Kabul, Afghanistan – The Ahmadi and Nejrabi families had packed all their belongings, waiting for word to be escorted to Kabul airport and eventually moved to the United States, but the message Washington sent instead was a rocket into their homes in a Kabul neighbourhood.
The Sunday afternoon drone attack, which the US claimed was conducted on an Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) target, killed 10 members of the families, ranging from two to 40 years old.
Aimal Ahmadi, whose nieces and nephews were among those killed, is still in disbelief. Like others in the neighbourhood, he is incensed that his brother and nephews and nieces were never recognised in the media as what they were, a family going about their life.
They were innocent, helpless children
For hours, he and the rest of the surviving family had to listen to Afghan and international media refer to their loved ones, whose remains they had to gather with their own hands, simply as suspected ISKP targets.
“They were innocent, helpless children,” Ahmadi says of the majority of the victims, including two-year-old Malika. Had he not gone out to buy groceries, Ahmadi himself could have very easily been one of the victims.
He says his brother, 40-year-old engineer Zemarai, had just arrived home from work. Because the families were expecting to go to the US, Zemarai asked one of his sons to park the car inside the two-floor house. He wanted his older boys to practice driving before they arrived in the US.
Several of the children quickly packed into the car, wanting to take the short ride from the street to the garden of the family home.
“When the car had come to a stop, that’s when the rocket hit,” Aimal told Al Jazeera.
Walls stained red with blood
What happened next was an all-too-common scene of mayhem in Afghanistan as frantic relatives and neighbours ran to the scene. Some brought water, hoping to douse the flames that had spread from the Toyota sedan the children had packed into to an SUV parked nearby.
It’s very symbolic that US operations in Afghanistan started with drone strikes and ended with drone strikes. It seems they’ve learned nothing in 20 years
Neighbours speaking to Al Jazeera said the house, where little boys and girls had been playing a few minutes prior, turned into a “horror scene”. They described human flesh stuck to the walls. Bones fallen into the bushes. Walls stained red with blood. Shattered glass everywhere.
Talking about one of the younger boys, Farzad, a neighbour said: “We only found his legs.”
By early Monday morning, Zemarai’s home was crowded with family, neighbours and concerned friends who had come to see the burned cars, the plastic children’s toys bent out of shape by the impact of the blast and the little girl’s slippers that were left in one of the downstairs rooms.
The US maintains it conducted, “a self-defence unmanned over-the-horizon air strike today on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat”, it said in a statement late Sunday afternoon, referring to the ISIL affiliate.
The statement went on to say US Central Command is “assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties” but that they have “no indications at this time” that civilians were killed.
That evening, the US military said it has launched investigations into the incident.
To the Ahmadis and their neighbours, claims that the attack had targeted a potential ISKL car bomber is infuriating.
“We are all Afghan, we know what a car laden with explosives would do if it was struck from the sky,” said Abdol Matin, a neighbour who grew up with the Ahmadi children and saw the boys as brothers. Like so many others gathered in the Ahmadi residence, Abdol Matin does not buy Washington’s claim that they had conducted a precise strike on an enemy target.
“If you can’t manage to hit the right target, then leave Afghanistan to the Afghans,” said Abdol Matin the day before US forces are scheduled to fully depart from the country after 20 years, ending America’s longest overseas war.
Anger in the neighbourhood
Other neighbours said one only had to look at the two oldest victims, Zemarai and his brother-in-law, Naser Nejrabi, as proof that they had no ill intentions or affiliation with any armed groups.
Zemarai had been working as a technical engineer for more than a decade. His brother-in-law, Naser Nejrabi, who was among those killed, had served in the Afghan Army in the southern province of Kandahar.
Zemarai’s other brother, Romal, who was also away at the time of the attack, had worked as a driver at the Ministry of Water and Energy. The men’s time with the government and affiliation with foreign forces had earned the family a Special Immigrant Visa offered by the US.
“They worked for private companies. They served in the military. They were part of the government, what would make anyone think they’re terrorists,” said Aimal.
The Ahmadis were preparing to leave the residential neighbourhood only a few kilometres from Kabul airport where they have lived for decades. Over the past week, the family had congregated in the small two-floor home, busily packing their bags in anticipation of the day they would depart from the very airport Washington claimed they posed a threat to.
Enraged neighbours said the family should have their names cleared and that a real investigation should take place.
Civilian casualties from US and Afghan aerial attacks are not rare in Afghanistan but over the past 15 years, most of them were in remote areas of provinces like Nangarhar, Baghlan, Maidan Wardak, Takhar, Herat, Kunduz and Logar, not the capital city.
The cost of these drone attacks
Emran Feroz, an Afghan journalist based in Germany who has investigated the impact of aerial attacks on Afghan civilians for 10 years, says the fact that Sunday’s attack took place in Kabul will help draw media attention to an issue that has plagued Afghan civilians since the US-led invasion in 2001.
“It’s very symbolic that US operations in Afghanistan started with drone strikes and ended with drone strikes. It seems they’ve learned nothing in 20 years,” he told Al Jazeera.
Feroz, who published the German-language book Death at the Push of a Button in 2017, says the results of the US drone war can be seen on the streets of Kabul where high-ranking Taliban members, including some who had been reported “killed” multiple times have been roaming the capital since the group took control of the country.
“But the question no one seems to want to ask is who was killed instead of them?”
Feroz said another US drone attack was carried out in Nangarhar a day before the attack on the Ahmadi family, but that “nobody asked about it”.
“All the media outlets repeated Joe Biden’s statement that the targets were Daesh without questioning it,” he said referring to the Arabic name for the ISIL armed group.
Feroz says that from the start of the US invasion through to its final days, Washington and its allies have been trying to “convince the Afghan people that these aerial attacks are only killing terrorists but now, in Kabul, we are seeing their true costs.”
He points to the first-ever US drone attack in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 – which claimed to kill Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar – as proof of the deadly cost of these tactics.
“To this day we don’t know who was actually killed, and we may never know.”