KAKARAK, Afghanistan - Residents of this battered hamlet yesterday tallied
their dead and missing from a US airstrike on Monday and angrily denied that hostile
fire could have prompted the attack.
Local elders estimate that more than 150 people - most of them women and children
- may have been injured or killed in the attack, which they say hit a late-night
wedding celebration. The Afghan government estimated 44 people had been killed.
US military officials say American troops taking part in a broader mission
to seek out remaining Taliban and their sympathizers in the southwestern province
of Uruzgan fired from AC-130 gunships in response to antiaircraft fire from a
cluster of homes. But in interviews, several survivors insisted that celebratory
gunfire was the only shooting from the ground that night, and they denied sheltering
Abdul Malik prays at the grave of his father Mohammed Sherif, Kakarak, Afghanistan
Thursday, July 4, 2002. Malik lost 25 family members including his mother and
father, brother of one of President Hamid Karzai's close allies, when U.S. planeshot
at them as they were celebrating Malik's engagement party Monday. (AP Photo/Charles
''There is no Taliban or Al Qaeda here. If we saw them, we would kill them,''
said Haji Hulam Muhuddin, 50. ''And these were all women and children. What did
they do wrong?''
His anger was echoed yesterday in the Afghan capital city Kabul, where nearly
200 Afghans took to the streets in the first mass outcry against the US military
campaign since the fall of the Taliban last year. The demonstrators, many of them
women clad in traditional blue burkas, gathered outside the UN building
in Kabul to express their unhappiness with the risks posed by the war on terrorism.
''We support coalition measures against the Taliban regime and Al Qaeda,''
said Theyba, one of the protest organizers, reading to the crowd from a petition
as the demonstration halted traffic. ''But we cannot tolerate more innocent victims
in our country and American bombardment of civilian targets.''
President Bush said he wants a ''comprehensive'' inquiry. Early yesterday,
members of an American and Afghan fact-finding team met with the province's governor,
Jan Mohammad Khan, in the Uruzgan capital of Tarin Kowt. The governor's deputy,
Khudai Rahim Khan, did not discuss the meeting. But he recounted the desperate
attempt by local officials to try to save the wounded in Kakarak, which is isolated
by jagged, rocky roads.
''We couldn't even contact them on Monday,'' he said. ''The next day we prepared
two pick-ups full of doctors. When the doctors got back, they told me at least
95 [were] wounded and killed, and they were only women.''
Some of the victims already had been taken in cars by relatives to the nearest
major hospital, in Kandahar - only 60 miles away but a bone-jarring journey that
can take up to 12 hours.
Local Afghan officials yesterday reacted with anger and bravado when told
US military officials maintained that the American AC-130 military gunships had
come under fire from the ground.
''If the Americans want to claim these villagers had heavy guns, then these
heroes [the Americans] should come and find them,'' said Abdul Rahim, the head
of the district of Deh Rawad, where Kakarak is located.
A spokesman for the investigative team, Major Gary Tallman, acknowledged earlier
this week that no antiaircraft gun had been found in the cluster of homes in Kakarak.
But he said US forces had received fire from the area the night of the celebration
and on two previous days. Fire had also been directed at the planes by other antiaircraft
guns acting in concert, Tallman said.
Many among the grieving population of Kakarak say that isn't true.
''We were all excited by the ceremony and singing songs,'' said Khaliq Dad,
30, who attended the celebration. ''At 1 a.m. someone started shooting, but it
normally happens that people shoot in the air during such things. And then the
American bombing came.''
Dad said one home that was hit was full of women and children, partly because
of conservative Afghan traditions that often keep men and women separate at social
functions. One of his female relatives was killed and two injured in the attack,
''I went into the house [after the attack], and all the people who had been
sitting on the roof, all of them were torn into pieces,'' he said. Dad believed
the home's owner, Sharif, lost 28 family members.
Other survivors said that the US strike was swift and exceedingly deadly.
''Look at this corner of the room,'' Abdul Qadeer said as he led a visitor
through the shattered remains of the home.
''When I entered this room, two women were praying. By the time I reached
them, they had died. It was a very bad night.''
Gaping holes, shrapnel marks, and collapsed walls bore testimony to the punishing
attack, which left three houses here badly damaged. So did the vast sprawl of
blood and human remains.
Yesterday, some villagers had begun shoveling sand over the bloodstains that
had spread out through the dust and dirt. Others began burying human body parts.
Others began slowly picking up the dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals scattered
on the ground. Guests, following Muslim custom, had taken their shoes off at the
Villagers said they believed the bride and groom did not attend the celebration
and had survived the attack. Following Afghan tradition, three days of celebrations
often precede weddings.
US military officials have described the region as a stronghold of support
for the Taliban spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. According to the Pakistan-based
Afghan Islamic Press, the area is Omar's ancestral home.
The same news agency has reported the US-coalition troops had begun a massive
operation there in recent days, reportedly searching for Omar and his Taliban
Whether sympathy remains for the Taliban leader is difficult to discern. Most
of the villagers in Uruzgan, which is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, expressed
resounding support for Karzai, who is of Pashtun origin.
But not far from Tarin Kowt lies a grave, identified by locals as a place
where Taliban were slain by US warplanes protecting Karzai last year. Several
women were seen praying at the grave yesterday morning. On top of it lay several
stones - an Afghan sign of respect for the dead.
What is more clear is that the US campaign is testing the patience of villagers.
Some expressed fear, saying every time they hear an American airplane overhead
they will worry that more bombs could fall.
Others expressed deep anger.
''Next time, the Americans should be careful,'' said Abdul Rahim, the head
of the district of Deh Rawad. ''If they don't, we will fight against them in the
Ebadi reported from Uruzgan, Neuffer from Islamabad. Material from the
Associated Press was used in this report.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company