Monday, June 22, 2009

Bombs and sugar water

Nuria, 7, rests in the burn unit of Herat Regional Hospital on May 10.

She was taking shelter with her mother and two sisters in a housing compound on May 4th, when U.S. forces used air strikes to quell a day-long battle against the Taliban in the village of Garani, Farah province, Afghanistan. Nuria's mother died during the bombardment, and her sisters were both badly burned.

NPR's Soraya Nelson, Los Angeles Times' Laura King and I traveled to west Afghanistan to report on the incident, which had the potential to be the largest civilian casualty occurrence since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Please listen to Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson's report for National Public Radio here and read Laura King's LA Times story here. This was an extremely complicated, nuanced story that they worked on for a full week, reconstructing and comparing events through countless interviews. They both did an amazing job, in my opinion.

We started in northwest Afghanistan at Herat Regional Hospital's burn unit, where we found five survivors: one woman and four young girls.

Nurse Marie-Jose Brunel tries to help 12-year-old Tallah Barakat straighten her legs in the hospital's burn unit. In addition to her burns, Tallah also had a compound fracture of her leg.

Naeem Barakat, 13, supports his sister Tallah while she takes a drink of water.

Barakat prays next to the bed of his youngest daughter, 5-year-old Fereshte. His wife, the mother of Fereshte, Nuria, Tallah and Naeem, was killed.

Tallah is soothed by her father.

From Herat, we flew south to Farah City, an hour's drive from Garani. However, this police checkpoint just outside of the provincial capital was as close as we were able to get to the village. A secured ring surrounds Farah City. Outside the last checkpoint, danger for Afghans and foreigners alike is very real. A 10-km stretch of the highway to Garani passes through an area occupied by hundreds of Taliban, according to Garani tribal elders, Afghan police and international coalition forces. As a result, neither the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission nor the United Nations, nor we journalists were able to view and investigate the area first-hand in the days following the incident.

We may have been alright getting to the bombed area--it's getting back out that probably would have been a problem.

The day after we arrived in Farah City, the Afghan government held a reparations ceremony for families of the civilian victims. This was another chance to talk to villagers who witnessed the events on May 4th and their aftermath. Above, a Garani resident weeps during an opening prayer for the victims.

According to residents of Garani, the first U.S. strikes came long after the Taliban had fled the village, perhaps as long as 90 minutes. The first bomb hit a mosque, and villagers, many of them children, took cover in two housing compounds. Bombs hit both compounds, killing as many as 140 civilians. The U.S. military has stated the civilian death count as low as 20-30, but recently admitted mistakes in the incident: "U.S. Report Finds Errors in Afghan Airstrikes," New York Times, June 2, 2009.

A resident of Garani meets with Afghan government officials during the reparations ceremony in Farah City.

Family members were paid $2,000 for each death, for a grand total of $180,000.

Each recipient was recorded and fingerprinted so that reparations couldn't be claimed twice.

Brothers Humayun, left, and Yassin accept money for their dead family members from Farah province governor Rahoul Amin. The brothers came to collect for their deceased parents and nine siblings, but only nine family members were on the Afghan government's list of dead civilians from the village of Garani.

I can't really imagine losing my entire family and my house just like that.

Mohammad Ayub's son Dawajan, 1, plays peek-a-boo in his father's clothing while they wait for the reparations ceremony to begin. Ayub's wife and 2-year-old son were missing and presumed dead.

While we interviewed and photographed the farmer, a pall of hopelessness fell on his features. He asked if one of us would take Dawajan, as the baby was still nursing when his mother died, and Ayub didn't know how he would be able to care for him. His livestock had been destroyed along with his house. He had no money for milk.

Dawajan's diet had become the only thing his father had left: a bit of sugar mixed with water.


FWickeham said...

Excellent reporting! Thanx again for your courage and tenacity. $2,000 US plus the price of bombs is what an Afghan life is now worth.
Be careful out there.

Taryn A. Hecker Photography said...

Good job, Holly. So sad. I can't even imagine.

Hope all is well.

enbref said...

Du tres grand reportage. bravo pour ce travail. quel terrible sujet. merci de ne pas les oublier