The Return to Afghanistan

President George Bush’s “war on terror” reached the desert village of Hajibirgit at midnight on 22 May. Haji Birgit Khan, the bearded, 85-year-old Pushtu village leader and head of 12,000 local tribal families, was lying on a patch of grass outside his home. Faqir Mohamed was sleeping among his sheep and goats in a patch of sand to the south when he heard “big planes moving in the sky”. Even at night, it is so hot that many villagers spend the hours of darkness outside their homes, although Mohamedin and his family were in their mud-walled house. There were 105 families in Hajibirgit on 22 May, and all were woken by the thunder of helicopter engines and the thwack of rotor blades and the screaming voices of the Americans.

Haji Birgit Khan was seen running stiffly from his little lawn towards the white-walled village mosque, a rectangular cement building with a single loudspeaker and a few threadbare carpets. Several armed men were seen running after him. Hakim, one of the animal herders, saw the men from the helicopters chase the old man into the mosque and heard a burst of gunfire. “When our people found him, he had been killed with a bullet, in the head,” he says, pointing downwards. There is a single bullet hole in the concrete floor of the mosque and a dried bloodstain beside it. “We found bits of his brain on the wall.”

Across the village, sharp explosions were detonating in the courtyards and doorways of the little homes. “The Americans were throwing stun grenades at us and smoke grenades,” Mohamedin recalls. “They were throwing dozens of them at us and they were shouting and screaming all the time. We didn’t understand their language, but there were Afghan gunmen with them, too, Afghans with blackened faces. Several began to tie up our women–our own women–and the Americans were lifting their burqas, their covering, to look at their faces. That’s when the little girl was seen running away.” Abdul Satar says that she was three years old, that she ran shrieking in fear from her home, that her name was Zarguna, the daughter of a man called Abdul-Shakour–many Afghans have only one name–and that someone saw her topple into the village’s 60ft well on the other side of the mosque. During the night, she was to drown there, alone, her back apparently broken by the fall. Other village children would find her body in the morning. The Americans paid no attention. From the description of their clothes given by the villagers, they appeared to include Special Forces and also units of Afghan Special Forces, the brutish and ill-disciplined units run from Kabul’s former Khad secret police headquarters. There were also 150 soldiers from the US 101st Airborne, whose home base is at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. But Fort Campbell is a long way from Hajibirgit, which is 50 miles into the desert from the south-western city of Kandahar. And the Americans were obsessed with one idea: that the village contained leaders from the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida movement.

A former member of a Special Forces unit from one of America’s coalition partners supplied his own explanation for the American behaviour when I met him a few days later. “When we go into a village and see a farmer with a beard, we see an Afghan farmer with a beard,” he said. “When the Americans go into a village and see a farmer with a beard, they see Osama bin Laden.”

All the women and children were ordered to gather at one end of Hajibirgit. “They were pushing us and shoving us out of our homes,” Mohamedin says. “Some of the Afghan gunmen were shouting abuse at us. All the while, they were throwing grenades at our homes.” The few villagers who managed to run away collected the stun grenades next day with the help of children. There are dozens of them, small cylindrical green pots with names and codes stamped on the side. One says “7 BANG Delay: 1.5 secs NIC-01/06-07”, another “1 BANG, 170 dB Delay: 1.5s.” Another cylinder is marked: “DELAY Verzagerung ca. 1,5s.” These were the grenades that terrified Zarguna and ultimately caused her death. A regular part of US Special Forces equipment, they are manufactured in Germany by the Hamburg firm of Nico-Pyrotechnik–hence the “NIC” on several of the cylinders. “dB” stands for decibels.

Several date stamps show that the grenades were made as recently as last March. The German company refers to them officially as “40mm by 46mm sound and flash (stun) cartridges”. But the Americans were also firing bullets. Several peppered a wrecked car in which another villager, a taxi driver called Abdullah, had been sleeping. He was badly wounded. So was Haji Birgit Khan’s son.

A US military spokesman would claim later that US soldiers had “come under fire” in the village and had killed one man and wounded two “suspected Taliban or al-Qa’ida members”. The implication–that 85-year-old Haji Birgit Khan was the gunman–is clearly preposterous.

The two wounded were presumably Khan’s son and Abdullah, the taxi driver. The US claim that they were Taliban or al-Qa’ida members was a palpable lie–since both of them were subsequently released. “Some of the Afghans whom the Americans brought with them were shouting ‘Shut up!’ to the children who were crying,” Faqir Mohamed remembers.

“They made us lie down and put cuffs on our wrists, sort of plastic cuffs. The more we pulled on them, the tighter they got and the more they hurt. Then they blindfolded us. Then they started pushing us towards the planes, punching us as we tried to walk.”

In all, the Americans herded 55 of the village men, blindfolded and with their hands tied, on to their helicopters. Mohamedin was among them. So was Abdul-Shakour, still unaware that his daughter was dying in the well. The 56th Afghan prisoner to be loaded on to a helicopter was already dead: the Americans had decided to take the body of 85-year-old Haji Birgit Khan with them.

When the helicopters landed at Kandahar airport– headquarters to the 101st Airborne–the villagers were, by their own accounts, herded together into a container. Their legs were tied and then their handcuffs and the manacle of one leg of each prisoner were separately attached to stakes driven into the floor of the container. Thick sacks were put over their heads. Abdul Satar was among the first to be taken from this hot little prison. “Two Americans walked in and tore my clothes off,” he said. “If the clothes would not tear, they cut them off with scissors. They took me out naked to have my beard shaved and to have my photograph taken. Why did they shave off my beard? I had my beard all my life.”

