President George Bush’s “war on terror” reached the desert village of Hajibirgit at midnight on 22 May.
In all, the Americans herded 55 of the village men, blindfolded and with their hands tied, on to their helicopters. In their absence a group of men from Helmand province raided the village. Who told them that the Taliban leadership and the al-Qa’ida leadership were there? For today, Hajibirgit is a virtual ghost town, its village leader dead, most of its houses abandoned.
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”.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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. 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.
A fleet of US helicopters flew the 55 men to the Kandahar football stadium — once the scene of Taliban executions — where all were freed. 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.
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.
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.
Author: Robert Fisk
News Service: The Independent