Vanessa M. Gezari

The Tender Soldier
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Mawiz Khan, who lost all his children to a single errant American bomb, stands with his nieces amid the ruins of his house near the Pakistani border. Read the article in the Chicago Tribune.

(Vanessa M. Gezari)
May 29, 2003 / Chicago Tribune

Military learns value of sincere ‘I’m sorry’

Seeking goodwill, the U.S. is treating civilian deaths as more than just ‘collateral damage’

One night last month, an American bomb killed all of Mawiz Khan’s children.

It hurtled through the darkness and exploded with a roar, setting the fields alight. It wasn’t until Khan returned home in the morning that he realized it had landed on his house. That the bodies being pulled from heaps of shattered clay were those of 11 young relatives, including nine of his sons and daughters.

“When I saw all the bodies of the children, I almost fainted,” Khan said. “If you lose 11 chickens, you will be sad. If you lose 11 children, how will you feel?”

The U.S. military says it is not liable for death and damage suffered by civilians in combat. Publicly, it says it does not compensate families for the deaths of relatives, even in cases like the one in Shkin, when the bombing was a result of American mistakes.

Yet here, U.S. military officers did something they have rarely, if ever, done in Afghanistan. They went to Mawiz Khan’s house, apologized and promised to rebuild it, relatives and Afghan officials say.

“They came and visited, about 40 people including the Americans, and they said, Please forgive us,'" Khan said. "I said,What can I do? I am not a powerful man. I forgive you. That’s all I can do. It’s already happened. It’s over. It’s finished.‘”

The apology represents a subtle shift in the way American forces are dealing with civilian casualties here, 19 months after the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Afghanistan. No longer are the dead labeled collateral damage. Quietly, the U.S. government is searching for ways to win back those who have suffered–by rebuilding their homes and villages, giving them money and gifts or simply expressing condolences.

“It is a big change,” said Mohammad Ali Paktiawal, governor of Paktika province, where the Shkin bombing occurred. “Now the Americans themselves know that Al Qaeda is almost finished in Afghanistan, the Taliban is gone from here. They saw this family was innocent.”

The U.S. military denies any change in policy. But its focus on winning hearts and minds as a way of fighting terrorism here, along with political pressure at home, has altered its behavior on the ground.

Congress has appropriated $2.5 million for Afghan communities and families who suffered as a result of U.S. military operations; an unspecified amount will be set aside for the same purpose in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the U.S. Agency for International Development says it will use the money to build schools and clinics, and to rebuild houses destroyed by U.S. bombs. Half of it is to be spent in Nangarhar, Khost and Paktika provinces along the border with Pakistan, where some of the heaviest bombing occurred.

“In our first encounters with the Pentagon and the State Department, their reaction was very reluctant, because they felt they would be setting some kind of a precedent,” said Tim Rieser, a senior aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who wrote the law. “I think the U.S. military has recognized that this is a good thing, it’s the right thing to do and it makes them look good.”

Although none of the money has yet been spent, the military’s change in attitude has brought results in some parts of Afghanistan.

In Shkin, American forces are housed in a compound owned by a local businessman who lost seven relatives and seven family friends when the U.S. bombed their mini-van on March 6, 2002. The U.S. pays $5,000 a month to rent the compound even while denying that the payout is being made because the owner, Hajji Machadad, lost his loved ones.

Machadad, 65, has a history with the Americans. In January 2002, U.S. forces raided his house and hauled him and six other men off to Kandahar Air Base. He was imprisoned there for two months and seven days. He still keeps the laminated scrap of paper with his prisoner number, 427, scrawled in black ink.

“So many times they asked me if I had relations with Al Qaeda in the past,” Machadad said recently, seated on the cushioned floor of the house he is building in Sarobi, about 20 miles west of Shkin. “I told them, `I have no relation to Al Qaeda. I don’t even know what Al Qaeda means.’”

When he got out, he learned of the bomb that had killed his wife, his cousin, two nieces, two grandnieces and a grandchild. They had been on their way to pray at a local shrine–21 men, women and small children and a sheep they were planning to slaughter, all packed into one vehicle.

Shortly afterward, the Americans came looking for property in Shkin. They offered to rent Machadad’s sprawling compound overlooking wheat fields 4 miles from the Pakistani border. His relatives are buried nearby.

The Americans gave Machadad a letter saying the rent payments are not compensation. Col. Rodney Davis, a military spokesman at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, said the main military unit in Afghanistan, Coalition Joint Task Force 180, has no record of renting the house. The rent may be paid by a different government agency, he said.

Machadad said he doesn’t view the money as compensation. But his bitterness is gone. He wants the Americans to stay.

