Families blown apart, infants dying. The terrible images of this 'just war' damage
Richard Lloyd Parry in Quetta
25 October 2001
Sami Ullah was asleep when it happened, and so his friends and neighbours had to tell him about the bomb that struck his house and what it did to him and his family. How the American planes, which had been over earlier in the evening, had returned after everyone went to bed and how, instead of the Taliban base two miles away, they dropped their bombs on a residential area of the town of Tarin Kot.
Mr Ullah's injuries are obvious enough even now – deep cuts caused by the collapsing house and the fragment of something in his belly that might be bomb shrapnel. One of his cousins was also pulled alive from the rubble but no one else was. In the 11 hours between the explosion and the moment when he finally regained consciousness, the bodies of Mr Ullah's wife, his four children, his parents, and five of his brothers and sisters had been lifted from the rubble of their home and buried.
What do you say to a stranger who tells you he has just lost every member of his immediate family? All you can decently do is ask questions.
When did it happen? On Friday night or early Saturday morning. Where? In a suburb of Tarin Kot, capital of the Afghan province of Oruzgan. And why? But Mr Ullah, who is not familiar with the phrase "collateral damage" or "just war" does not have an answer.
In the 19 days of the bombing campaign, many terrible things have been reported but the scenes at the Al-Khidmat Al-Hajeri hospital, where Mr Ullah lay last night, are the most pathetic I have seen. In one ward lay a woman named Dery Gul, about 30 years old, with her 10-year-old daughter, Najimu, and a baby named Hameed Ullah. The little girls have bruised and cut faces; the cheek of the baby is cut neatly in a T shape, as if by a knife. But to understand how lucky they were you only have to look at their mother.
Her face is half-covered with bandages, her arm wrapped in plaster. "The bomb burned her eyes," says the doctor. "The whole right side of her body is burned." The reason Ms Gul is so battered and her daughters so lightly injured, they say, is because she cradled them.
From the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the injured people were carried late on Tuesday, the town of Tarin Kot is just a dot in the middle of the map of Afghanistan, traversed by a single road, surrounded by contour lines. But even if it amounts to no more than a few thousand mud houses with a handful of administrative buildings, it is a provincial capital – an Afghan York or Norwich. Yes, the people in the hospital yesterday said, of course there were Taliban there; but, no, they were miles away from Sami Ullah, Dery Gul, the little girls and their dead relatives.
There had been bombing earlier in the evening, Sami Ullah said, and the military camp had been hit. "There were four bombs that hit the Taliban," he said, "but many more bombs fell on the houses."
While some of the villagers were pulling their neighbours out of the rubble, more bombs had fallen, and more people had been hurt – "about 10 people were injured, and 20 were killed". But the danger appeared to have passed by the time the family went to sleep. If the planes roared overhead, they did not wake them and perhaps those who died – 12 in Sami Ullah's house, eight in the home of the mother and her girls – did not even know what had happened to them.
What then went wrong? The Pentagon has already admitted this week bombing an old people's home in Herat with a simple targeting error. Two weeks ago, bombs killed dozens in the village of Karam where, according to the local people, there had once been an Osama bin Laden camp which had moved years before. Other stories like it suggest that in some cases American intelligence is simply out of date.
But there is a third possibility – that the Taliban are deliberately moving military personnel and equipment close to civilian areas, turning their oblivious inhabitants into de facto human shields.
In another hospital in Quetta yesterday, a nurse told of how nine days ago the Taliban had turned up at her family's house and ordered them to leave. "They said it was for our own safety, because there was a barracks a few hundred metres away," she said.
"But after we had left they moved Taliban soldiers in and stayed there themselves. Afterwards the bombs did fall, and my house was destroyed and the civilian people who stayed behind were hurt too."
"We heard the bombs falling often," said Mr Ullah, as I start to run out of questions, "but we didn't feel afraid because everyone said that American bombs were accurate, and that they would bomb the Talibs, but not the innocent people."
The American broadcasters have a phrase which they repeat in reporting civilian casualties in Afghanistan: "The claims cannot be independently confirmed". And, of course, there is no way to check on anything that the people at the Al-Khidmat Al-Hajeri hospital say.
But if this is all a hoax perpetrated by the Taliban, why does Mr Ullah speak of them with such disdain? And would even the Taliban mutilate a baby to win a political point? I believe that Sami Ullah and Dery Gul and her girls are what they appear – innocent victims of an increasingly cack-handed war, and that there will be many, many more of them before it is close to being over.