Did US Troops Commit War Crimes in Afghanistan?
July 19, 2002
On July 1,2002, a wedding celebration in a village near Kandahar, Afghanistan was blown apart by shells from a US AC-130 gunship. Some 48 villagers were killed and more than a hundred were injured. It took a week before the Pentagon would admit that US planes had killed civilians. The US has yet to issue an official apology.
A mass grave is uncovered in Afghanistan. © 2002 Physicians for Human Rights.
"We were all so happy and clapping. Then the bombs came," a teenage girl told a Washington Post reporter from her hospital bed. Other survivors reported seeing family members blown to pieces and of a group of children sleeping atop a roof killed instantly by the bombs.
At first, the Pentagon suggested that a single "errant" bomb from a B-52 had inexplicably gone astray. This explanation was dismissed by survivors who insisted that the attack lasted for two hours. It turned out that the carnage was not done by a B-52 but by a propeller-driven Lockheed AC-130.
The 70-ton, $46.4 million AC-130 is a flying battleship. Equipped with two Vulcan cannon, a 105-mm howitzer, a 40-mm Bofors cannon (that can fire 100 shots per minute) and a 22-mm GAU-12 Gatling gun (1,800 rounds-per-minute), the AC-130 easily qualifies as a "weapon of mass destruction."
This was not the first time the Pentagon's sophisticated satellite-linked, laser-guided technology wound up murdering wedding guests in Afghanistan. As Spiked-online.com notes, US bombs rained down on a wedding party in Qalai Niazi village in eastern Afghanistan on December 29, 2001. The United Nations reported that 62 civilians were killed. Other reports said as many as 107 had died.
In May 2002, US planes opened fire on another group of civilians, killing 11. The London Guardian reported (with eerie foreshadowing) that the victims "belonged to a wedding party, whose traditional AK-47 firing celebrations had been mistaken for offensive fire."
Author William Blum (Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower) recalls that, after the attack on the wedding party in May, the Pentagon issued the following statement: "Reports that we fired on a wedding are absolutely wrong. There was no one in a white dress."
In the "fog of war" there will always be accidents. As appalling as the attack on the wedding party was, however, it would not have qualified as a "war crime." It would not have called for action under the new International Criminal Court. [See "Hoots and Hollers."]
The incidents at Mazar-I-Sharif and Sherberghan, however, were another matter.
The Massacre at Mazar
On June 12, former BBC documentary filmmaker Jamie Doran screened 20 minutes of his film "Massacre at Mazar" for members of the European parliament at the Reichstag in Germany. The film investigates the fate of thousands of Taliban prisoners who surrendered after the fall of Kunduz on November 21, 2002. Eyewitnesses interviewed in Doran's film claim that thousands of prisoners were tortured and murdered and - with US complicity - buried in mass graves.
After viewing Doran's evidence, Andrew McEntee, a human rights lawyer and former head of Britain's Amnesty International, demanded a full investigation, claiming that Doran's film provides clear "prima facia evidence of serious war crimes committed not just under international law, but also under the laws of the United States itself."
Only 470 of the 8,000 men who surrendered after the fall of Kunduz were suspected of being Al-Qaida members. They were moved to Qala Jangi, the site of the prison revolt that lead to the death of CIA agent Johhny Spann and the arrest of American Taliban John Walker. (Doran filmed the bodies of prisoners following the Qala-I-Jangi prison uprising. Many appeared to have been shot with their hands tied behind their backs.)
The remaining 7,500 men were transported to Sherberghan prison in crowded metal shipping containers. As many as 300 men were jammed into each container. Five thousand of these prisoners, however, never made it to Sherberghan.
As the truck convoy rumbled toward Sherberghan under a blazing sun, Doran's witnesses related, "the Taliban were suffocating." When they "cried out for air," Northern Alliance soldiers responded by firing into the containers. Two Northern Alliance soldiers related how they had been ordered to fire into the metal containers, killing the screaming captives inside.
Two truck drivers testified that a US officer had ordered them to take the containers filled with bloodied bodies into the desert. They drove to Dasht-I-Leli and were surprised when some of the men pulled from the containers emerged alive. According to the truckers, the survivors were then lined up and machine-gunned by the Northern Alliance. The bodies were buried in a mass grave. Andrew McLeod, the foreign editor of The Scotsman reported the eyewitnesses' testimony that these prisoners were executed "while 30 to 40 US soldiers stood by watching."
According to eyewitnesses, some of the prisoners who actually made it to Sherberghan prison were tortured by US special forces. "These were fairly isolated instances," Doran stated. "They included the breaking of necks, the cutting of tongues, the cutting of beards - a great insult in the Islamic faith - and the cutting of fingers." An eyewitness claimed that one soldier had poured acid on a prisoner. "The Americans did whatever they wanted. We had no power to stop them," a witness told Doran's camera crew.
Doran went public with portions of his uncompleted film because he feared a cover-up. "I took the footage to the European parliament because... I have a great fear that the graves may be tampered with," Doran told The Scotsman.
Outrage in Europe: Silence in the US
Physicians for Human Rights has documented the existence of several mass-graves. PHR has called on Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to assure that these sites remain undisturbed. "The examination of bodies and dignified burial of remains will contribute to the truth and accountability process, which is essential for future peace and stability in Afghanistan," PHR states.
Doran's disclosures were widely reported in Le Monde, Suddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt, The Guardian and other European papers. The resulting storm of outrage compelled the Pentagon and the State Department to issue denials that its troops had tortured or killed prisoners of war.
In late June, TomPaine.com took notice of Doran's film but neither The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune nor any other mainstream US media have mentioned the film, its content or its impact abroad.
Despite the furor in the European press, the details of the Mazar Massacre and the discovery of the existence of mass graves have received scant mention in the US media. The New York Times ran a few paragraphs (hidden in a story about Iran!). A reporter in Islamabad offered Newsweek a 1,500-word article. Newsweek cut the report to a 150-word newsbrief.
Only the Los Angeles Times (September 18) and the Washington Post (November 30) reported on the mass killings. The Post even followed up with an editorial that was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune.
Salon.com deserves credit for posting Michelle Goldberg's report on Doran's disclosures (June 16). In a related story on the World Socialist Web [www.wsws.org], reporter Kate Randall suggested that "the refusal of the press to report on the charges of US complicity in the torture and mass killings in Afghanistan... makes it complicit in what are horrific war crimes."
In Kandahar, former MSNBC documentary producer Halima Kazem interviewed several of the survivors of the wedding party massacre for EurasiaNet [www.eurasianet.org/]
The cannon-armed AC-130 meets the definition of a weapon of mass
destruction. Photo credit: US Air Force
"Why do they use bombs," a man named Sahibad asked Kazem. Sahibad had watched his two infant children die in the bomb blasts that shredded his home. "It is such an inaccurate way of getting the enemy. One slip of the hand and you could kill hundreds or thousands of people."
Eight-year-old Ameena told Kazem that a US bomb destroyed her home in 2001. "In one second, I lost my mother, my six siblings, my cousins and my auntie.... I just wish I could play with my brothers and sisters like I used to," Ameena told Kazen. "I hate whoever did this to me."
When Kazen asked if Ameena would like to go to America some day, the little girl replied angrily, "No, I don't like America."
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