IT WAS not long after 7pm on Sunday when the bombs began to fall over the outskirts of Torai village.
Mauroof knew that because he had just sat down to eat an evening meal of naan bread and dhal with his family, as they did every night on their farm in this quiet corner of Oruzgan province.
Rushing outside, Mauroof saw a massive fireball rising from the ground and realized, in horror, that the bombs had fallen over the little cluster of houses a mile away where his sister and his other relatives were living.
“I wanted to rush straight there and see if they were all right but my wife and daughters begged me not to go,” Mauroof said.“They said: ‘We are alone here and the bombs are still falling, please stay with us’.”
Morning brought an end to the bombing and the news that Mauroof had been dreading. At 5am, after he had finished his morning prayers, a neighbor arrived to tell him that some 20 villagers had been killed in the blasts, among them ten of his relatives.
As he arrived at the bomb site, distraught villagers were digging desperately through the rubble of two destroyed houses in search of their missing relatives.
“I saw the body of one of my brothers-in-law being pulled from the debris,” Mauroof said. “The lower part of his body had been blown away. Some of the other bodies were unrecognizable. There were heads missing and arms blown off.”
As the rescuers worked, he counted 12 bodies being dragged from the house. The roll call of the dead read like an invitation list to a family wedding: his mother-in-law, two sisters-in-law, three brothers-in-law, and four of his sister’s five young children, two girls and two boys, all under the age of eight.
In a dark room in his neighbor’s house he found the survivors. His younger sister, Rhidi Gul, 25, and her one-year-old baby son, Hamid Ullah, had been pulled from the rubble of their home, alive but badly injured by shrapnel and falling masonry.
A little later, rescuers carried out Rhidi’s two young sisters-in-law, Zarajan, 15, and Khamno, ten, both bleeding heavily from wounds where the flying shrapnel had scythed into their flesh.
One of Mauroof’s neighbors lent him an old farm truck to take his injured relatives to the nearest hospital in Kandahar, seven hours’ journey to the south along a bumpy desert track. “The journey was terrible. They were crying out with pain and begging to stop and I thought we would never make it,” he said.
In nearly deserted Kandahar, things were little better. In the hospital there were plenty of beds for the wounded but little medicine and no nursing staff to care for them.
Mauroof offered to look after them himself but the attendants refused, saying men were forbidden from entering the women’s ward.
Later that day Zarajan died in the operating theater as doctors tried to remove the shrapnel embedded in her chest.
Mauroof decided the others’ only chance of survival was to head towards the border with Pakistan. An ambulance stationed there then rushed them to the Al-Khidmat Al-Hajen Hospital in Quetta, a clinic set up 20 years ago for the treatment of Afghan refugees.
Yesterday, Mauroof sat anxiously by his sister’s bedside as she lay barely conscious, tears collecting in her eyes as she winced in pain from the shrapnel wounds crisscrossing down her body. In the adjacent bed lay baby Hamid, his face a patchwork of scabs and scars where the force of the blast had caught him.
Close by, Khamno sat listlessly playing with a small, yellow teddy bear, unable to speak because of the string of eight stitches connecting her severed cheek to her mouth.
Mauroof ushered us into the corridor to tell us their story. He apologized, explaining he had not yet been able to tell his sister that she had lost four of her children.
In another ward across the corridor lay Faisal Rehim, 20, his shattered leg held up by a stirrup. He had raced to the place where the bombs had dropped on Sunday night in search of his older brother and his family.
As he helped other rescuers dig through the rubble, he heard the roar of warplanes overhead and then a sudden whistling sound. “Suddenly there was an explosion and the wall of the house collapsed on me, trapping my leg,” he said.
He was carried away just before rescuers uncovered the bodies of his 25-year-old brother, Abdul, and his five-year-old nephew, Amin.
All are mystified as to why their village should have been the target of what they firmly believe was a bombing raid by American-led forces.
Mr Rehim said he suspected the target was a group of Taleban administration offices a mile-and-a-half away. “But there are no military bases near us,” he said. “Many people living near other bases have fled their homes but no-one moved from our village because there was calm. We have always felt safe there. We never thought that we would have to flee from the bombs.”
Doctors were gloomy about his prospects of recovering the use of his leg but he was determined it would heal. “I have never been a fighter before but after this, I want to go back and fight the Americans. They have killed innocent people and that is wrong,” he said.
The accounts of the bombing of Torai stand out from almost every other statement given by alleged civilian casualties arriving here from other parts of Afghanistan.
So far, the majority of casualties have been lone young men brought in by friends or relatives, often with injuries more consistent with landmine or grenade explosions than with large bombs or missiles dropped from the air.
Few of their accounts have been corroborated and few have been able to provide more than the sketchiest details of how they were injured. Nonetheless, the doctors at Quetta’s Civil Hospital, where the majority are treated, seem eager to publicize their “war wounded”, sticking cards above each bed detailing in English how the patient came to be there for the benefit of visiting journalists: one, “Yaruna, cruise missile, fractured femur,” another, “Faiz Mohammed, bomb blast, soft tissue injury, both calves”.
Doctors at the Al-Khidmat Al-Hajen Hospital, by contrast, agreed only with great reluctance to let us see the Torai casualties. The hospital was a place for the injured, they said, not for the media. They confirmed, however, that the injuries appeared to confirm accounts of the bombings. “These are serious shrapnel wounds,” Dr Atta-ur-Rehman said. “They could only have been caused by a large blast.”
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.