The Killing of Benafshah
It’s the 3rd of May 2009. The cold Afghan winter is already went. Spring has showed its impatient for many weeks. But now it is raining and it doesn’t seem to stop. Some military, foreign vehicles are patrolling along the main road that from Herat, chief town of the homonymous western province, goes south, to Shindand and from there to Farah, where insurgents are still keeping even Americans in check.
Along the road, crouched and hidden, there could be insurgents. It doesn’t make a big difference whether they are there or not. Soldiers are still afraid. Afraid of an unexpected attack, afraid of nearly improvised devices, IEDs in bureaucratic terms, Improvised Explosive Devices, lethal explosives operated by a simple transmitter, even a domestic remote control. These are insurgents’ favorite tools, the deadliest arm, together with suicidal attacks, of any asymmetrical war. A war that makes it difficult to distinguish between friends and enemies, between good and bad ones.
Soldiers inside those vehicles are tense, nervous. They look around with suspicion. They know the Afghan war has its own rules. Some are not written. Among these, one states that is better to anticipate the enemy’s moves. If you are in doubt, shoot first. If then you find out it was not an enemy, it will be declassified under the accounting of collateral victims.
Under the rain, on that same day, a white Toyota “sarache” is driving. The Toyota “sarache” is a particular car, a family car, with a big van. “Sarache”, in the local language, means “little house”. The Toyota sarache is a little moving house. Inside there is a whole family. 12 people altogether. The driver is Ahmad Rahimi, a joyful man carrying his 2 daughters, Sina and Fahim, 5 and 2 years old, and his wife, Nilofar.
On Ahmad Rahimi’s right is the mother in law, respected and loved, the mother of Nilofar and Fawzia Shahim. Fawzia is sitting on the back seat, on her sister’s right. She is a no longer young woman, her face has started to fade, showing the signs of hard work. She has to look after a big family. She has a husband, Mohammad Arif Khan, a general provincial prosecutor in Farah province, and 6 daughters.
On that day her husband is not there with her, he is busy at work, but all their daughters are in the Toyota sarache. There is Hadisa, the youngest one. She is now 3, wears coloured dresses, has lively eyes and the contagious happiness of those who discover the world. On May 3, 2009 she is only 27 days old and is sitting on her mother’s knees, hugging her with love. Together with Hadisa is Tarfa, 15 years old at the time. There are Sahar, Shakila and Sheila, 10, 8 and 5 years old. And there is Benafshah, aged 13.
It is a celebration day for everybody. Having left Farah on that early morning, the family is going to Herat for the wedding of Nilofar and Fawzia’s brother. The air is thoughtless and merry.
Benafshah is the happiest and most excited of the family: she has not lived with her parents and sisters in Farah for 2 years now. She lives with her grandmother, left alone, in a village outside the city, Tawesk. She is there to help her with the housekeeping. For Benafshah, that journey is the occasion to spend some time with her family, her sisters, her uncles and her mother. The youngest ones play and sing, they fight and make jokes. Some cry, because they suffer for the long journey in the car. The elders tell stories and, after Shindand, can relax a little: the most dangerous part of the journey, where shootings are more frequent, is at their back.
But around 10.30 am, not far from Mir Daud, a few kilometerss from Herat gate, the little moving house meets the foreign armored vehicles. Foreigners, on this occasion, are Italians. “Tricolore”. A few seconds later Benafshah is dead. Shot to the head, her face wounded and completely unrecognizable. The tragedy has taken place.
Whoever lives in Afghanistan, and whoever in Afghanistan decides to take the duty of travelling around, outside the Kabul enclaves, out of the embedded or 5 star hotel journalism, knows. He knows that is impossible to be prepared for the catastrophe. It is impossible to preview, impossible to escape completely the eventuality of death, that is ‘immanent’, over here.
Still, this story appears to be different. With little Benafshah’s story the suffering is higher, the feeling of injustice is more abrasive, more painful the idea that the tragedy could be avoided, more persistent the thought that there was nothing ineluctable in her death. This is what the parents, the mother Fawzia and the father Mohammad Arif, firmly believe. After months of research and misleading information, I find them living in Farah. I reach them by land, from Herat.
On May 3, 2009, around 10.30 am, when her daughter was killed, Fawzia was sitting next to her, on her left. Hers is a direct experience. And is the first time she tells it to a journalist. Nobody ever looked for it. She lives with the family in Dasht-e-Qal’e-ye-Arbab, a ‘suburb’ of Farah city that takes its name from the nearby mountain of Qal’e-ye-Arbab. Her story is detailed and precise, interrupted only by hiccups. “We were going slowly, I was particularly careful on the road, because I was afraid of some attack from the rebels. We saw some military vehicles approaching, I think there were 2 of them, coming from the opposite direction, from Heart towards Farah. Then, suddenly, the shots”.
