Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Survivors of Afghan massacre recall horror of gunman's assault

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — It was early in the morning, perhaps 2 a.m., when gunfire awoke 14-year-old Rafiullah.

He looked outside the house he'd been sleeping in with his grandmother, an aunt, two cousins and his sister, and he saw a man with a weapon walk to a shed that housed the family cow and open fire, shooting the animal dead.

"I told the women inside our room: 'Let's run! Let's get out of here,' " recalled Rafiullah, who like many Afghans goes by only one name.

In the next compound, a short distance from the house where Rafiullah had been sleeping, Haji Mohammad Naim awoke to the sound of dogs barking wildly in the street.

"Then there was shooting, and the dogs stopped barking," said Naim, who's in his 50s.

Shortly afterward, there was pandemonium at Naim's front door as Rafiullah and a handful of terrified women and children poured into his yard, seeking shelter. Minutes later, another woman and a young girl emerged from the darkness.

"She was screaming and crying," Naim said of the woman. "She said, 'My husband has been martyred,' " meaning that he'd been killed.

Suddenly a silhouette appeared, moving rapidly behind a bright light. Naim thought that U.S. forces were raiding his village, and he expected a squad of soldiers to arrive. Instead, he saw just one man.

"He got closer, and then he started shooting at me," Naim said.

The story that Rafiullah and Naim recently told a McClatchy Newspapers reporter is the first public account by survivors in their village of the events of March 11, when a man whom U.S. officials have identified as Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly shot and killed 17 people in two Afghan villages.

American officials, who say Bales returned to his base nearby after the shootings and surrendered without a fight, quickly spirited him out of Afghanistan to the United States, where he's awaiting trial on murder and other charges at the Army's maximum-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

U.S. officials have offered no motive for the shootings and have divulged scant details of what investigators think took place in the villages of Alkozai, where Rafiullah and Naim live, and Najiban, which also lies near Bales' base at Belambai in the Panjway district of Kandahar province.

The accounts by Rafiullah and Naim, both of whom were wounded in the rampage, offer new details of Bales' alleged actions. A third survivor, Naim's 11-year-old son, Sadiqullah, also was interviewed. But he said he remained hidden behind a curtain throughout the violence, and it was uncertain what he saw.

How valuable Naim's and Rafiullah's testimony would be in a U.S. military court is unclear. Both said they didn't see the shooter's face clearly enough to identify him, and both are uncertain about the exact time, noting that no one in the houses had a watch.

But the survivors' accounts lend an urgency that has been lacking in the official version of events, and they convey the brutality and the seeming randomness of what took place in those early morning hours. Before the shooting ended in Alkozai, Rafiullah's grandmother was dead, his sister was critically wounded, three other people had been killed and five others were wounded in three adjacent houses. Most of the victims were related by blood or marriage.

Naim said he felt rooted to the ground as the shooter bore down on him. Bullets whizzed through the night. The gunfire seemed to come at him in bursts, perhaps as many as 10 shots altogether, Naim recalled, some fired from just feet away.

Two struck him in the upper left side of his chest and one ripped skin from the left side of his jaw. Then everything went black.

The shooter stepped past Naim's unconscious body and entered his home, confronting Rafiullah and his relatives who'd taken refuge in the main room. With them were around a dozen of Naim's family members, roused by the gunfire but still half asleep.

Terror unfolded in the crowded space, the frightened faces of women and children illuminated only by a light that Rafiullah said appeared to be affixed to an assault rifle. The shooter drove everyone before him, herding and hunting his victims like animals.

Spotting Rafiullah, he seized one of the boy's arms. Rafiullah said his grandmother seized his other arm, to try to stop the soldier from dragging him away. The soldier turned on her.

"He shot my grandmother, he wounded my sister Zardana and wounded me," Rafiullah said. "He opened fire on Naim's son, Sadiqullah, and also opened fire on Naim's daughter. Then the soldier left."

Help for the wounded eventually arrived, although Rafiullah — like Naim — had fallen unconscious and was unable later to say how long it took to get there. The survivors were rushed, by a relative who'd borrowed a car, to a nearby U.S.-Afghan base, then flown by helicopter to a U.S. military hospital at Kandahar airfield.

Rafiullah, who had a gunshot wound to each leg, found himself in a bed next to Naim's son, Sadiqullah, who'd received a bullet wound to his right earlobe.

Rafiullah told McClatchy that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, phoned him in the aftermath of the attack and U.S. authorities later interviewed him while he was in the hospital. "Two times they talked to me," he said.

A day or two after the massacre, he also spoke to the man Karzai had appointed as his chief investigator into the killings, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Afghan army chief.

"To all of them I said the same thing," Rafiullah said. "I saw only one shooter."

Rafiullah has largely recovered from the physical wounds. Naim said he needed ongoing medical treatment for his own wounds. He walks with difficulty and has lost strength in his hands. "I can hardly pick up this plastic bag," he said.

Zardana, Rafiullah's sister, is the victim most in need of specialized care. Shot in the head, she remains partially paralyzed in the U.S. base hospital. Her uncle, Juma Khan, said U.S. officials had yet to follow through on a pledge to get her more sophisticated care in the United States.

"If the Americans can't organize these simple things, they should return Zardana to us so the world can see her condition," he said. "If America can't help us, we will ask the international community for help."

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