By Mustafa Saber in Azizabad
A year after her family died in an airstrike, a young girl still lives in the same village, alone and constantly in fear.
Seven-year-old Zahra looks like a typical Afghan girl in her traditional long dress and scarf, her short black hair peeking out from her head covering. She sticks close to home, seldom venturing far from her house. But it is not tradition that keeps her home but fear.
An Afghan woman on on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008 holds a poster with photos of her family members, who were killed on August 22, 2008 during a US led raid in Azizabad village of Shindand district of Herat province.
More photos and list of the victims
Photo Gallery of US victims in Afghanistan
The Afghan Victim Memorial Project by Prof. Marc
On the night of August 22 2008, all of Zahra’s immediate family was killed by American bombs. In pursuit of Taleban commander Mullah Siddiq, United States Special Forces and the Afghan army launched an airstrike on the village of Azizabad in Shindand district of Herat. An investigation by the United Nations said that 90 people, 60 children and 30 adults, died.
The American military initially denied that any civilians were harmed in the attack. Only after prolonged pressure, in October of last year, did they acknowledge that the strike killed 33 civilians.
Zahra’s father, mother, sister and two brothers died that night. She is the only survivor, together with her grandmother, Maryam, known in the village as Pori. One year later the two traumatised females, one seven years old the other 75, are still living in Azizabad, in a small, dirty, three-room house donated to them by a kind-hearted neighbour.
The house the pair inhabit has no doors and no windows. Inside it is dark and dusty – the floor is carpeted with old sacks. It looks more like a dirty storeroom than a place where people live. There are some teacups, two buckets full of water, three small pots and three threadbare blankets. Every day Zahra cleans and arranges the few items they possess.
The rest of the time she sits alone, staring into the void.
“I loved my family very much,” she said, tears in her dark eyes. “Every moment I hear the voices of my mother, father, sister and brothers calling me, but I can’t see them. We had a good life. I used to play with my brothers and sister on the street. My father was Abdurrashid, my mother was Khumari, my sister was Huma and my brothers were Halim and Salim. The Americans killed them and now I am alone.”
Suddenly bitter, she adds, “The American killed everyone in the village. They killed my friends and other children. I hate them.”
She recalls the events of that terrifying day. “Explosions woke me up in the night. I ran to the desert, where I drifted off to sleep again. When I awoke, I ran home and I saw parts of human bodies scattered all around, and heard the cries of survivors,” she said.
“I don’t remember who told me that my family were all dead. At first I didn’t believe it, so I went to see if it was really true. Then I saw their bodies, all mixed with blood and dirt. When they took all the martyrs to the graveyard to be buried, I was all alone and neighbours took me to their home. Then my grandmother learned of what happened, and now I am with her.”
Now every time a plane passes Zahra cries and throws herself into her grandmother’s arms.
“I love my granddaughter,” Maryam said. “I see my son in her soul. But when a plane passes overhead, she clings to me so tightly, and her body shakes so much, that I am afraid one day she will die. Then I will lose the last race of my son.”
But Maryam may not be able to give Zahra the support that she needs. The older woman seems mentally unstable, constantly murmuring to herself and repeating everything she says many times.
Maryam, though, is resisting attempts by an aid organisation to relocate her and her granddaughter to Herat city.
Soraya Pakzad from Neda-e-Zan, an organization that assists Afghan women in trouble, says that they had arranged accommodations for both Zahra and Maryam, but the latter refuses to leave Shindand.
“She does not want to leave the place where her son lived,” Pakzad said. “When we showed them the accomodation we had prepared for them, the grandmother tried to get away as soon as possible, saying, ‘The government wants to imprison us’.”
She added that Zahra clung to her grandmother, fearful of strangers and crying easily, “Both Zahra and her grandmother are unstable.”
Pakzad is worried about the Zahra’s future and is trying to raise money from other national and international charity organisations. “We are concerned that the grandmother will marry her off to somebody at a young age, and thereby make things even worse for Zahra,” she said.
Zahra is not alone. Abdurrashid, 45, a resident of Azizabad, told IWPR that the people of Shindand district would never forget the events of August 22, 2008.
“The Americans massacred our people and then said that we were all taleban,” he said bitterly. “This inhuman act will always be remembered, by people in our area and all over the country.”
In the meantime, he and others try to help Zahra and Maryam as much as possible.
Others have also offered assistance. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said she would help the girl after she heard about her plight on Radio Liberty. Also a politician who was thinking of running for president, Dr Dawood Mirakai, looked up Zahra during a visit to Azizabad and gave her some money.
But for now Zahra is still living in her broken house, in the same village, relying on occasional assistance from neighbours. She has two friends, Amina and Hangama, with whom she goes to school. She doesn’t learn much, she says.
“Other children have parents who help them. I have no parents,” said Zahra. Then she began to cry. “I cannot talk any more,” she said. “I must go now.”
Mustafa Saber is an IWPR trainee in Herat.