Monday, December 9, 2013
By Kathy Gannon / The Associated Press
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Sitting on a dirty straw mat on the parched ground of southern Afghanistan, Masooma sank deeper inside a giant black shawl. Hidden from view, her words burst forth as she told her side of what happened to her family sometime before dawn on March 11, 2012.
Eight-year-old Hikmatullah said he remembers the sight of the attacker in full military uniform. "I was so afraid. I pretended I was asleep." His mother, Masooma, said the soldier found him and punched him repeatedly in the head.
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Zardana, 11, speaks in Kandahar, Afghanistan, last month about a pre-dawn attack last year when a U.S. soldier burst into her family's home. Zardana said her visiting cousin saw the soldier chasing them and ran to help, but 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 neighbors."
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According to Masooma, an American soldier wearing a helmet equipped with a flashlight 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 Taliban, Taliban, and then he pulled my husband up. I screamed and screamed and said, 'We are not Taliban, we are not government. We are no one. Please don't hurt us,' " she said.
The soldier wasn't listening. 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 as she was momentarily unable to speak. 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 military prepares to court-martial a U.S. serviceman in the killing of her husband and 15 other Afghan civilians, mainly women and children.
The AP also interviewed other villagers about the case, all of whom are identified by the U.S. Army as witnesses or relatives of witnesses. 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 told AP how they tried to run away and hide from a soldier with a gun, only to be shot – and see their neighbors and grandmother killed.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales of Lake Tapps, Wash., 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 fall, other soldiers testified that Bales spent the evening before the massacre watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whiskey from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost one of their comrades his leg.
Bales 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 defense; he was on his fourth combat deployment and had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as 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 Taliban movement, an area where women are hidden inside all-enveloping burqas and rarely leave their homes.
Masooma's account of the night has been reported variously over the past year, differing over details such as whether there was one or more than one U.S. soldier involved. However, the four hours she recently spent with the AP was her first face-to-face interview with a news organization. She spoke as her burly brother-in-law Baraan loomed nearby.
The interview took place outside Baraan's single-story mud home in Kandahar city, because Alokzai and Najiban villages, where the killings occurred, are too hostile for foreigners to visit. Even in Kandahar, some 90 miles away, the AP journalists sought to avoid being seen by Baraan's neighbors, who he feared would react negatively to their presence.
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Mohammed Wazir sits with his only surviving son, Habib Shahin, 4, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in April as he talks about the events of March 11, 2012, when a U.S. soldier burst into his family's home. Wazir returned to his home that morning to find 11 members of his family dead, their bodies partially burned. The youngest among the dead was his 1-year-old daughter Palawan Shah.
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