Shock and gore - a village's night of horror

By Kathy Gannon

As the United States military prepares to court-martial Staff Sergeant Robert Bales for the killing of 16 Afghan civilians, Kathy Gannon travels to Kandahar to talk to the survivors of the bloody attack

Sitting on a dirty straw mat on the parched ground of southern Afghanistan, Masooma sank deeper inside a giant shawl. Hidden from view, her words burst forth as she told what happened to her family in pre-dawn darkness on March 11 last year.

She says an American soldier wearing a flashlight-equipped helmet burst into her two-room mud home while everyone slept. He killed her husband, Dawood, punched her 7-year-old son and shoved a pistol into the mouth of his baby brother.

"We were asleep. He came in and he was shouting, saying something about Taleban, Taleban, and then he pulled my husband up.

"I screamed and screamed and said, 'We are not Taleban, we are not government. We are no one. Please don't hurt us."'

The soldier ignored her. He pointed his pistol at Masooma to quiet her and pushed her husband into the living room.

"My husband just looked back at me and said, "I will be back"."

Seconds later she heard gunshots, she recalled, her voice cracking. Her husband was dead.

Masooma, who like many Afghans uses only one name, defied tribal traditions that prohibit women from speaking to strangers to talk to the Associated Press while - half a world away - the United States military prepares to court-martial an American serviceman over the killing of her husband and 15 other Afghan civilians, mainly women and children.

AP also interviewed other villagers, all of them identified by the US army as witnesses or relatives of witnesses, about the case.

They included a sister and brother who were wounded and two men who were away during the killings and returned to find wives and children slain.

The sister and brother tried to run and hide from a soldier with a gun, only to be shot and see their neighbours and grandmother killed.

US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales of Lake Tapps, Washington, is accused of the killings.

Prosecutors say Bales slipped away from his remote outpost to attack two nearby villages, returning in the middle of the rampage and then for a final time soaked in blood.

During a hearing last northern autumn, other soldiers testified that Bales spent the evening before the massacre watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whisky from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost one of their comrades his leg.

He has not entered a plea, but his lawyers have not disputed his involvement in the killings. They have said his mental health may be part of his defence; he was on his fourth combat deployment and had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a concussive head injury while serving in Iraq. The army is seeking the death penalty.

The killings took place in Kandahar's Panjwai district, deep in the ethnic Pashtun heartland that spawned the Taleban movement, an area where women are hidden inside all-enveloping burqas and rarely leave their homes.

The interview with Masooma took place outside her brother-in-law Baraan's single-storey mud home in Kandahar city, because Alokzai and Najiban villages, where the killings occurred, are too hostile for foreigners to visit. Even in Kandahar, 150km away, Baraan was worried his neighbours would react negatively to the AP journalists.

Masooma said that the soldier returned to the family's bedroom after killing her husband. She stood in terror. Her children hid under their blankets. The soldier moved slowly and seemed angry. Gesturing to show how he hit her in the arms and shoved her to the ground, Masooma said he then moved toward her son Hikmatullah, then 7.

Her son remembers the sight of the attacker in full military uniform. "I was so afraid. I pretended I was asleep," he said.

Masooma said the soldier found Hikmatullah and punched him repeatedly in the head.

The soldier then found her 2-year-old daughter, Shahara. He grabbed her pigtails and violently shook her head back and forth. He then went to the crying baby Hazratullah and shoved the muzzle of his black pistol into the infant's mouth.

"He just held it there in his mouth. I screamed and screamed, 'He is just a baby. Don't kill him. Don't kill him'. But he just kept the gun in his mouth. He didn't say anything. He just stared at him," she recalled.

After some time, she said, the soldier took the gun from the baby's mouth and walked back into the living room. Masooma dug her bare foot into the dirt to demonstrate how the soldier slipped his foot beneath her husband's head to lift it from the floor, as if to be sure he was really dead.

The soldier looked down at her husband, shrugged his shoulders and returned to searching her home. After he finished rifling through their belongings, he left.

Investigators say Bales was armed with a 9mm pistol and an M-4 rifle fitted with a grenade launcher when he walked off his base and went on a nighttime killing spree in five homes, including Masooma's.

He faces 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder, seven counts of assault and one count each of possessing steroids, using steroids, destroying a laptop, burning bodies, and using alcohol.

He is being held in a military prison at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle in Washington state.

On April 23, Bales appeared in a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for a hearing that focused on what might happen if he is convicted, including which relatives and friends could speak on his behalf during a sentencing hearing.

Such testimony could help determine whether he receives the death penalty.

The US Government flew Baraan and five other Afghan men - all members of families who were attacked - to Seattle to familiarise them with the US judicial system and notify them that they would probably have to return when the court-martial begins in September.

