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Massacre trial reopens old Afghan wounds

Five months after a US soldier allegedly killed 16 people in Kandahar, Afghans say little has changed
Last Modified: 11 Nov 2012 15:01
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is accused of killing 16 people, including nine children in Kandahar province [Reuters]

Kandahar, Afghanistan - Having just completed his dawn prayer, Mullah Baran was rolling up his prayer mat when he received the phone call: “The Americans came last night," a voice on the other end told him.

“They raided your house and martyred your brother.”

A few hours after that phone call in the early morning hours of March 12, 2012, details surrounding the death of Baran's brother Mohamad Daoud and 15 others were beginning to be pieced together by villagers in Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar.

Within days it made international headlines as the “Kandahar Massacre”.

Now, five months after the March 11 killings in two Panjwai district villages, Robert Bales, the US soldier charged with the deaths of 16 people, including nine children, is in a US military court for a pre-trial hearing to determine whether he will be court-martialled.

For many Americans, Bales’ alleged actions were the “act of a psychopath”, an isolated situation, said Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian .

Heath Druzin, reporter for Stars and Stripes , an independent newspaper covering the US military, says the massacre was yet “another question about the role of the US in an already unpopular war”.

Familiar scenes

But for many in Afghanistan, it was indicative of “hundreds” of other nights in the Central Asian nation.

Initially, “they wouldn’t even admit to us it was their man”, Baran says of the US forces.

When he returned to his 11-room house the following morning, Baran was confronted with the physical and emotional evidence: broken cupboards and doorways, bullet holes from the gunfire that had awoken his youngest nephew asleep in his crib.

For many Afghans, the scene Baran describes is a familiar one.

Residents interviewed by Al Jazeera in the south and east of the country all used terms like “oppression”, “brutality” and “inhuman” to describe the raids on their homes and wrongful killings they say have not subsided despite the attention surrounding the Kandahar Massacre.

Seddiq, a resident of the Khogyani district in eastern Nangarhar province, says he “hates the Americans and those Afghans who work with them”, because of the treatment he and his wife, Homayra, received when their house was raided by US Special Forces last year.

Wahid, who lives only minutes from Seddiq, says it was the noise of the explosion that brought his attention to the raid on his neighbour’s house.

“They come and blow up the gate of your house and then go directly into people’s bedrooms and start blindfolding people with ‘black bags’”.

For Wahid, the affronts to Afghan culture of the past decade have him looking back on the raids and searches conducted by the Russian-backed communist governments of Afghanistan.

Though raids and searches are remembered as one of the most feared tactics of the communist years, Wahid says: “The Russians were far better. When they had a report about a suspect they would come with Afghans in toe and knock on your door.

"The Russians asked respectfully,” he said.

Big progress

An agreement signed only weeks after the Kandahar Massacre gave Afghan forces the ability to approve and lead raids into Afghan homes as well as detentions.

The April 8, 2012, agreement between NATO and Afghanistan was heralded by Kabul as “big progress … what our president and people have been asking for since years ago”.

But months later, locals still remain outraged by the conduct of the raids and subsequent detentions.

A tribal elder in Kandahar told Al Jazeera eight members of his family were arrested in an October 24 raid.

“They’re saying we’re Taliban. The Taliban took one of my sons eight to 10 days ago and killed him. Now the Americans raided us.”

He described the 150-strong soldiers involved in the raid on the eve of the Eid-al-Adha holiday as a mix of Afghans and foreigners.

“They blindfolded us and started searching our house. They came at 2 AM and left with the sunrise and took us with them.”

Though his two sons remain in prison, the elder says the ordeal did not uncover so much as “a nail” that the family might have been using as a weapon.

Haji Abdul Baqi, a resident of Panjwai says there have been three incidents of wrongful deaths in the past 13 months.

The most recent, 20 days ago, saw a man killed for being a Taliban while watering his garden, a point of pride in many Afghan households.

“But they came and apologised, saying they made a mistake … they always apologise”, Baqi told Al Jazeera.

Pushed to his limit

In the days following the Kandahar Massacre, Afghans around the country were outraged as the details brought back stories and images of raids and killings they witnessed.

But for the foreign forces, the news brought with it a heightened sense of unease.

Druzin was embedded with US soldiers across the Arghandab River from Panjwai when the news of the massacre first broke.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Druzin recalls the changing tones of the conversation.

Initially, for the US soldiers in the so-called spiritual homeland of the Taliban, there was a fear of "reverberations".

The soldiers worried that the "black mark on the military" would lead to revenge attacks on anyone with US flags on their sleeves.

As details emerged of Bales' personal setbacks - four tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, financial troubles, and descriptions of severe nightmares and flashbacks of a grizzly episode in Iraq - talk slowly changed.

Though no one defended Bales' actions, Druzin said US soldiers, who recognised the serious stresses the war had placed on their own lives, wondered if Bales had not been "pushed to his limit".

Some critics said media headlines such as “ Bales fought losing war on home front as mortgage debt mounted ” in the weeks following the attack were efforts to “humanise” the staff sergeant, but The Guardian ’s Greenwald says in any crime, you have to understand the accused’s motivations and the circumstances that led to the event.

“What you shouldn’t be doing is looking for an ennobling explanation”, Greenwald told Al Jazeera.

Baran has heard that Bales was “insane, that his mind didn’t work”.

But, recalling images of his brother’s “blood-soaked” body after a fatal shot to the head, Baran says “this is just covering a crime”.

“As humanised as he [Bales] became at times in the media, that’s how dehumanised the victims were”, Greenwald said.

Justice at home

What the Afghans want is justice.

"We want at least, according to their laws, the rights of the murdered and the injured", says Baqi.

For many, one aspect of that justice is a criminal trial held in the nation where the crime took place.

Greenwald describes a US trial as a symbol of “Afghan sovereignty being stomped on”.

Baran echoes the call for an Afghan trial.

Describing the worst case of civilian killings blamed on a single US soldier since the Vietnam War, he says: “This was a brutal crime to kill and burn the bodies. We won’t benefit from anything - from aid or money - we just want his execution."

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

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Al Jazeera
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