Where the Bodies Are
Last week, when President Bush traveled to Shanghai for an APEC meeting, his first venture outside the country since Sep. 11, a few American reporters noted that some Chinese are skeptical of the current U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan because of the "mistaken" U.S. strike of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade two years ago. The U.S. claimed it had relied on outdated information.
But what virtually nobody -- at least in the United States -- has reported is that in the two most publicized instances of civilian death in the two-week-old Afghanistan campaign, the exact same thing appears to have happened. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. As survivors and refugees, and their stories, have begun to trickle into Pakistan, the scope of the civilian destruction the U.S. is creating is only starting to become clear.
In the first abominable incident, four men died when the offices of a United Nations agency, the Afghan Technical Consultants in Kabul, were bombed on October 9. The Pentagon has said that the ATC was near a military radio tower, but U.N. officials say the tower was a defunct and abandoned medium and short wave radio station that hadn't been in operation for over a decade. The ATC had even given its address to higher-up U.N. officials to pass on to the U.S. military, so that it would be spared. One of the victims, Abdul Saboor, had arrived only two hours before after volunteering to make the perilous trip from Pakistan into Afghanistan on foot to deliver much-needed cash salaries to U.N. employees so that they could eat. The cash was incinerated along with the offices.
The second incident of mistaken identity was far worse. Independent witnesses have now confirmed that in the northern village of Karam, between 100 and 200 people -- mostly women, children, and old people -- were killed when bombers made repeated passes and flattened the village during early evening prayers. This time, the Pentagon said that Karam was once a training camp for Al-Qaeda. In fact, the site was used to train mujahideen during the 1980s and was run by Sadiq Bacha to train members of the Hezb-i-Islami faction, with CIA support. Some of those men later joined the Taliban, but the base was never used by Al-Qaeda. It was closed and abandoned in 1992, before bin Laden moved to Afghanistan. In the 1990s, families moved in and built mud and rock houses on the site. During the winter, nomads also made Karam their temporary home.
Karam is now gone. It's impossible to know how many other villages have shared its fate, since the Taliban have expelled all western reporters and Pakistan has closed its border with Afghanistan, making it hard for reporters to get into the country. Both the U.S. and the Taliban have incentives to understate casualties. Pakistani border guards are beating Afghani refugees with sticks and firing guns at them to keep them from crossing into Pakistan, where their eyewitness accounts may further enrage the Pakistani populace.
But a few are making it in, and the stories are leaking out, mostly in the Islamic press but also in Europe -- but, notably, not in the United States. Here is a small collection of the civilian deaths told to reporters so far. None of these accounts come from Taliban sources; all are from refugees and Western or Pakistani reporters.
In Jalalabad, the Sultanpur Mosque was hit by a bomb during prayers, with 17 people caught inside. Neighbors rushed into the rubble to help pull out the injured, but as the rescue effort got under way, another bomb fell, killing at least 120 people.
In the village of Darunta near Jalalabad, a U.S. bomb fell on another mosque. Two people were killed and dozens--perhaps as many as 150 people--were injured. Many of those injured are languishing without medical care in the Sehat-e-Ama hospital in Jalabad, which lacks resources to treat the wounded.
More civilian deaths are being reported in the villages of Torghar and Farmada, north and west of Jalalabad. At least 28 civilians had died in Farmada, which has an abandoned Al-Qaeda training camp nearby.
In Argandab, north of Kandahar, 10 civilians have died from the bombing and several houses have been destroyed. The same has happened in Karaga, north of Kabul.
A five-year-old child was killed while sleeping in his family's home outside Kandahar when two bombs fell on a munitions storage area half a mile away. The explosion threw shells and rockets in all directions and one of those shells smashed through the mud-brick wall of his bedroom, slicing open young Taj Muhammed's abdomen and burning his six-year-old sister, Kambibi. Taj suffered for 12 hours at a nearby hospital before he died.
