The burn ward at Herat regional hospital is the best public facility of its kind in Afghanistan. It was opened with American aid money to handle the influx of women setting themselves on fire to escape domestic abuse, a countrywide phenomenon most acute in the hardscrabble villages of the western plains. The first time I visited the hospital, in the spring of 2007, a dozen teenage girls were crowded into a dank hallway of the former building. Some were covered with third-degree burns, wrapped mummylike in gauze dressings, still breathing but condemned to die. Two years later, their desperate stories were overshadowed by the grim reason for my return visit. On May 4, 2009, the American bombardment of two villages in a Taliban-controlled area of Farah Province, about 170 miles to the south of Herat, had yielded heavy civilian casualties. Word soon reached me back in Kabul that several victims had been transported by the International Committee of the Red Cross to Herat for emergency treatment.
Details of the incident were vague and conflicting, the clash of narratives disturbingly familiar. Fighting in Bala Baluk District apparently broke out in the morning when hundreds of Taliban militants ambushed police, taking over a fortress near the hamlet of Granai and high ground in an adjoining village. Even with the arrival of reinforcements from a neighboring district, police said they were taking casualties. They called for Afghan army troops, who were quickly pinned down. US Marines based in Farah were summoned and they too required backup, this time from Special Forces operatives. Unlike most encounters in Afghanistan, in which insurgents attack and withdraw, the Taliban were pushing the engagement and, as fierce gun battles and RPG exchanges surged into the night, maintained the initiative.
At some point, air support was requested. Afghan officials later claimed that 140 people, mostly children, died in the ensuing attack, with some residents adamant the Taliban was long gone by the time the bombs struck. If confirmed, this amounted to the deadliest single incident against civilians in nearly eight years of war, at a critical juncture for the US-led mission. The US military countered that the Afghans' claims were exaggerated, that most of those killed in the operation were Taliban militants attempting to take the area by force. Surgical air strikes hit only the houses that militants were firing from, it added; any civilian casualties must have been caused by Taliban grenades exploded among the locals in a cynical bid to frame coalition forces. No alternative death count was issued.
A nurse at the spotless new ward instructed me to put plastic coverings over my boots and wait in an anteroom. Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head doctor, was still dressed in scrubs as he finished a half day's worth of interviews with Afghan journalists. When my turn finally came, he greeted me with a weak grip, and wearily asked if we could pause for a few moments. He sat his lean frame down and lit a cigarette, not seeming to care that we were in a sterilized area. "My patients are my first priority," he exhaled, "and I'm not getting enough time with them now because of this [media attention]."
I offered to come back later, when the patients were rested, but Dr. Jalali shook his head. He stepped out to check with the victims' parents and then motioned me inside. A laminated sign on the door read Infected Acute: Men. Inside, the room reeked of antiseptic. Haji Sayed Barakat and Sayed Malham held vigil over what remained of their families. Barakat had lost two children and his wife in the attack; Malham, a daughter.
Barakat, a sturdily built farmer in his midfifties with deep creases in his forehead, said he had been staying with relatives while his wife and daughters visited his mother-in-law in Granai, where the brunt of the bombing took place. Although he recalled hearing sporadic gunfire earlier in the day, he said no Taliban had passed through the area for at least two hours before the air strikes. At around 8 P.M., warplanes screeched overhead, followed by a series of concussions that made the ground tremble. The planes passed a second time, then a third. He ran toward the village in the pitch-darkness and found a crowd of people picking through blood-flecked rubble where a seven-room compound had stood. Some torn limbs were spotted in a tree. "It was total destruction," he said.
Hand over fist, he dug by the flickering light of a hurricane lamp. Moans from below drove him on. It took more than two hours until he found his family, his wife identifiable by the torn shreds of a yellow scarf and his children's bodies huddled around her. "How could the Americans, with all their technology, kill so many of the wrong people?" he asked in a voice more confused than angry. There is a common belief among rural Afghans that air strikes are precise to within four inches of their target. Barakat gestured toward his three wounded daughters: Tillah, twelve; Nuria, seven; and Fereshta, five. "My girls, do they look like Taliban?"
Malham stood to the side, cupping his daughter Nozou's hand. Like thousands of Afghans seeking a better livelihood, he worked in Iran for months at a time, driving a truck to make a living, and did not learn of the attack until two days later; the news made him faint. He said the Taliban imposed a kind of shadow government in Bala Baluk, demanding money in exchange for "protection" he'd never asked for. His area had been trouble-free until a couple of years before, when the militants started coming from neighboring provinces where they faced greater pressure. Police in Farah were outnumbered by as much as three to one. The shift had attracted Afghan army units with American trainers to hunt them down. Militants would reappear as soon as security forces moved on. Malham blames the Taliban for the bombs dropped on his village. "If they didn't bother us, there would be no bombs, no deaths," he said, lowering his voice. "My daughter would still be outside."
Her bangs and eyebrows singed away by the explosions, nine-year-old Nozou now could pass for a boy. The other children, faded from morphine, were numbed to my presence and to the flies that landed on them. Nozou kept her large brown eyes fixed on me. "There was war all around," she said. It was nighttime and Taliban were outside in the streets firing their guns and shouting. "After some time the airplanes came and they bombed us two times. My mother said we should go to another place because they are bombing here. We went to another house. I was very tired and tried to sleep. Then I heard a very loud noise that went draaam and the house crashed down on us."
She pointed to the raw skin on her face.
"I was hurt," she said.