Only three of those who went to the US in March said they saw the attack. Some, like Baraan, went on behalf of relatives who were slain or women prevented from travelling.

None of the Afghan witnesses was able to identify Bales as the attacker, but other evidence, including tests of the blood on his clothes, implicated him, according to testimony from a DNA expert.

Associated Press also spoke to several others who survived the attack or lost family members. To avoid putting the Afghans in danger for being seen talking to foreigners, the interviews took place at a nondescript hotel in Kandahar. The Afghans drove the dusty, dangerous road from their villages to the hotel and then returned home.

Said Jan, an elderly man who was visiting Kandahar during the attack and lost his wife and three other family members, said he went to the United States expecting justice.

"I thought we were going to America to see him hanged," he said. "Instead they showed us a courtroom and kept us in rooms asking us more and more questions."

Said Jan said he wasn't interested in returning for the trial.

"None of us will go," agreed Mohammed Wazir, who also went to the US in March. "Why would we care about seeing America? We will go only if he is hanged."

Wazir said he returned home from a trip the morning after the attack to find 11 members of his family dead - his wife, his mother, two brothers, a 13-year-old nephew and his six children. Their bodies were partially burned.

He was left only with his 3-year-old son, Habib Shah, who had accompanied him on the trip.

While Wazir spoke of the horror of finding his home spattered with blood, still smelling of burned flesh, Habib, now 4, played by his side.

"He misses his mother all the time," Wazir said, trying to straighten Habib's curly brown hair.

From another home attacked that night, 16-year-old Rafiullah remembers the American soldier smashing through the door waving his pistol. Awakened in a small room with his grandmother and his sister Zardana, he said he didn't know what to do. "We just ran and he ran after us."

Zardana, 11, said a cousin dashed over to help. He was shot and killed.

"We couldn't stop. We just wanted somewhere to hide. I was holding on to my grandmother and we ran to our neighbours."

Their neighbour, Naim, came out of his house to see what the noise was all about and was shot and wounded. His daughter then ran to him but was killed by the American soldier, Zardana said.

Zardana, who said she saw soldiers in a nearby field as she ran from one house to the next, remembers trying to hide behind her grandmother at the neighbour's house. But the soldier found them.

Gesturing with his hand as if spraying the room with gunfire, Rafiullah said the soldier "just went bang, bang, bang".

Rafiullah was wounded in both his legs, his grandmother was killed and Zardana was shot in the head.

She removed her scarf to show the scar from the wound. The effects will last a lifetime. She has nerve damage on her left side and has to walk with a cane. Her hand is too weak to hold anything heavy.

Zardana spent about two months recovering at the Kandahar Air Base hospital and three more at a naval hospital in San Diego receiving rehabilitation therapy, accompanied by her father, Samiullah.

She spoke of her treatment in San Diego and the doctors and nurses who helped her learn to walk again, gave her toys and still find ways to stay in touch.

"They showed me so much love," she said with a tiny smile. "They asked me about what happened and when I told them how my grandmother died and how afraid I was and how I was shot, they cried and cried."

The accounts of many villagers have varied over the past year, making it a challenge for investigators and journalists to obtain a full narrative of the attack.

For example, Masooma gave a telephone interview to a reporter days after the attack, with Baraan acting as interpreter. According to the resulting story, she described a single attacker in her home, but said she saw many soldiers outside.

Three months later, her family allowed a female US Army investigator to question her. The investigator later testified at a hearing that Masooma clearly said two soldiers carried out the attack.

Baraan testified at the same hearing, insisting Masooma was mistaken when she said there were two soldiers. Lawyers for Bales suggested Baraan might be influencing Masooma - especially since the defence was not allowed to speak to her.

No physical evidence has emerged to suggest more than one soldier took part in the killings.

Surveillance camera images from the base showed one soldier returning to the camp; soldiers who meet him said he was covered in blood.

Nevertheless, many Afghan villagers, including some eyewitnesses, continue to insist several soldiers were present during the attack.

In the interview with AP, Masooma did not waver in her insistence that one soldier attacked her home, and Baraan denied that she ever told of seeing many soldiers outside. Masooma did recall flares lighting the sky until "night seemed like day" - which is consistent with testimony from guards who said they fired a flare that illuminated the sky for 20 seconds after hearing gunshots.

Masooma is absolutely certain of one thing - what it will take for her to find closure.

"I just want to see him killed," she said of Bales. "I want to see him dead. Then I can let go."

Robert Bales

• Faces 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder, seven counts of assault and one count each of possessing steroids, using steroids, destroying a laptop, burning bodies, and using alcohol.

• Has not entered a plea but his lawyers have not disputed his involvement in the killings. They have said the state of his mental health might be part of his defence.

• Was on his fourth combat deployment.

• Had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a concussive head injury while serving in Iraq.

• Could face the death penalty if found guilty.

- AP

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