JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — One by one, the Afghan men and boys took the witness stand inside a military courtroom Tuesday to tell of a night of gunfire, bloodshed and horror a world away.
They had been flown here on tourist visas by the U.S. military, the first witnesses to testify at a sentencing hearing for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who has pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan civilians — most of them women and children — as he stalked through their compounds in Kandahar province in March 2012.
Seven men and boys came face to face with the sergeant who has admitted storming his victims' homes and opening fire as they screamed for mercy.
"That bastard stood right in front of me," said Haji Mohammed Naim, 60, his voice rising as he gestured toward Bales. "I wanted to ask him: 'What did I do? What have I done to you?' "
Pressed by military prosecutors to delve further into that night, Naim, who was shot in the attack and lost several family members, began to weep and stood up.
"I'm leaving," he said. "For God's sake, do not ask me any more questions."
Over the next several days, a six-person military jury will decide whether Bales, 39, deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars for carrying out one of the worst U.S. atrocities in years or whether he could one day be eligible for parole. By pleading guilty in June, he avoided any possibility of the death penalty.
Bales sat impassively through Tuesday's hearing, sometimes looking away when images of dead children were projected onto the wall. He listened quietly as his victims described houses "full of blood and bodies" and how they had to load their trucks with their wounded brothers, sons, daughters and wives.
One of the youngest to testify was Khan Hekmatullah, a skinny 12-year-old who concluded his testimony with an unanswered question: "What did I do wrong against Sergeant Bales that he shot my father?"