Jerome Starkey, Khataba
A night raid carried out by US and Afghan gunmen led to the deaths of two pregnant women, a teenage girl and two local officials in an atrocity which Nato then tried to cover up, survivors have told The Times.
The operation on Friday, February 12, was a botched pre-dawn assault on a policeman’s home a few miles outside Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, eastern Afghanistan. In a statement after the raid titled “Joint force operating in Gardez makes gruesome discovery”, Nato claimed that the force had found the women’s bodies “tied up, gagged and killed” in a room.
A Times investigation suggests that Nato’s claims are either willfully false or, at best, misleading. More than a dozen survivors, officials, police chiefs and a religious leader interviewed at and around the scene of the attack maintain that the perpetrators were US and Afghan gunmen. The identity and status of the soldiers is unknown.
The raid came more than a fortnight after the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan issued new guidelines designed to limit the use of night raids. Special forces and Western intelligence agencies that run covert operations in Afghanistan have been criticised for night raids based on dubious or false intelligence leading to civilian casualties.
The first person to die in the assault was Commander Dawood, 43, a long-serving, popular and highly-trained policeman who had recently been promoted to head of intelligence in one of Paktia’s most volatile districts. His brother, Saranwal Zahir, was a prosecutor in Ahmadabad district. He was killed while he stood in a doorway trying to protest their innocence.
Left: Haji Sharabuddin holds up a photo of his sons, one a police commander, the other an attorney, who were among five people killed during a joint US-Afghan night raid in Paktia province.
Right: Commander Dawood was the first person to die in the Nato assault
Three women crouching in a hallway behind him were hit by the same volley of fire. Bibi Shirin, 22, had four children under the age of 5. Bibi Saleha, 37, had 11 children. Both of them, according to their relatives, were pregnant. They were killed instantly.
The men’s mother, Bibi Sabsparie, said that Shirin was four months pregnant and Saleha was five months. The other victim, Gulalai, 18, was engaged. She was wounded and later died. “We had already bought everything for the wedding,” her soon-to-be father-in-law, Sayed Mohammed Mal, the Vice-Chancellor of Gardez University, said.
On the night of the attack about 25 male friends and relatives had gathered at Commander Dawood’s compound in Khataba, a small village, to celebrate the naming of a newborn boy. Sitting together along the walls of a guest room, the men had taken turns dancing while musicians played. Mohammed Sediq Mahmoudi, 24, the singer, said that at some time after 3am one of the musicians, Dur Mohammed, went outside to go to the toilet. “Someone shone a light on his face and he ran back inside and said the Taleban were outside,” Mr Sediq said.
Lieutenant-Colonel Zamarud Zazai, the Gardez head of police intelligence, said: “Both sides thought the other group was Taleban.” Commander Dawood ran towards the family quarters with his son Sediqullah, 15. Halfway across the courtyard they were shot by a gunman on the roof. Commander Dawood was killed. Sediqullah, his uncles said, was hit twice but survived.
The shooting stopped and the soldiers shouted in Pashto for everyone to come outside. Waheedullah, an ambulance driver, said that their accents sounded Kandahari.
Nato said that the troops were part of a joint “Afghan-international” force but, despite new rules requiring them to leave leaflets identifying their unit, the family said they left nothing. Local US forces denied any involvement.
In the hallway on the other side of the compound, women poured in to tend to the casualties. Commander Dawood’s mother said: “Zahir shouted, ‘don’t fire, we work for the Government’. But while he was talking they fired again. I saw him fall down. I turned around and saw my daughter-in-law and the other women were dead.”
Mohammed Sabir, 26, the youngest brother of Commander Dawood and Zahir, was one of eight men arrested and flown to a base in neighbouring Paktika province. They were held for four days and interrogated by an American in civilian clothes who showed them pictures of their suspect. “I said, ‘Yes, it’s Shamsuddin. He was at the party. Why didn’t you arrest him?’ ” Sabir said. After they were released without charge Shamsuddin — who had spent five months fixing generators at the local American base — turned himself in for questioning. He, too, was released without charge.
Nato’s original statement said: “Several insurgents engaged the joint force in a firefight and were killed.” The family maintain that no one threw so much as a stone. Rear Admiral Greg Smith, Nato’s director of communications in Kabul, denied that there had been any attempt at a cover-up.
He said that both the men who were killed were armed and showing “hostile intent” but admitted “they were not the targets of this particular raid”.
“I don’t know if they fired any rounds,” he said. “If you have got an individual stepping out of a compound, and if your assault force is there, that is often the trigger to neutralise the individual. You don’t have to be fired upon to fire back.”
He admitted that the original statement had been “poorly worded” but said “to people who see a lot of dead bodies” the women had appeared at the time to have been dead for several hours.
The family were offered, through local elders, American compensation — $2,000 (£1,300) for each of the victims.
“There’s no value on human life,” Bibi Sabsparie said. “They killed our family, then they came and brought us money. Money won’t bring our family back.”
Published by The Times on March 13, 2010.