According to the official version of the Italian Army, the car where Benafshah was driving on did not halt at the stop, despite soldiers having adopted all the alarm procedures set in these situations. Benafshah’s killing then, is just a “fatal incident”, like former Italian Ministry of Defence Ignazio La Russa then said. “There have been no alert signs”, replies with confidence Fawzia, who continues: “the fire shots came through the front windscreen. Bullets left holes in the front window. The back car glass broke into pieces. I believe shots came from the second vehicle. The first one pass by and went after us. Maybe they fired as well, to the rear window, I am not sure”. Fawzia adds details: “Gunshots were coming from the top, right in front of us, bending from left to right. Initial shots nearly reached my mother, who was on the right seat, next to the driver. The following ones were fatal”.
When she heard the gunshots she told her brother in law to stop. It was too late, though. “I realized Hadisa, then 27 days old, was covered with blood, like me. On her body there were pieces of flesh, brain material. I was going to clean her up, but when I turned my head to the right I saw Benafshah. Half her face had blown up”. Fawzia goes on. She tells of the desperate cries, of the terrified daughters, of her mother, Zubeida, “who picks up some of Benafshah’s teeth and a piece of her cheek and she puts them in a handkerchief”. She tells of her husband despair, when he knew Benafshah was dead.
Mohammad Arif is a handsome 48 years old man who wears black mustaches with confident elegance. When I met him for the first time, last year, I was quite surprised: I was expecting a rancorous man, full of anger for his daughter’s death. Instead, I discovered a man in a compound, severe suffering.
Still now, a year after our first meeting, he seems to excuse himself for being the unintentional witness of a story that modifies the natural order of things. The order that, for a 13 years old girl, only meant dreams and utopias, illusions and lightheartedness. He is a provincial general prosecutor. In 19 years of work he has seen almost everything. He is used to dealing with thieves, impostors, traffickers and robbers. He is not corrupted, like many judges and attorneys in Afghanistan. He is not resented. He only asks for justice.
The day after his daughter’s death, while setting up the three mourning days prescribed by Islam, Mohammad Arif receives a call. It is Farah’s provincial governor, who invites him in his office to meet 2 generals. “I went to the governor on that day, I waited for a long time but the generals never showed up” he says. The day after the governor invites him again. Mohammad Arif first refuses but then the local notables, members of Farah’s Shura (council), manage to convince him. In the governor office he meets two generals: “They were top officials, I believe generals, an Afghan and an Italian one”.
The top officials pay their excuses, but do not convince him. “The Italian General told me that his soldier had not killed intentionally: fire was shot on the road not to the car. The shot that had killed my daughter had bounced on the ground, before shooting her, the Italian General said”. Mohammad Arif is deeply offended. “I replied I did not want to be fooled. That fire shot was direct, it had hit the front car glass directly. To stop a car you shoot the wheels or the engine. The Italians did not do that, they shot the windscreen. They wanted to kill, not to stop the car”, he says.
What mostly outrages Mohammad Arif and Fawzia is the Italian soldiers’ behavior after the shooting: “They did not stop, they didn’t even come down from the armored vehicles. They went on like nothing had happened, even though it was evident they had shot and they had done it against a civil car”. What kind of menace was that car, full of unarmed women and children, Mohammad Arif asks himself? And the Italian soldiers, what were they thinking on that day, once back in their bases? An ordinary day? Or did they feel the painful sensation of having killed a girl that could have been a daughter of theirs? He is looking for answers. He is trying to understand whether “killing an Afghan civilian is a crime or not”. “What happened to the person who killed my daughter?” he asked the Italian General, on that day, in the Governor’s office. He was replied that the soldier was under custody, waiting for the trial. “But later on I was not shown a picture, a judicial file, a verdict, a name, absolutely nothing. I believe it was a total mocking”.
For this reason Mohammad Arif asks to consult the judicial file on his daughter’s case. His wife instead, is simply asking Benafshah’ story to be told. The story of a 13 year old girl, killed by one or more Italian soldiers on May 3, 2009 around 10.30 am nearby Mir Daud, right outside Heart. Benafshah now lies in Qal’e-ye-Arbab cemetery, a few minutes away from the parents’ house. “We buried her here, not in our family’s cemetery in my birth village, to be able to visit her more often”, father says.
Tombstones are short and long, simple, without flowers. Benafshah’s is externally protected by some raw bricks and internally is decorated with light-coloured tiles. “Once there were 2 tombstones but local children broke one of them into pieces”. On the one that is still there Benafshah’s name is carved onto it, together with Quranic verses and with her story, the story of a distinguished school pupil, “the second best of the whole school”, the mother confirms proudly. A girl student who became a “martyr, killed by foreign soldiers’ cowardice, by ISAF Italian soldiers”. These are the exact words on the tombstone. Next to her name 2 red tulips are drawn. Fawzia explain why: “Along the journey Benafshah was a bit carsick. But when she saw a red tulips field she wanted to stop the car. She picked 2. We buried them with her. Together with all her hopes”.
Giuliano Battiston is a journalist living in Italy.