Robert Fisk on the U.S. war against rural Afghanistan
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Aug 11 07:16:36 MDT 2002
One Year On In Afghanistan
By Robert Fisk
The Independent (London)
President George Bush's "war on terror" reached the desert village of
Hajibirgit at midnight on 22 May. Haji Birgit Khan, the bearded,
85-year-old Pushtu village leader and head of 12,000 local tribal
families, was lying on a patch of grass outside his home. Faqir Mohamed
was sleeping among his sheep and goats in a patch of sand to the south
when he heard "big planes moving in the sky". Even at night, it is so
hot that many villagers spend the hours of darkness outside their homes,
although Mohamedin and his family were in their mud-walled house. There
were 105 families in Hajibirgit on 22 May, and all were woken by the
thunder of helicopter engines and the thwack of rotor blades and the
screaming voices of the Americans.
Haji Birgit Khan was seen running stiffly from his little lawn towards
the white-walled village mosque, a rectangular cement building with a
single loudspeaker and a few threadbare carpets. Several armed men were
seen running after him. Hakim, one of the animal herders, saw the men
from the helicopters chase the old man into the mosque and heard a burst
of gunfire. "When our people found him, he had been killed with a
bullet, in the head," he says, pointing downwards. There is a single
bullet hole in the concrete floor of the mosque and a dried bloodstain
beside it. "We found bits of his brain on the wall."
Across the village, sharp explosions were detonating in the courtyards
and doorways of the little homes. "The Americans were throwing stun
grenades at us and smoke grenades," Mohamedin recalls. "They were
throwing dozens of them at us and they were shouting and screaming all
the time. We didn't understand their language, but there were Afghan
gunmen with them, too, Afghans with blackened faces. Several began to
tie up our women - our own women - and the Americans were lifting their
burqas, their covering, to look at their faces. That's when the little
girl was seen running away." Abdul Satar says that she was three years
old, that she ran shrieking in fear from her home, that her name was
Zarguna, the daughter of a man called Abdul-Shakour - many Afghans have
only one name - and that someone saw her topple into the village's 60ft
well on the other side of the mosque. During the night, she was to drown
there, alone, her back apparently broken by the fall. Other village
children would find her body in the morning. The Americans paid no
attention. From the description of their clothes given by the villagers,
they appeared to include Special Forces and also units of Afghan Special
Forces, the brutish and ill-disciplined units run from Kabul's former
Khad secret police headquarters. There were also 150 soldiers from the
US 101st Airborne, whose home base is at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. But
Fort Campbell is a long way from Hajibirgit, which is 50 miles into the
desert from the south-western city of Kandahar. And the Americans were
obsessed with one idea: that the village contained leaders from the
Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida movement.
A former member of a Special Forces unit from one of America's coalition
partners supplied his own explanation for the American behaviour when I
met him a few days later. "When we go into a village and see a farmer
with a beard, we see an Afghan farmer with a beard," he said. "When the
Americans go into a village and see a farmer with a beard, they see
Osama bin Laden."
All the women and children were ordered to gather at one end of
Hajibirgit. "They were pushing us and shoving us out of our homes,"
Mohamedin says. "Some of the Afghan gunmen were shouting abuse at us.
All the while, they were throwing grenades at our homes." The few
villagers who managed to run away collected the stun grenades next day
with the help of children. There are dozens of them, small cylindrical
green pots with names and codes stamped on the side. One says "7 BANG
Delay: 1.5 secs NIC-01/06-07", another "1 BANG, 170 dB Delay: 1.5s."
Another cylinder is marked: "DELAY Verzagerung ca. 1,5s." These were the
grenades that terrified Zarguna and ultimately caused her death. A
regular part of US Special Forces equipment, they are manufactured in
Germany by the Hamburg firm of Nico-Pyrotechnik - hence the "NIC" on
several of the cylinders. "dB" stands for decibels.
Several date stamps show that the grenades were made as recently as last
March. The German company refers to them officially as "40mm by 46mm
sound and flash (stun) cartridges". But the Americans were also firing
bullets. Several peppered a wrecked car in which another villager, a
taxi driver called Abdullah, had been sleeping. He was badly wounded. So
was Haji Birgit Khan's son.
A US military spokesman would claim later that US soldiers had "come
under fire" in the village and had killed one man and wounded two
"suspected Taliban or al-Qa'ida members". The implication - that
85-year-old Haji Birgit Khan was the gunman - is clearly preposterous.
The two wounded were presumably Khan's son and Abdullah, the taxi
driver. The US claim that they were Taliban or al-Qa'ida members was a
palpable lie - since both of them were subsequently released. "Some of
the Afghans whom the Americans brought with them were shouting 'Shut
up!' to the children who were crying," Faqir Mohamed remembers.
"They made us lie down and put cuffs on our wrists, sort of plastic
cuffs. The more we pulled on them, the tighter they got and the more
they hurt. Then they blindfolded us. Then they started pushing us
towards the planes, punching us as we tried to walk."
In all, the Americans herded 55 of the village men, blindfolded and with
their hands tied, on to their helicopters. Mohamedin was among them. So
was Abdul-Shakour, still unaware that his daughter was dying in the
well. The 56th Afghan prisoner to be loaded on to a helicopter was
already dead: the Americans had decided to take the body of 85-year-old
Haji Birgit Khan with them.
When the helicopters landed at Kandahar airport - headquarters to the
101st Airborne - the villagers were, by their own accounts, herded
together into a container. Their legs were tied and then their handcuffs
and the manacle of one leg of each prisoner were separately attached to
stakes driven into the floor of the container. Thick sacks were put over
their heads. Abdul Satar was among the first to be taken from this hot
little prison. "Two Americans walked in and tore my clothes off," he
said. "If the clothes would not tear, they cut them off with scissors.
