On a peace delegation to Afghanistan to visit the Afghan Peace Volunteers, I found myself one dusty afternoon in early May in Kabul sitting across the room from three men from Wardok Province, one of Afghanistan’s most intense areas of fighting. The men came to share their stories.
Two of the men — Abdul Samát and Hayatullah — were perhaps in their 50s or 60s, and were dressed in traditional Afghan garb. The third man — Roohulah — was younger and wearing a white shirt and sport coat. After introductions, the men decided that Roohulah should be the first person to speak.
“I have so many things to say to you,” he started. “So many stories. I don’t know where to begin.” He was choked up already, eyes red and swollen, and I could almost see the lump in his throat. “My own sister was killed in the war. But that is not what angered me the most. I am most angry about losing my cousin. He had a wife and two small children, and now that he is gone, they have no one to care for them.”
Roohulah then told the story of how his cousin and a good friend were visiting family members one snowy evening when they heard the ominous, familiar sound of an American helicopter landing nearby. Frightened, the cousin and a friend decided to run home to be with their families. But when they neared their village, they realized that the Americans were there already, so the two men decided to continue onto the next village, where they would stay until the raid was finished.
But when they cut out into the open, crossing a dry riverbed, they were spotted from the air by a drone or helicopter and a bomb was dropped that killed them both. The remains of their bodies were found the next day by following their tracks in the snow.
Roohulah then told of the home the Americans had decided to raid that same night. An old man was in the house with his nephew — both of them civilians who had recently taken a loan out from a rich Taliban man. A drone overhead had spotted the visitor a few days earlier, leading the Americans to believe these men were supporting the Taliban.
“But they wanted nothing to do with the Taliban,” Roohulah said. “The man had merely come to their house to collect the money that was due to him.”
When the Americans burst into the house that night, the younger man pleaded with them to take him instead of his uncle, as his uncle was ill. In response, they killed the young man and took the older man into custody, releasing him the next day when they learned the truth behind the Taliban visit.
Two days later, however, the old man was killed when a bomb exploded on his motorcycle while he was going to the village funeral for the three men who had died. The village people all believed it was the Americans who planted the bomb.
After Roohulah finished this story, I asked him and the other men how many people being killed in Wardok are civilians. Abdul Samát, who was sitting next to Roohulan, responded to me with force.
“Almost all of them,” he said. “Last year, we counted the number of deaths over a four month period. 91 people were killed. Only three were Taliban. In fact, there are only 20 Taliban living in our small district now. Why don’t the Americans just kill them and leave the civilians alone? They are so bad at killing Taliban, and so good at killing civilians, that we have come to believe the Americans are supporting the Taliban, not fighting them. It is as if both sides just want to kill innocent people.”
When Abdul Samát said this, I was confused. The people believe Americans are supporting the Taliban, not fighting them? Our translator — a strong Afghan-American woman who has spoken extensively with people in the war zones — read the confusion on my face and told me that not only did I hear her correctly, but that this belief is widespread among Afghans in areas of more intense fighting.
Abdul Samát then told a story of his own. “One time, the Americans came to our village for several days,” he said. “To protect themselves, they used as their base the elementary school. The children were their shields.”
When I heard that American soldiers were using children as shields in war, my heart sank. He then explained that the Americans also closed down the village clinic and used it to stockpile weapons, warning the people when they left that anyone who entered the clinic would be killed.
By this time, Roohulah and Abdul Samát both needed to leave; but Hayatullah was able to stay and speak further with us.
“When Afghans speak the truth, our lives are in danger,” he began. “But I am an old man now, and am no longer afraid to die.”
Hayatullah told us how one in four people from the Wardok province are now refugees, having fled from the violence. Hayatullah is one of these refugees, now living in Kabul, and he told us why.
One night, when he lived in Wardok, the Americans raided his home, killing his brother and two nieces. His brother’s name was Nurogar, and he was shot in the face while peering out the window during the raid. His nieces were named Shakila and Ammzai. They were young women, and Ammzai was a school teacher. Both of them were shot in the head.
“Our house was next door to a Taliban house,” Hayatullah told us. “With their night goggles and all their fancy surveillance equipment, how could they not know that they were entering the house of civilians? How could they not see my nieces’ long hair and realize they were women?”
The next day, Hayatullah, who is a journalist, wrote a summary of the incident and sent it out to local newspapers and radio stations. He also knew that all night raids are filmed by one of the soldiers, and demanded that the video of the raid be released. When the word spread, an official investigation was carried out by the government and NATO forces.
“The investigation concluded that the soldiers raided our home because they were being shot at by us,” said Hayatullah, with anger on his face. “This was a lie. Nor was the video of the incident ever released.”
Since this visit, I have tried to reconcile the stories of these men with what we see in America’s mainstream media. It is clear to me that what we hear in our media is far from the reality on the ground. I learned from the Afghan people that for every Taliban who is killed by NATO forces, many civilians are also killed. As a result, the Afghan people have only grown more angry with America. If our leaders truly want to make Afghanistan — and the world — a better, safer place, then they need to listen to these marginalized voices and start thinking about solutions other than military intervention.
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