Mohamedin was led naked from his own beard-shaving into an interrogation tent, where his blindfold was removed. “There was an Afghan translator, a Pushtun man with a Kandahar accent in the room, along with American soldiers, both men and women soldiers,” he says. “I was standing there naked in front of them with my hands tied. Some of them were standing, some were sitting at desks. They asked me: ‘What do you do?’ I told them: ‘I am a shepherd–why don’t you ask your soldiers what I was doing?’ They said: ‘Tell us yourself.’ Then they asked: ‘What kind of weapons have you used?’ I told them I hadn’t used any weapon.

“One of them asked: ‘Did you use a weapon during the Russian [occupation] period, the civil war period or the Taliban period?’ I told them that for a lot of the time I was a refugee.” From the villagers’ testimony, it is impossible to identify which American units were engaged in the interrogations. Some US soldiers were wearing berets with yellow or brown badges, others were in civilian clothes but apparently wearing bush hats. The Afghan interpreter was dressed in his traditional salwah khameez. Hakim underwent a slightly longer period of questioning; like Mohamedin, he says he was naked before his interrogators.

“They wanted my age and my job. I said I was 60, that I was a farmer. They asked: ‘Are there any Arabs or Talibans or Iranians or foreigners in your village?’ I said ‘No.’ They asked: ‘How many rooms are there in your house, and do you have a satellite phone?’ I told them: ‘I don’t have a phone. I don’t even have electricity.’ They asked: ‘Were the Taliban good or bad?’ I replied that the Taliban never came to our village so I had no information about them. Then they asked: ‘What about Americans? What kind of people are Americans?’ I replied: ‘We heard that they liberated us with [President Hamid] Karzai and helped us–but we don’t know our crime that we should be treated like this.’ What was I supposed to say?”

A few hours later, the villagers of Hajibirgit were issued with bright-yellow clothes and taken to a series of wire cages laid out over the sand of the airbase–a miniature version of Guantanamo Bay–where they were given bread, biscuits, rice, beans and bottled water. The younger boys were kept in separate cages from the older men. There was no more questioning, but they were held in the cages for another five days. All the while, the Americans were trying to discover the identity of the 85-year-old man. They did not ask their prisoners–who could have identified him at once–although the US interrogators may not have wished them to know that he was dead. In the end, the Americans gave a photograph of the face of the corpse to the International Red Cross. The organisation was immediately told by Kandahar officials that the elderly man was perhaps the most important tribal leader west of the city.

“When we were eventually taken out of the cages, there were five American advisers waiting to talk to us,” Mohamedin says. “They used an interpreter and told us they wanted us to accept their apologies for being mistreated. They said they were sorry. What could we say? We were prisoners. One of the advisers said: ‘We will help you.’ What does that mean?” A fleet of US helicopters flew the 55 men to the Kandahar football stadium–once the scene of Taliban executions–where all were freed, still dressed in prison clothes and each with a plastic ID bracelet round the wrist bearing a number. “Ident-A-Band Bracelet made by Hollister” was written on each one. Only then did the men learn that old Haji Birgit Khan had been killed during the raid a week earlier. And only then did Abdul-Shakour learn that his daughter Zarguna was dead.

The Pentagon initially said that it found it “difficult to believe” that the village women had their hands tied. But given identical descriptions of the treatment of Afghan women after the US bombing of the Uruzgan wedding party, which followed the Hajibirgit raid, it seems that the Americans–or their Afghan allies–did just that. A US military spokesman claimed that American forces had found “items of intelligence value”, weapons and a large amount of cash in the village. What the “items” were was never clarified. The guns were almost certainly for personal protection against robbers. The cash remains a sore point for the villagers. Abdul Satar said that he had 10,000 Pakistani rupees taken from him–about $200 (lbs130). Hakim says he lost his savings of 150,000 rupees–$3,000 (lbs1,900). “When they freed us, the Americans gave us 2,000 rupees each,” Mohamedin says. “That’s just $40 [lbs25]. We’d like the rest of our money.”

But there was a far greater tragedy to confront the men when they reached Hajibirgit. In their absence–without guns to defend the homes, and with the village elder dead and many of the menfolk prisoners of the Americans–thieves had descended on Hajibirgit. A group of men from Helmand province, whose leader is Abdul Rahman Khan–once a brutal and rapacious “mujahid” fighter against the Russians, and now a Karzai government police commander–raided the village once the Americans had taken away so many of the men. Ninety-five of the 105 families had fled into the hills, leaving their mud homes to be pillaged.

The disturbing, frightful questions that creep into the mind of anyone driving across the desert to Hajibirgit today are obvious. Who told the US to raid the village? Who told them that the Taliban leadership and the al-Qa’ida leadership were there? Was it, perhaps, Abdul Rahman Khan, the cruel police chief whose men were so quick to pillage the mud-walled homes once the raid was over? For today, Hajibirgit is a virtual ghost town, its village leader dead, most of its houses abandoned. The US raid was worthless. There are scarcely 40 villagers left. They all gathered at the stone grave of Zarguna some days later, to pay their respects to the memory of the little girl. “We are poor people–what can we do?” Mohamedin asked me. I had no reply. President Bush’s “war on terror”, his struggle of “good against evil” descended on the innocent village of Hajibirgit.

And now Hajibirgit is dead.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.