"I took some flesh home and called it my son."
The NATO airstrike that killed more than 70 civilians near Kunduz earlier this month was a deadly confluence of two primary elements that characterize the living hell of Afghanistan: relentless violence and crushing poverty.
The villagers were slaughtered while trying to siphon gasoline from two fuel tankers that the Taliban had hijacked from the occupation forces. The trucks were stranded in the ford of a shallow river. Unable to get the trucks out, the insurgents invited local villagers to come gather the fuel for themselves. The prospect of salvaging a can or two of free fuel to help them get through the coming winter drove many of the villagers out into the dead of night. At about 1 a.m, an airstrike ordered by a German commander struck the fuel tankers and the surrounding area.
The result was a firestorm that ripped the villagers to pieces and roasted their bodies beyond all recognition. But that was not the end of it, nor, perhaps, the worst of it. For then the survivors of the slain had to come to the smoking field and try to find their loved ones amidst the gruesome, ungodly residue.
The Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who has contributed some of the most remarkable reporting from the Terror War's fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, spoke to some of the survivors. Their stories speak with bleak and harrowing eloquence of the reality of the war, beyond all the pious rhetoric and strategic reviews and "serious" analysis in the imperial courts.
Below are some excerpts, but you should read the entire piece, which was the top story, blazoned across the top of the front page, in the print edition of Saturday's Guardian. Saturday editions of UK papers are generally the equivalent of Sunday editions of US paper, the big showcase edition of the week. Try to imagine a major American paper giving up such prime real estate to let the victims of the "good war" in Afghanistan tell their story in their own words.
From the Guardian:
At first light last Friday, in the Chardarah district of Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, the villagers gathered around the twisted wreckage of two fuel tankers that had been hit by a Nato airstrike. They picked their way through a heap of almost a hundred charred bodies and mangled limbs which were mixed with ash, mud and the melted plastic of jerry cans, looking for their brothers, sons and cousins. They called out their names but received no answers. By this time, everyone was dead.
What followed is one of the more macabre scenes of this or any war. The grief-stricken relatives began to argue and fight over the remains of the men and boys who a few hours earlier had greedily sought the tanker's fuel. Poor people in one of the world's poorest countries, they had been trying to hoard as much as they could for the coming winter.
"We didn't recognise any of the dead when we arrived," said Omar Khan, the turbaned village chief of Eissa Khail. "It was like a chemical bomb had gone off, everything was burned. The bodies were like this," he brought his two hands together, his fingers curling like claws. "There were like burned tree logs, like charcoal.
"The villagers were fighting over the corpses. People were saying this is my brother, this is my cousin, and no one could identify anyone."
So the elders stepped in. They collected all the bodies they could and asked the people to tell them how many relatives each family had lost.
A queue formed. One by one the bereaved gave the names of missing brothers, cousins, sons and nephews, and each in turn received their quota of corpses. It didn't matter who was who, everyone was mangled beyond recognition anyway. All that mattered was that they had a body to bury and perform prayers upon.
...Jan Mohammad, an old man with a white beard and green eyes, said angrily: "I ran, I ran to find my son because nobody would give me a lift. I couldn't find him."
He dropped his head on his palm that was resting on the table, and started banging his head against his white mottled hand. When he raised his head his eyes were red and tears were rolling down his cheek: "I couldn't find my son, so I took a piece of flesh with me home and I called it my son. I told my wife we had him, but I didn't let his children or anyone see. We buried the flesh as it if was my son."
He broke off, then shouted at the young Assadullah, who had knocked at the old man's house and told his son to come with them there was free fuel for everyone, "You destroyed my home", Assadu-llah turned his head and looked at the wall. "You destroyed my home," he shouted again. Jan Mohammad dropped his head again on his palm and rolled it left and right, his big gray turban moving like a huge pendulum, "Taouba [forgiveness]," he hissed. "People lost their fathers and sons for a little bit of fuel. Forgiveness."
Omar Khan, the village chief, was crying now and looking at the ceiling.
...Islamu-ldin, a 20-year-old from Issa khail village with tufts of hair sprouting from his cheek, took his turn to speak. He said he ran for three hours to get to the riverbed to look for his brother.
"Our village is far from the river, I searched a lot through the dead, and I found my brother. I recognized him from his clothes. But we only found his upper body, maybe someone took the legs, maybe it just burned to ashes."
Omar Khan was weeping openly now. A few other men resisted, but their eyes were as red as those of Jan Muhamad, who was babbling and shouting at the young Assadullah again and again.
.."At midnight my brother and nephew went to get fuel. I also wanted to go but I didn't have a car," said Saleh Muhamad. "At one in the morning I went to bed. When I heard the explosion I called my brother but his phone was off ... when I arrived at 3am there were dead everywhereI was searching for my brother and nephew but I couldn't find anyone.
"I had a torch with me and I could see well, but I still couldn't recognise anyone." His eyes looked straight through me as he said: "I found one body and took it home and we buried it. It was a full body, with arms and legs. We buried it well."
Further comment would be superfluous here. Omar Khan's reaction is the only proper, fully human response to the horrific reality of these monstrous operations of power, the blind, brute drive for domination.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on September 13, 2009.