In the early hours of Saturday, as farmers watered their crops in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar, a unit of the Afghan security and intelligence forces carried out a deadly raid.
At least seven farmers were killed in the assault on two villages in the province’s Chaparhar district.
“We heard helicopters coming our way where we had been watering our crops from midnight. We heard them at around 4am. The helicopter fired exactly two times,” said Mohammed Razaq, a farmer who was present at the time of the raid in Mano, one of the two villages attacked.
“I lost two of my cousins in the attack,” he told Al Jazeera.
Inayatullah was 16 and Riazullah was 15 years old.
According to Razaq, the farmers informed the security forces’ outpost in advance that they would be working on their crops.
“They still attacked, without taking into consideration that poor and innocent people would be working here,” he said.
A few kilometres away in Idyakhel village, five farmers were inside a mosque when security forces barged in and starting firing, witnesses told Al Jazeera.
“The security forces were probably tipped off that there were fighters hiding in the mosque,” said Mohammed, a witness who requested to withhold his last name.
He told Al Jazeera that 27 people were arrested in the raid.
“All five of them [inside the mosque] were farmers who used to work in the farm near my home,” he said.
Ajmal Omar, a member of the provincial council, confirmed to Al Jazeera that the raid was aimed at Taliban fighters hiding in fields and in the mosque.
When asked about the civilians casualties, he said: “In raids like this one, civilians do get killed which is deeply disturbing.
“We’ve informed the government and the military about civilian casualties several times in the past, that during such raids they should have exact intelligence on locations to avoid killing innocent people.”
Witness and media reports indicated that the Afghan special forces may have been accompanied by US-led NATO coalition advisers during the raid, a claim vehemently denied by Afghan officials and NATO Resolute Support. They also denied the use of helicopters, calling the operation a “ground assault convoy raid”.
“We are aware that Afghan Special Security Forces elements conducted a ground assault convoy raid in Chaparhar district, Nangarhar province in the early morning hours of March 17,” Tom Gresback, public affairs director at NATO Resolute Support, told Al Jazeera.
“To our knowledge, no helicopters were used in the operation. We are aware that several Taliban were killed to include a high value individual and more than 20 suspected Taliban were detained to include three additional high-value individuals.
“I can confirm there were no NATO or United States Forces – Afghanistan involved in the operation.”
Local residents denied Gresback’s claim that Taliban fighters were killed in the raid.
To protest the deaths, Afghans gathered on the streets of Chaparhar with the victims’ dead bodies, demanding answers.
While they were demonstrating, police opened fire on the group, killing one and wounding two others, protesters told Al Jazeera.
Nangarhar, where the US dropped its so-called “Mother Of All Bombs” to target ISIL fighters last year, has been a deadly battleground for the Taliban, groups affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group and Afghan security forces with US-led NATO military.
But as armed groups and security forces battle for control, civilians often face the cost of the war.
On January 31, Afghan special forces backed by US air raids launched an offensive against Taliban fighters in the Maiwand district in Kandahar. In the operation, at least 20 civilians were killed, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in February.
Witnesses quoted in the report said that security forces dragged men from their homes and “shot them” during the operation.
“Summarily executing people in custody, whether they are fighters or civilians, is a war crime. Only a full investigation can uncover all who may be responsible,” Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher at HRW, said in the report.
Recent United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) figures suggest that 61 civilians were killed in search operations carried out by Afghan special forces, with or without US-led NATO forces, in 2017.
Back in Nangarhar, as he grieved the loss of his two cousins, Razaq said through tears: “Where do we go?”