Tribal leaders demand justice following an air raid they say wiped out a wedding party.
By Ezatullah Zawab in Nangarhar and Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul
“Karzai should hand over the murderers so that we can hang them, or else he should resign,” said Rai Khan, shaking with anger. “If he does not do one or the other, then we will leave our homes and take matters into our own hands.”
Rai Khan, an elder from the Haskamena district of Nangarhar province in southeastern Afghanistan, was speaking for a community shocked by a United States bombing raid on July 6 that local residents say left close to 50 members of a wedding party dead, including the bride.
Now they want President Hamed Karzai to deliver justice in the form that their traditions demand.
The incident occurred in the village of Khetai as the bridal party was making its way to the groom’s house.
As is the tradition in Afghan weddings, a large delegation is sent to escort the bride from her parents’ house to her new home. The procession, called a “wara”, is made up mostly of women and children from both families.
At 6.30 that morning, the procession had been walking for over three hours, partly to escape the blistering heat of the Nangarhar summer.
They sang as they went, in keeping with centuries-old wedding traditions. But suddenly their song was interrupted by the sound of explosions.
When the dust cleared, the bride, Ruhmina, was dead, along with at least 44 members of the wedding party.
“When I reached the area, I heard my grandson screaming,” said Lala Zareen, the groom’s father, whose daughter was also among the dead. “He was saying, ‘Grandpa, please help me, I’m stuck. I am fine, just get me out from under this rock.’ But I couldn’t do anything. I knew he wouldn’t survive. I just put some burned clothing under his head, and left him for God.”
Lala Zareen’s brother, Malek Zareen, paced back and forth in a small room at his home, tears streaming down his face.
“We lost 15 members of our own family,” he said. “Eight members of the bride’s family were killed, and 22 other relatives were martyred. My nephew Attiqullah has lost his mind.”
Attiqullah, the groom, is only 15. His father had hurried to arrange the wedding after his own wife passed away. Lala Zareen had given his elder daughter in marriage in exchange for a fiancée for Attiqullah. Such exchanges are common in many parts of Afghanistan, where it can be expensive to get a bride for a son.
With no women left in the household, Lal Zareen needed someone to cook and clean for the male members of the family.
When an IWPR reporter visited Attiqullah, he was lying in a dark room, murmuring to himself and apparently blanking out the tragedy.
“It’s my wedding party – my brothers and sisters have gone to the bride’s house to bring her here. They’re on the way; when they arrive you may congratulate me,” he said.
The wedding party made it to within 30 minutes of Attiqullah’s house when they were attacked by US planes, say residents. Almost no one survived.
“When I got there, I saw pieces of bodies scattered around. I couldn’t even make out which part was which. It was just flesh, everywhere,” said Lal Zareen.
Residents of Khetai say it was impossible to identify the remains, so they buried the 45 victims in 28 graves.
In addition to the 45 who were killed outright, another ten people were injured, say eyewitnesses. At the time of writing, the death count had risen to close to 50.
The Afghan government launched an investigation, sending a commission to look into the locals’ claims.
Dr Borhanullah Shinwari, a member of the delegation, told IWPR that all those killed were innocent civilians.
“We saw the scene of the incident,” he said. “There were no military men there.”
Shinwari echoed the elder’s demand for some form of justice.
“The perpetrators should be dragged into court and judged, as a lesson to others,” he said. “People’s patience has gone. They can no longer tolerate this.”
First Lieutenant Nathan Perry, a spokesman for the US-led Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, told IWPR that the military makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties, but were taking the allegations seriously.
“We are conducting our own investigation,” he said in a telephone interview.
However, he refused to retract previous statements that all of those killed were hostile combatants.
“We are looking into it, getting more information,” he said. “It would not be a fair assessment to say that we are backing down from previous statements.”
The issue of civilian casualties inflicted by foreign troops in Afghanistan is highly sensitive one, and has prompted President Karzai to issue heated warnings to his western allies.
Nangarhar has had its share of tragedy – a shooting incident involving US Marines in March 2007, killed 19 civilians. The US unit involved was ordered to leave the country, and the military launched a rare “court of inquiry” into the incident, the results of which have not been made public.
Just 48 hours before the latest incident involving the wedding party, US planes attacked a convoy in the eastern province of Nuristan.
Provincial governor Tamrin Nuristani said close to 30 civilians were killed in that attack. Coalition forces had dropped leaflets warning that the area was going to be hit. Locals say the cars that were bombed belonged to non-governmental organisations and other non-combatants trying to leave town after heeding the warning.
The latest attack has rekindled the resentment that many in Nangarhar feel for the foreign troop presence.
“The Coalition operates on its own,” said Hamesha Gul, the local government chief in Haskamena district. “They don’t ask the government, which is why they target a wedding procession instead of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.”
In Nangarhar, the provincial council declared a three-day mourning period and closed its doors. Members of the local assembly joined the growing demands for justice.
“This was a deliberate act,” said Abdul Aziz Khairkha, deputy head of the Nangarhar council. “If the government cannot stop these kinds of incidents, then we will rise up against it.”
General Zaher Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry, would not comment. President Karzai’s office reiterated its support for the foreign forces in the country in general, although presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada would not comment directly on what had happened in Nangarhar. He did, however, acknowledge the problem of civilian casualties.
“We confirm that civilians are killed in military operations, but these are accidents,” he said at a press conference in Kabul on July 15. “Foreign forces are our colleagues and friends. Still, we condemn any civilian casualties.”
According to a recent United Nations report, civilian deaths during the first six months of 2008 are 60 per cent higher than in the same period last year. Official figures put the death toll at close to 700 civilians; humanitarian aid agencies say privately that the figure is significantly higher, since many victims classed as “insurgents” are actually non-combatants.
The official tally for civilians and anti-government forces killed in the whole of 2007 was close to 8,000.
The civilian casualties are causing a severe backlash in Afghanistan. According to senators in the Meshrano Jirga, the upper house of parliament, the gulf between the people and the foreign forces is widening daily.
“If these forces do not change their strategy and stop these wilful operations, the people will revolt,” said senator Abdullah Haghayeghi, speaking at a press conference in Kabul on July 6.
Another member of parliament, Engineer Ahmadzai, called on the United Nations Security council to set legal limits for the foreign forces in Afghanistan.
“These heedless operations carried out by Coalition forces are causing death and displacement,” he said.
In Nangarhar, the sense of anger is growing.
“Give these to Hamed Karzai,” said one elder, pointing to piles of bloodstained clothing, shoes and other articles belonging to those killed in the bombing. “Tell him, ‘These are gifts from the women who walked barefoot and hungry to the ballot box to vote for you, in spite of the dangers. And you sent them bombs as gifts, courtesy of your foreign friends.’”
Malek Jabar, a tribal elder from the Oghaz area, where the incident took place, told IWPR that the killings could lead people to go over to the Taleban.
“We Afghans have become so servile that we can no longer demand vengeance from foreigners on our own soil,” he said. “If those who committed this action are not handed over to us, we will have to join the opposition. At least they do not kill our women and children.”
Another tribal leader in Oghaz, Malek Zarbaz, warned that the bombing could have far-reaching consequences for this part of Afghanistan, which borders on Pakistan. While the Oghaz area has been relatively peaceful, the entire border suffers from frequent incursions by insurgents coming in from Pakistan.
“If the perpetrators of this crime are not handed over to us or put on trial, we are no longer Afghans,” said Malek Zarbaz. “We have kept this border secure, but we will not keep it that way any longer.”
Ezatullah Zawab is a freelance reporter in Nangarhar. Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.