“All this was from God,” he said. “What can I do? I am not angry. It was a mistake, it was not intentional.”

The fathers of four boys killed in December on a mortar range used by the U.S.-trained Afghan national army feel much the same. The teenagers wandered onto the range in the Kabul suburb of Pol-i-Charki looking for scrap metal. Last week, American civil affairs soldiers inaugurated a school in their memory that cost the military $47,000.

After the deaths, the Americans went to the boys' families and apologized, said Abdul Manaf, whose 16-year-old son, Abdul Manan, was killed. An Army chaplain gave each family $2,000 and a sheep. A female officer visited the women.

`They did what was required'

“It’s very difficult for someone to lose his own child, but the message of the Americans to us was very good. They did what was required according to the culture and tradition of Afghans,” Manaf said.

Some of the money–$1,500 for each family–was paid under the Foreign Claims Act, which covers injury, death or property damage sustained in non-combat operations outside the U.S. The chaplain raised the money himself to buy the sheep. The deaths also led to the military’s immediate investment in the school and a clinic in Pol-i-Charki.

Davis, the military spokesman, said the U.S. didn’t have to give the families anything; the cash and the sheep were meant to “promote goodwill.”

“Legally, there’s nothing we’re obligated to do here. But that’s not the point,” a senior military official here said. “We can turn it into a learning experience. If we walk away and simply have lawyers talk to the parents, would we be better or worse off? Obviously, worse.”

In Shkin, where attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces are on the rise, the Americans need all the goodwill they can get. On the night of April 8, dozens of militants crossed over from Pakistan and surrounded the Afghan border post here. They fired AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at the Afghan soldiers.

The Afghans fired back and radioed the Americans for help. U.S. soldiers left their base and headed for the Afghan post. As they neared the border, they saw more than two dozen armed fighters. They called in air support, and two Marine Harrier jets thundered overhead.

The roar of planes and the clatter of gunfire woke Mawiz Khan, who was sleeping in his tea shop a few miles away. He thought nothing of it; he and his neighbors are used to the sounds of combat.

In the darkness, the American soldiers told one of the pilots to fire at a group of militants running along the road toward a house. Inside that house, 24 of Mawiz Khan’s relatives slept. The jet fired.

The soldiers asked the pilot to drop a laser-guided bomb on another group of fighters in the open, moving east across the ridgeline back into Pakistan. For some reason, no one told the pilot to look on the ridgeline. Instead, he locked his laser on Khan’s house.

He asked the ground troops to confirm that the laser was on target. His request passed through four people, down to the troops on the ground who misunderstood it. They confirmed that they were out of range of the laser and would be clear of the bomb when it fell.

Back at the American base, soldiers watched the fighters moving along the ridgeline through an infrared camera. They waited for the bomb to blot them out. Instead, 1,000 pounds of metal and explosive charge landed on Khan’s compound.

A military panel found that miscommunication between ground troops and the pilot led to the attack on the house. The board concluded that while errors were made, there was no “disregard of regulations or guidance.”

The next morning, Khan found American soldiers pulling bodies from the rubble. There was Bibi, 20, whose cooking made her family proud, and 18-year-old Sher Wali, who liked learning so much that he watered the garden with a book in his hand.

Bakhmala, 15, always helped her mother with the housework.

The eight others were too young for anyone to know who they might have become: Malama, 10; Fatima, 8; Hassana, 6; Zahida, 5; Royana and Hazrat Ullah, both 3, and 2-year-olds Noor Wali and Sayed Rahman.

Seven other relatives were hurt. Two cows and 18 sheep and goats were buried in rubble. The house is ruined.

A few days later, Paktiawal, the provincial governor, visited the family. He gave them 550,000 afghanis, about $11,000. He told the Americans to help.

“They promised me they will rebuild the house, give some money, apologize and not repeat this mistake again,” he said.

Waiting for Americans' return

When the Americans visited, they put their hands together and said they were sorry. Some cried. “One of them didn’t dare to come inside the compound. He stood outside apologizing, and we could see that he felt very bad,” Khan said.

The family is waiting for the Americans to come back. Davis, the military spokesman, said the soldiers didn’t promise anything. “I think that was just a misinterpretation out there,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, Khan’s wife, Sawara, sat with her sisters-in-law in a room that survived the bombing.

“They changed my life,” Sawara said. “Now I’m like a beggar. I don’t know what the meaning of life is for me. They’ve killed all my children. I don’t have anything.”

Her eyes filled with tears.

“I wish they would have come to the house first to search us,” she said. “They didn’t search. They just bombed.”

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