What Happens When International Forces Kill Civilians in Afghanistan?
‘I can’t bring them to court,’ one survivor said
At around midnight on Sept. 16, 2012, a large group of women from several neighboring villages in Laghman province, Afghanistan, set out to collect firewood in the nearby mountains.
In the early hours of the morning, U.S. planes dropped bombs on them. What happened next is an example of what often happens when international forces kill civilians in Afghanistan.
The women were walking together in small clusters of three or four when the attack began. “We heard the planes, then a big explosion, as a bomb fell on the first group who were half a kilometer ahead of us,” said Aqel Bibi, a 17-year-old girl who was walking with a few others.
“The noise was deafening in the mountain, and we fled,” Bibi continued. “The plane came a second time and dropped another bomb, and we kept running toward the mountain to find a cave where we could hide. As we were running, the plane came again, and this time it hit us.”
Bomb shrapnel struck Aqel, blinding her in one eye. The three women walking with her died on the spot.
Mitalam Bibi, age 16, also was badly injured. “I was walking with my two sisters,” she recounted. “Three other girls were a short distance away from us, maybe 25 meters. They were hit by the first bomb.”
“We saw the bomb hit them and heard them screaming,” said Mitalam, pictured above in a photo taken by the author. “Two of the girls were killed and the third was badly injured. She shouted, ‘Help me, I’m dying.’ We ran away because we were terrified, looking for a hole or another place to hide, and the second bomb hit us. There were a couple of minutes between the two bombs.”
“The second bomb killed my two sisters and the girl who had been injured, and also badly injured me,” Mitalam continued. “Blood was flowing out of my ears. I could feel the mountain shaking. I couldn’t hear the bombing but I could feel it.”
Villagers had heard the attack from their villages, and came to help. “Nearly the whole village came,” the husband of one of the dead women recalled. Some of the villagers reached the site just as the sun was beginning to rise.
In all, seven women and girls were killed in the bombing, and another seven were injured, four of them seriously.
The blast blew out Mitalam’s eardrums and she lost sight in her right eye. “At first the doctors thought she had lost her eyes,” her father said. “Her face was totally black and burned.”
A spokesman for international forces in Afghanistan initially told the media that air strikes targeted a group of 45 insurgents. Air controllers called in the jets “after positively identifying hostile intent,” the spokesman said, adding that the raid killed “a large number of the insurgents.”
Upset that the casualties were being called insurgents rather than the civilians that they actually were, villagers responded by bringing proof of the women’s deaths to the provincial capital.
“We were outraged and we took the bodies to the governor’s office to show that NATO actually hit women, not insurgents,” said Mullah Bashir, whose daughter had died in the bombing.
The villagers held a demonstration in the town. “We asked for the trial of those responsible,” Bashir said.
In the face of press inquiries, NATO responded quickly with a public apology. On Sept. 16, the day of the attack, the alliance issued a press release extending its “deepest regrets and sympathies to the families and loved ones of civilians who died or were injured during coalition airstrikes.”
The press release stated that NATO could confirm “that a number of Afghan civilians were unintentionally killed or injured during this mission which was undertaken solely with the intent of countering known insurgents.”
The following day, NATO issued another press release stating that it had already begun investigating the attack. “Coalition forces take civilian casualties seriously,” the release advised, “and will conduct a complete assessment of the incident.”
According to the U.N., both NATO and the U.S. government carried out extensive investigations of the attack. But officials never publicly released the results of the investigations, leaving the families of the victims unaware of whether the strikes had been found to be legal.