KABUL - Jumakhan Said Muhammad was working on his land when he first heard the planes. "I looked up," the farmer from Musa Qala, in the southern Helmand province, says. "Suddenly a plane flew by and I saw smoke rising from my house, which was down the road.
"Muhammad ran towards his home, where dozens of villagers were shouting his name as they surrounded his house. "The house was split in half by the bomb," he recalls. "The walls were collapsed and crumbled. Blood was pouring from my nephew (seven-years-old) like it was water. He had shrapnel in his brain and stomach. I then saw my sister's headscarf peaking out from underneath the rubble and so we raced desperately to save her. When we pulled her out from the wreckage I saw her body -- she was cut completely in half. I started to scream."
Muhammad's sister and nephew are among a steady flow of civilian casualties caused by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) bombardment, residents say. When such casualties started to rise last year -- bombers destroyed Muhammad's house in November -- coalition forces pledged to change their tactics and ensure that civilians were not caught in such attacks.
But Helmand residents say that they are often still caught in the crossfire and that fighting has been particularly intense in March -- locals claim that aerial bombing killed over 40 civilians in the last two weeks alone.
Helmand residents allege that 13 civilians were killed two weeks ago in a NATO air-strike, and last week lawmaker Nasima Niyazi claimed that dozens of civilians were killed when coalition forces bombed a popular picnic spot in the Sangin district. U.S.-led forces recently admitted to killing six civilians in a house raid in eastern Afghanistan, including two children.
Last week, close to 400 demonstrators gathered near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, to protest civilian killings. Protesters claim that NATO soldiers raided a house and killed two people, including a child. One protester asked a local news agency, "We are poor people with no links to militants. Why are troops killing us?"
Fighting has raged in Helmand province for more than two years and has produced a steady exodus of injured and terrified civilians.
Tauskhan Palwesha arrived in Kabul three days ago from the Sangin district, where last year a fire fight broke out between coalition forces and the Taliban. "Bullets were flying past our home," he recalls. "Suddenly a plane flew by and dropped a bomb - I heard a loud noise and everything around me burst into flames. I looked for my wife and saw that a beam had gone right through her head, spilling her brains onto the floor. My nine-year-old daughter had burns all over her body. When I picked her up I noticed that she was missing an arm."
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A leading Afghan NGO reports that close to 2,000 civilians were killed by the fighting and estimates coalition air strikes are responsible for nearly a tenth of these. Analysts say possibly many more deaths go unreported because of the poor security conditions that prevail in the southern provinces. Overall, aid agencies estimate that more than 12,000 people, at least a quarter civilians, have been killed since the start of the war in 2001.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a coalition over 40,000 troops and 40 countries headed by NATO, maintains that it does not deliberately target civilians. "ISAF goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, unlike the Taliban, who have no apparent regard for neither life nor truth," the coalition said recently in a statement.
However, observers say that whether civilians are deliberately targeted or not, the continued civilian killings threaten to alienate Afghans who previously stayed neutral in the fight between ISAF and the Taliban. "There's mounting anger against NATO and U.S. forces," journalist Hamed Asir says. "This will drive people into the hands of the Taliban."
"I never supported the Taliban before," Palwesha says, his face cherry red with anger. "But now I've lost everything. The foreign troops killed my family and destroyed my house."
Palwesha carries with him a wrapped blanket, speckled with faded maroon stains that he says are his daughter's dried blood. Unwrapping the cloth, he unveils a charred stump. "This was part of her bone," he says. "I'm going to take this and drop it on Karzai's (Afghan President Hamid Karzai) desk. He has to help me. If he ignores me, I will go to the Taliban. I am ready to die. I am ready to become a suicide bomber because I have nothing left to live for."
Sadeq Mudaber, a senior government official and policy director, says that Karzai recently met with top ISAF commanders to address the issue. Without a good-faith effort to avoid civilian casualties, he says, NATO and the U.S. run the risk of alienating large sections of the population.
"I'm so angry," Muhammad says. "I am angry at the world. NATO should be bringing peace and security. If they can't do that they should leave."
"Otherwise," he adds, "they will become just like the Russians."
© 2008 Inter Press Service