Kabul, Afghanistan – When Bibi Zerka sent her only son to gather oil from fuel tankers stuck on the banks of the Kunduz River, she hoped he would be able to provide fuel for the family’s heater and stove.
Bibi Zerka didn‘t know that the fuel tankers had recently been stolen by the Taliban, and then abandoned by the riverbank. “I’ll always regret sending my son,” Bibi Zerka said of the NATO aerial bombings that killed her son and more than 100 other civilians. “He died burning in the fire of that horrible fuel I told him to bring home.“
After more than four years since the September 2009 attacks, residents of the village of Ali Abad looked to a German court to provide justice for the deadliest single attack on civilians by coalition forces in Afghanistan.
But on December 11, a regional court in the western city of Bonn rejected the civil case against the German ministry of defence. Colonel Georg Klein, a German commander, ordered US jet fighters to fire on the scores of people gathered around the abandoned fuel tankers. The ruling will determine whether Germany can be held legally responsible for the attack.
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The attack, called “one of the most serious incidents involving the German military since World War Two” by the German parliament, led to the resignation of then defence minister Franz Josef Jung and the sacking of the army chief. Although the German armed forces said there were 102 victims of the attack, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported 140, and village residents say the number is still higher, between 160 and 170.
German forces make up the third-largest contingent of NATO troops in Afghanistan, with 4,900 soldiers. But two months ago, Germany handed over its second-largest base in Kunduz, where 900 troops were stationed, to the Afghan government.
Like Bibi Zerka, Haji Karim’s life was forever changed by the late-night attack that killed his two brothers – Ahmad Gol and Mohammad Agha Gol – aged 10 and 12. “The Germans claim they can spot even a needle from the air,” Haji Karim said, adding that poverty drove many in the village to the stolen fuel tankers.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ali Abad residents said that in the aftermath of the attack, Germany made repeated promises of economic and social assistance.
But the promised help never materialised. What assistance they did receive came almost a year after the attack in the summer of 2010. Families of 102 civilian victims received payments of $5,000 each, but the uneven distribution of funds did little to allay the community’s anger at what they called an unwarranted act.
“There are no Taliban here, only innocent people,” said Ajmal, who had to care for his 10 siblings when their father, Abdul Qadir, was killed by the NATO fighter jets.
Since then, the Germans have “acted like it never happened”, said Haji Karim, who claims Germany “selectively chose” which families of the alleged 140 victims to distribute money to.
“They should come and ask about the families of the shahids [martyrs] and their children,” said Ajmal, who claims to have received no help from the Germans.
On March 20, 2013, Karim Popal, an Afghan-German lawyer, brought the 2009 deaths back to the fore when he accused the German government of the premeditated deaths of up to 137 civilians.
should be held accountable and made to burn like our children were.”]
Two victims’ relatives are the lead plaintiffs in the case against the German defence ministry, which has maintained that Klein responded to orders given as part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan and was not acting solely on behalf of his nation.
However, speaking to Al Jazeera, Popal claimed that his case – based on what he described as unprecedented access to the foreign military operation in Kunduz province – proves that Klein clearly ordered the American F-15E fighter jets to strike civilian targets.
“We gained access to communication records in which the US pilots said, ‘none of these people are Talibs, we don’t see any armed people,'” Popal said.
The records to which Popal claimed to have gained access also include a back-and-forth between the US pilots and Klein, wherein the German colonel was asked, “Is your purpose to attack the tankers or the people?” Klein, operating partly on information from an “Afghan spy” paid 1,500 euros ($2,060), according to Popal, replied “the people”.
These records, said Popal, show that the attack was merely “an exercise in exerting German strength”.
Though Popal, who represents 79 of the victims, has demanded monetary compensation of 20,000 to 75,000 euros ($27,500-103,200), what the families want most is accountability. “He should be held accountable and made to burn like our children were”, Bibi Zerka said of Klein.
An appeal of the Bonn court’s verdict is expected.