From the Chicago Tribune

U.S. bombs leave wasteland

Fierce attacks anger villagers, raise questions

By Paul Salopek
Tribune foreign correspondent

December 28, 2001

MADOO, Afghanistan -- Dusty mounds of rubble sit where buildings once stood.

Sad artifacts of daily life are scattered across a wasteland of crater-gouged earth--buckets, shoes, shredded clothing. And there is the bruised smell of death: a nauseating reminder that 55 farmers and their livestock lie buried in the ruins of a U.S. air strike with one of the highest civilian casualty tolls in Afghanistan.

"American soldiers came after the bombing and asked if any Al Qaeda had lived here," said villager Paira Gul, naming the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden.

"Is that an Al Qaeda?" Gul asked, pointing to a child's severed foot he had excavated minutes earlier from a smashed house.

"Tell me," he said, his voice choking with fury, "is that what an Al Qaeda looks like?"

Four weeks after U.S. planes demolished Madoo, and a week after the bombing of a suspected Al Qaeda convoy that may have been carrying tribal elders, such questions are starting to haunt the waning days of the U.S.-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and meaningful answers may be a long time coming.

The Pentagon has yet to disclose the civilian toll from its hundreds of air strikes in Afghanistan, much less offer an explanation of how or why its bombs may have gone awry in a campaign that has targeted Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in towns, mountains, farms and on highways.

Indeed, even as the war appears to be winding down, information on the accidental victims of U.S. attacks remains so sparse that media tallies range wildly from scores to thousands.

Military experts say this is to be expected in a battlefield as remote and a conflict as secretive as the anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan.

Yet for many ordinary Afghans living in the affected areas, including even some pro-American commanders, the continuing silence from Washington is beginning to smack of indifference to civilian casualties.

Fierce operation

Perhaps nowhere is that perception more angrily held than in the rugged foothills of Tora Bora, where U.S. forces unleashed their latest and most ferocious operation to kill bin Laden--apparently at any cost, villagers here say.

According to death tolls gathered from elders in four communities in the area in recent days, at least 87 farmers and anti-Taliban soldiers appear to have died in intense U.S. air strikes on Tora Bora, the cave-riddled mountain stronghold of bin Laden.

At the time of the attacks, commander Haji Muhammad Zaman, a staunch U.S. ally in the Tora Bora offensive, branded the alleged mistakes "a crime against humanity."

For its part, the Pentagon at first categorically denied the bombing reports. An unnamed Pentagon source told reporters earlier this month that the attacks "never happened." More recently, however, the U.S. military has softened that view.

"It is certainly possible that there were civilian casualties who were not Taliban and Al Qaeda that we're not aware of" in Tora Bora, said Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, the headquarters of the Afghan campaign.

"We have used precision-guided missiles to target specific military targets, to minimize civilian casualties," Thomas said. "Anytime we have information where it looks like there were civilian casualties, we have attempted to investigate that."

Villagers say that uniformed U.S. soldiers did appear at some of the bombed sites but they mainly seemed interested in the whereabouts of Al Qaeda troops.

Yet the bomb destruction visible today and interviews with survivors make it clear that U.S. planes indeed killed either civilians or friendly forces at four locations in Tora Bora between Nov. 29 and Dec. 1.

Confusion appears to have led to the deaths of 12 pro-American Afghan fighters in the village of Land Khel, local people say. Their commander made the mistake of collecting abandoned Al Qaeda trucks in his compound, which drew a swift and fatal response from patrolling U.S. jets.

The targeting of a suspected Al Qaeda member named Gulab Khan in the village Agam Bazaar instead killed 14 of his family members, including women and children, neighbors say. Khan wasn't home at the time of the attack.

Meanwhile, the bloodiest civilian toll of all may have come from a feverish American attempt to kill bin Laden and a close Afghan associate named Merajuddin.

"We believe the Americans were always a few hours behind them, dropping bombs on villages they just left," said Habib Rahman, a village elder in the Zamar Khel district, where a huge bomb fell on the house of a man named Akal Khan, killing four family members, including two women.

"The people say Osama rode a horse through that night, and the American bombs fell afterward," Rahman said. "Then he rode off toward Madoo."

True or not, this is the only story local residents have to explain the carnage at Madoo.

Volleys of missiles

In four waves beginning in the predawn hours of Dec. 1, U.S. jets launched volleys of missiles and dropped guided bombs that obliterated the entire hamlet of 15 houses.

Twenty-five days later, three ragged men--the only male survivors of the attack--were still picking through the debris, searching for the body parts of their families.

"I swear to almighty Allah that we are not Al Qaeda or Taliban, we are farmers," said Abdul Hadi, whose wrinkled face and unkempt beard were covered with dust from digging. "We do not know why this happened to us. Only Allah knows."

Then Hadi carefully bundled up a hand from his nephew Khalid's home, where seven of his relatives died, and took it into the rocky hills for burial.

Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune

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