On Oct. 7, the first night of the bombing, at least one private residence in Kabul suffered a direct hit and others were damaged. The U.S. also destroyed the Hotel Continental in the city's center. On the same night, bombs were dropped on the houses of Taliban leaders in Kandahar. Two civilian relatives of Mullah Muhammad Omar were killed: his aged stepfather and his 10-year-old son.
On Oct. 8, the second night of the bombing, three missiles were aimed at the airport in Jalalabad, but only one hit the target. The other two went astray and exploded nearby, killing one civilian, and injuring a second so severely that he was driven to a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, to have shrapnel removed from a deep wound in his neck and his spinal injuries treated. He's not expected to survive. A third 16-year-old boy injured in the same attack was also taken to a hospital in Peshawar; he lost his leg and two fingers, and he says that many more people were injured and may have died in the same incident.
On Oct. 11, a bomb aimed at the Kabul airport went astray and hit Qala-e-Chaman, a village one mile away, destroying several houses and killing a 12-year-old child. On the same night, another missile hit a house near the Kabul customs building, killing 10 civilians.
As of Oct. 12, the U.N. had independently reported at least 20 civilian deaths in Mazar-i-Sharif and 10 civilian deaths in Kandahar.
On Oct. 13, Khushkam Bhat, a residential district between Jalalabad airport and a nearby military area, was accidentally bombed by U.S. planes trying to down a Taliban helicopter. More than 100 houses were flattened. At least 160 people were pulled from the rubble and taken to hospitals. In Kabul, witnesses described a huge fireball over the Kabul airport, indicating either the possible use of fuel-air bombs, which can cause destruction over a wide area, or the bombing of an enormous fuel storage facility which can have the same effect. Casualties are not yet known.
On Oct. 16, two bombs fell on two Red Cross warehouses in the center of Kabul. The warehouses, bombed in full daylight, were clearly marked with red crosses on their roofs. U.S. spokesmen claim that the warehouses were hit because there were military vehicles parked nearby. They were Red Cross transport trucks.
On Oct. 17, a bomb scored a "direct hit" on a boy's school in Kabul, but fortunately didn't explode. A U.S. plane, however, dropped a bomb at Mudad Chowk, a residential area of Kandahar, which did explode, destroying two houses and several shops, and killing at least seven people. In Kabul, four bombs fell near the city center; casualties are still unknown.
On Oct. 18, a bomb killed four members of a family in the eastern suburb of Qalaye Zaman Khan when it demolished two homes. A half mile away, another bomb exploded in a housing complex, killing a 16-year-old girl. The U.N. reported that Kandahar had fallen into a state of "pre-Taliban lawlessness," with gangs taking over homes and looting shops. By the next day, according to the U.N., at least 80 percent of Kandahar's residents had left the city to escape the bombing. They are swamping the surrounding villages, where there are no resources to care for them. Some have moved on to the border and crossed into Pakistan. One refugee said that there are bodies littering the streets of Kandahar and people are dying in the hospitals for lack of drugs. "We know we will lead a miserable life in Pakistan, in tents," he said. "We have come here just to save our children."
The civilian death toll is probably in the thousands, and sure to rise with two new developments. U.S. Air Force pilots may now fire "at will" -- at anything they desire, without pre-authorization from strategists peering at satellite and surveillance photos. In fact, there are now regions of the country that have been designated "kill boxes," reminiscent of Vietnam's "free-fire zones" but without benefit of advance warning to Afghanis. Kill boxes are patrolled night and day by low-flying aircraft with the mission to shoot anything that moves within the area.
American planes are also now dropping cluster bombs, an anti-personnel weapon that disperses small bomblets over a wide area -- essentially, hundreds of flying landmines, slicing through people, cars, trucks, and even certain types of buildings. About 8-12 percent of the brightly-colored bomblets don't explode on impact, leaving behind attractive but deadly toys for children to play with later.
Or, maybe the United States will drop a food packet on top of one. With winter coming on and an estimated seven million at risk of starvation, there's not much time left to kill civilians before they start dying on their own.
Thanks once more for the special Sunday research help from my Eat the State! co-editor, Maria Tomchick.