By IWPR trainees in Helmand (ARR No. 252, 11-May-07)
Villagers in Helmand province are burying their dead and cursing both the Taleban and foreign forces following a bombing raid that caused numerous civilian deaths on May 8.
The death toll reported by Afghan officials stands at 21, but eyewitnesses in the village of Garmau in the north of the province say the total could be 100 or more.
"When I came to the village this morning, I thought I was dreaming," said the local police commander, his voice trembling. "Buildings were incinerated, completely destroyed. People were burned beyond recognition. In two houses alone, 30 people were killed.
"I am now in the graveyard, burying my neighbours."
The commander, who did not want his name to be used, was among a crowd of people gathered at the cemetery of Garmau, a small village in the Sarwan Qala area north of the town of Sangin.
What happened on the afternoon and evening of May 8 remains unclear - the official version of events differs markedly from eyewitness accounts. But it is certain that many civilians lost their lives when US-led coalition forces accompanying Afghan National Army troops called in an airs trike that nearly wiped Garmau off the map.
A statement released by the coalition said the incident began when Afghan army soldiers, on patrol with their advisers from the US Special Forces, engaged in a firefight with Taleban guerrillas positioned on a ridge above them.
According to testimony from villagers in Garmau, the Taleban attacked the convoy and then fled. The soldiers, whom most villagers mistakenly identified as "British", then conducted a house-to-house search, looking for the insurgents.
Garmau residents complained that the searches were aggressive and humiliating. Several said that one homeowner tried to resist the soldiers; some said he killed one or more of them. These reports have not been independently confirmed.
"At 4:30 pm on Tuesday, the Taleban fired on the British [sic] convoy, but did not kill any one," said Attaullah, a local man. "Then the soldiers launched a search of people's houses, they began to beat innocent people, and then the villagers tried to defend themselves."
According to Attaullah, one villager got a gun and fired on the soldiers. "I heard shooting and came out of my house," he said. "There was a crowd of people in front of my neighbour's door, and they said he had killed four British soldiers. We tried to go in, but more soldiers threatened us and we ran away."
The coalition confirmed one soldier dead in the firefight on the ridge, but has not reported any losses in Sarwan Qala or Garmau village.
That evening, the bombers came. When the dust had settled, Garmau was just rubble.
"At around 7:00 or 8:00 pm, the planes came and bombed the village," continued Attaullah. "They killed about 100 people and injured many more."
Estimates of casualties are often unreliable in the fighting in southern Afghanistan. In this case, the Taleban, the villagers and the governor are all citing different figures.
The coalition issued a statement late on May 10 confirming that there had been civilian casualties, but that it was unclear how many there were.
Taleban spokesman Qari Yousuf told IWPR that more than 60 people were killed and at least 100 houses were damaged in Garmau. He added that there were no casualties among the Taleban.
The villagers took the bodies of 21 people to Sangin, the district's administrative centre, to show to the authorities, and that has become the official figure.
But villagers insist many more were killed in the raid.
"Almost all the houses in our village have been flattened," said resident Gul Mohammad. "I was collecting bodies, and there were a great many of them, I think around 200. Many animals were killed as well."
Another resident told a similar story.
"This is not the first time that British convoys have gone past our village," said Yaqub. "But on Tuesday, they started beating people and shooting at them. People were injured. And then the Taleban came and attacked them."
Yaqub also confirmed the time of the air raid as between seven and eight in the evening.
"I ran out of the house with my children," he said. "I saw women and children crying and running away from their homes. They were shouting, "Down with the British! Down with the British!"
Most of the population of Helmand do not distinguish between British and American forces. This raid did not involve the British-led NATO forces in Helmand, who form part of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF. Instead, it was orchestrated by US Special Forces whose job it is to "mentor" the Afghan army.
"When we came back to our houses the next morning, they were destroyed," continued Yaqub. "Every house was full of dead and wounded, People were buried under the rubble. And we tried to rescue them."
Another villager, Gul Ahmad, gulped back sobs as he spoke of the death of a neighbour..
"In the bombing, Hajji Faizullah's house was totally destroyed," he said. "Eleven members of his family, including Hajji Faizullah himself, were killed."
The provincial governor, Assadullah Wafa, blamed the insurgents for bringing down an attack on a civilian area.
"The Taleban hide in people's houses and that is why people were killed," he told IWPR.
More and more, people in Helmand seem to be agreeing with him.
In early May, the residents of Heratyan, a village in Sangin district, rose up against the Taleban. Under the command of a tribal leader, Fazul Haq, approximately 750 villagers armed with sticks, axes, and hunting rifles chased the insurgents out of town.
"The Taleban were shooting at a NATO convoy, and the people said, 'Please leave, because if you attack then NATO will bomb us,'" said one Heratyan resident, who did not want to be named.
The Taleban threatened the villagers, he added, but they were overwhelmed by the number of locals opposing them.
IWPR has heard as yet unconfirmed reports that in another village, residents were so incensed by the Taleban's actions that they killed the insurgents' commander and chased the rest out of town.
Privately, ISAF officials have expressed frustration at the lack of hard information, as well as at the fact that in the minds of people in Helmand, the blame for the raid will rest with the British.
The incident is unlikely to help ISAF forces in their campaign to win hearts and minds in the area. Officials with the Provincial Reconstruction Team say the modest amount of reconstruction work that is now possible given the precarious security situation is not enough to outweigh the negative impact of such an air strike.
The attack will also be damaging to the authority of the central government.
After a bombing raid in Herat province left over 50 civilians dead, Afghan president Hamed Karzai issued a stern statement in early May calling the level of civilian casualties "unacceptable".
But his tough talk rings hollow in Helmand.
"This is not the first time that the foreign troops have killed innocent people," said one resident of Sangin district. "If this continues, the people of Helmand will rise up against the government."
IWPR is implementing a journalism training and reporting project in Helmand. This story is a compilation of reports by the trainees.