They took me out naked to have my beard shaved and to have my photograph
taken. Why did they shave off my beard? I had my beard all my life."
Mohamedin was led naked from his own beard-shaving into an interrogation
tent, where his blindfold was removed. "There was an Afghan translator,
a Pushtun man with a Kandahar accent in the room, along with American
soldiers, both men and women soldiers," he says. "I was standing there
naked in front of them with my hands tied. Some of them were standing,
some were sitting at desks. They asked me: 'What do you do?' I told
them: 'I am a shepherd - why don't you ask your soldiers what I was
doing?' They said: 'Tell us yourself.' Then they asked: 'What kind of
weapons have you used?' I told them I hadn't used any weapon.
"One of them asked: 'Did you use a weapon during the Russian
[occupation] period, the civil war period or the Taliban period?' I told
them that for a lot of the time I was a refugee." From the villagers'
testimony, it is impossible to identify which American units were
engaged in the interrogations. Some US soldiers were wearing berets with
yellow or brown badges, others were in civilian clothes but apparently
wearing bush hats. The Afghan interpreter was dressed in his traditional
salwah khameez. Hakim underwent a slightly longer period of questioning;
like Mohamedin, he says he was naked before his interrogators.
"They wanted my age and my job. I said I was 60, that I was a farmer.
They asked: 'Are there any Arabs or Talibans or Iranians or foreigners
in your village?' I said 'No.' They asked: 'How many rooms are there in
your house, and do you have a satellite phone?' I told them: 'I don't
have a phone. I don't even have electricity.' They asked: 'Were the
Taliban good or bad?' I replied that the Taliban never came to our
village so I had no information about them. Then they asked: 'What about
Americans? What kind of people are Americans?' I replied: 'We heard that
they liberated us with [President Hamid] Karzai and helped us - but we
don't know our crime that we should be treated like this.' What was I
supposed to say?"
A few hours later, the villagers of Hajibirgit were issued with
bright-yellow clothes and taken to a series of wire cages laid out over
the sand of the airbase - a miniature version of Guantanamo Bay - where
they were given bread, biscuits, rice, beans and bottled water. The
younger boys were kept in separate cages from the older men. There was
no more questioning, but they were held in the cages for another five
days. All the while, the Americans were trying to discover the identity
of the 85-year-old man. They did not ask their prisoners - who could
have identified him at once - although the US interrogators may not have
wished them to know that he was dead. In the end, the Americans gave a
photograph of the face of the corpse to the International Red Cross. The
organisation was immediately told by Kandahar officials that the elderly
man was perhaps the most important tribal leader west of the city.
"When we were eventually taken out of the cages, there were five
American advisers waiting to talk to us," Mohamedin says. "They used an
interpreter and told us they wanted us to accept their apologies for
being mistreated. They said they were sorry. What could we say? We were
prisoners. One of the advisers said: 'We will help you.' What does that
mean?" A fleet of US helicopters flew the 55 men to the Kandahar
football stadium - once the scene of Taliban executions - where all were
freed, still dressed in prison clothes and each with a plastic ID
bracelet round the wrist bearing a number. "Ident-A-Band Bracelet made
by Hollister" was written on each one. Only then did the men learn that
old Haji Birgit Khan had been killed during the raid a week earlier. And
only then did Abdul-Shakour learn that his daughter Zarguna was dead.
The Pentagon initially said that it found it "difficult to believe" that
the village women had their hands tied. But given identical descriptions
of the treatment of Afghan women after the US bombing of the Uruzgan
wedding party, which followed the Hajibirgit raid, it seems that the
Americans - or their Afghan allies - did just that. A US military
spokesman claimed that American forces had found "items of intelligence
value", weapons and a large amount of cash in the village. What the
"items" were was never clarified. The guns were almost certainly for
personal protection against robbers. The cash remains a sore point for
the villagers. Abdul Satar said that he had 10,000 Pakistani rupees
taken from him - about $200 (£130). Hakim says he lost his savings of
150,000 rupees - $3,000 (£1,900). "When they freed us, the Americans
gave us 2,000 rupees each," Mohamedin says. "That's just $40 [£25]. We'd
like the rest of our money."
But there was a far greater tragedy to confront the men when they
reached Hajibirgit. In their absence - without guns to defend the homes,
and with the village elder dead and many of the menfolk prisoners of the
Americans - thieves had descended on Hajibirgit. A group of men from
Helmand province, whose leader is Abdul Rahman Khan - once a brutal and
rapacious "mujahid" fighter against the Russians, and now a Karzai
government police commander - raided the village once the Americans had
taken away so many of the men. Ninety-five of the 105 families had fled
into the hills, leaving their mud homes to be pillaged.
The disturbing, frightful questions that creep into the mind of anyone
driving across the desert to Hajibirgit today are obvious. Who told the
US to raid the village? Who told them that the Taliban leadership and
the al-Qa'ida leadership were there? Was it, perhaps, Abdul Rahman Khan,
the cruel police chief whose men were so quick to pillage the mud-walled
homes once the raid was over? For today, Hajibirgit is a virtual ghost
town, its village leader dead, most of its houses abandoned. The US raid
was worthless. There are scarcely 40 villagers left. They all gathered
at the stone grave of Zarguna some days later, to pay their respects to
the memory of the little girl. "We are poor people - what can we do?"
Mohamedin asked me. I had no reply. President Bush's "war on terror",
his struggle of "good against evil" descended on the innocent village of
And now Hajibirgit is dead.
Z Magazine / ZNet
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