off – we could not find it.
Khan claims there was no warning before the raid.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): No, my brother, I wish they had the decency to warn us before attacking, without finding out if there were women, children, babies.. it was night and everyone was asleep. They did not care, they just burst in suddenly.
Khan acknowledges there are often Taliban fighters in the surrounding areas, but claims there were none around his house at the time.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): Well, there are Taliban around the area, but there were no Taliban in my home – no sign of them. We didn’t even talk about them. It’s possible there are Taliban in the area, there are Taliban everywhere – I don’t deny there are Taliban.
The Department of Defence says that Australian troops were fired upon by Taliban insurgents. But Khan says that didn't happen.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): When the Australian troops attacked your familywas there any return fire from the people in your area?
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): No, no one fired at them, they just suddenly rushed into my house.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): Did you or anyone else see any dead members of the Taliban afterwards?
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): No, they were all civilians – poor people in their homes. People who work all day to put food on the table, they are not Taliban, they are not armed.
Even if the killing of innocent civilians is unintentional, armies still have a legal obligation to prove they did not act recklessly in causing civilian deaths.
DR BEN SAUL, SYDNEY CENTRE FOR INTERNATIONAL LAW: If you acted recklessly, then it still could be a war crime.
Dr Ben Saul is director of the Centre for International Law at Sydney University and he's also worked as a barrister at the International Criminal Tribunal investigating war crimes in Yugoslavia.
DR BEN SAUL: So the important thing is to ensure that your taking proper precautions to identify the enemy and to identify the civilians in the area and the likely costs to those civilians. So the question then becomes - what was the information upon which the Australian forces relied? How good was that information, what was the quality of it? Where did it come from? And depending upon the answers to those questions, you might find whether Australian forces were reckless or not.
Dateline asked the Department of Defence for a response to the allegation that Zaher Khan and his family were the victims of an unprovoked attack. They declined our request for an interview, saying in a statement that until their investigation is complete it would be inappropriate for Defence to comment... The Department also would not say when the investigation would be completed, or whether all its findings would be made available to the public.
The Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, also declined to respond to any specific allegations raised by the Khan family. He issued a statement saying the incident is very distressing and of course, profoundly regrettable... But he also told Dateline... “I know that our troops operate within robust rules of engagement, in conformity with international law and I have no reason to doubt they were doing just that on this occasion”
Zaher Khan claims the Australians later returned and apologised.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): Later, they realised it was a bullshit operation, they must have received a false report – they realised they had made a mistake. Innocent people died – they apologised.. my other younger daughter was murdered, God bless her. Will it feed us, bring back the dead, they are all murdered now – so an apology is bullshit. They need to do things carefully, people who help them – like interpreters – must be good or they will have civilian blood on their hands.
Khan says his surviving children have been traumatised by the attack.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): So now he has psychological problems, he is scared day and night now. It was a terrible incident for us and has affected our minds. They can’t sleep alone at night, they can’t go out, they have flashbacks, they can still see dead bodies, injuries. They keep screaming ‘There’s my uncle – the soldiers are coming again.’ It is always in their minds.
FERZAD KHAN (Translation): What can I want? Everything I had they have taken away. I am left with nothing – what can I say? They have finished us.
WAHAB RESHAD (Translation): Do your brothers and sisters go outside at all?
FERZAD KHAN (Translation): No, we are always too scared, we are afraid they might attack again, they might bring back that horrible time.
Khan says the Australian troops haven't offered any compensation.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): Since that incident, about nine days ago, we haven’t received help from anyone - all they did was take some injured to hospital. This is a terrible time with the worst conditions, we have no food, no clothes, there is no room for us.
Zaher Khan says he understands the sacrifices of the Australian soldiers, but he can't forgive them.
ZAHER KHAN (Translation): I understand these soldiers have left their country, their families and their comfortable lives to come and provide security and bring stability for us. The soldiers have left their families and their homes to bring security, sad incidents like this happen, but it resulted in harm and death for my family. Later the soldiers are sorry for their mistakes, what good is that to us? You tell me. They have promised us help but they have done nothing.
GEORGE NEGUS: During the week, the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, informed us that the Oruzgan incident would be "thoroughly investigated by the ADF." Not to put too fine a point on it, you'd certainly hope so.
Characters Count: 14681