JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Looking gravely across a courtroom in Afghanistan, 7-year-old Zardana raised her hand late Saturday night and swore to testify truthfully about the night a man who prosecutors say was a U.S. soldier shot her in the head, shot her brother in the leg and killed her grandmother.
"Yes I do, and I'm not going to lie," Zardana said as her image was beamed by video to another courtroom in Washington state, where U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is charged with 16 counts of murder.
Alternately grave and smiling while sitting at the witness table next to an interpreter, Zardana was only asked to testify about what color T-shirt her attacker was wearing during the pre-dawn attack March 11 in the village of Alkozai.
"He was wearing pants like this color," Zardana said, pointing to the interpreter's khaki shirt, "and also a T-shirt like you're wearing," nodding toward defense lawyer John Henry Browne's black T-shirt.
Even that brief testimony was an accomplishment: Doctors at a remote U.S. Army post near Kandahar, seeing pieces of brain in her hair after the shootings, had given her up as hopeless. They turned to other, less injured patients. Then when they were finished, they discovered that the little girl was, against all odds, still breathing.
Zardana spent three months in a U.S. Navy hospital in San Diego over the summer. "The first time I saw her, I wasn't sure she was going to live," her father, Samiullah testified Saturday. "The only thing she was doing was opening her eyes."
But in the U.S., he said, she underwent successful medical treatment. "They tried their best and they helped a lot. She's better now."
Zardana was followed at Saturday's military pre-trial hearing by three other young survivors of the shootings: Robina, also 7; Hekmatullah "Khan" Gul, 10; and Rafiullah, who is in his mid-teens.
All three calmly gave detailed accounts of how their relatives were felled by gunfire as Bales, a 39-year-old veteran of four combat deployments, stared at the video screen without expression.
The Saturday hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord is meant to help determine whether Bales will face a court-martial. He could face the death penalty if he is convicted.