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Caught Between U.S. and Taliban, a Family Dies and the Survivor Seeks Justice

This article is by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Christiaan Triebert, Fahim Abed and Jessica Purkiss.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Masih Ur-Rahman Mubarez was working in Iran when his wife called him at 4 a.m. from their home in eastern Afghanistan. American and Afghan troops were inside the house, she said. It was a raid.

It was Sept. 23, 2018, and the next time Mr. Mubarez, 39, managed to get a phone call through, her phone was off.

Between 10:30 a.m. and noon, as Mr. Mubarez waited for word from his wife and seven children in Wardak Province, American aircraft dropped a GPS-guided bomb on his house, killing them and four other members of his family, according to Mr. Mubarez and the villagers who helped pull the 12 bodies from the rubble.

The American-led military mission in Afghanistan initially denied the bombing. Three months later, it confirmed the airstrike down to the exact coordinates of Mr. Mubarez’s house in the small hamlet of Mullah Hafiz. But the American command said that they had been receiving sniper fire from the building, and that “after review, it is our assessment that only combatants were killed.”

The disparity between Mr. Mubarez’s claim — that 12 members of his family were killed — and the matter-of-fact denial from the American military are emblematic of the nearly 18-year-old war, where civilians in virtually every corner of Afghanistan have been touched by violence and death at the hands of both sides.

After interviews with Mr. Mubarez and villagers at the scene, and an analysis of footage before and after the strike, an open-source investigation by The New York Times and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism determined that civilians were killed in an airstrike that used an American-made, precision-guided bomb. In Afghanistan, only American forces use this type of weapon, The Times confirmed.

Mr. Mubarez is still searching for an explanation of why his family was killed, and for justice. When he asked the Taliban for answers, they denied the American claim that insurgent fighters had holed up in his home.

“When I went away my home was fine; when I returned it was destroyed, my children were in the grave,” Mr. Mubarez said in an interview with The Times last month. “But I will not sit silent.”

Mr. Mubarez had worked for four years as a teacher with a Swedish aid organization in his village before moving to Iran out of economic necessity, he said.

What happened that September morning in Mullah Hafiz, a Taliban-controlled village where cell towers are regularly shut down and outside communication is sporadic, is still not completely clear.

Abdul Rahman Mangal, a spokesman for the governor of Wardak Province at that time, denied that there had been any civilian deaths. Mr. Mangal told Pajhwok Afghan News that the operation had been conducted against a jail used by the Taliban, and that Taliban leadership were among the dead.

But Raz Mohammad Hemat Wazir, the district governor, said that the airstrike on Mr. Mubarez’s house killed 12 civilians, including women and children. “The airstrike was carried out by American air power during a military raid in the village,” he said.

Safiullah Rasooli, Mr. Mubarez’s cousin, who was in Mullah Hafiz at the time of the strike, said that the night before there had been a series of airstrikes before Afghan commandos and Americans came to the village. Both Mr. Rasooli and Noor Khan, a village farmer, confirmed that the troops searched houses around the Taliban prison. Some villagers were held and then released, Mr. Khan said. Three people were arrested and taken to Kabul.

Mr. Rasooli said the suspects were bound and beaten, forced to huddle in a single room overnight in a nearby house.

The next morning, with Afghan and American troops still in the village, witnesses said, the Americans bombed Mr. Mubarez’s house. Mr. Rasooli said that he looked up and saw several aircraft circling overhead.

Some villagers and Afghan government officials told Mr. Mubarez that Taliban fighters were firing at the aircraft and forces on the ground before the strike, some shooting from his house.

But both Mr. Khan and Mr. Rasooli said there was no gunfire from the village that morning. For people who live in a village under Taliban control, like Mullah Hafiz, confirming that there was gunfire would leave them open to Taliban retribution.

Bob Purtiman, a spokesman for the American forces in Afghanistan, said that American and Afghan troops had been in a gun battle with the Taliban after the small force was airlifted into the area on the night of Sept. 22.

Hours before Mr. Mubarez’s house was bombed, an American soldier had been wounded and evacuated from Mullah Hafiz village, he said, and American troops there reported they were taking “effective sniper fire” from Mr. Mubarez’s house. The Americans then requested the airstrike, Mr. Purtiman said. The American command offered no additional evidence that the Taliban had been in the house.

Mr. Mubarez, whose house is roughly 150 yards from the Taliban prison, said that the Taliban denied entering his house. A day after the strike, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, accused the Americans of killing 12 members of Mr. Mubarez’s family, all civilians.

But Taliban fighters have long used civilians as shields against American airstrikes.

Several days after the bombing, Mr. Mubarez returned to Mullah Hafiz from Iran. He found his house destroyed, his children’s bicycles twisted and mangled. On a nearby hill were the graves of his family: Amina, his wife; his four daughters, Anisa (14), Safia (12), Samina (7) and Fahima (5); his three sons, Mohammad Wiqad (10), Mohammad Ilyas (8) and Mohammad Fayaz (4); and their four teenage cousins.

“When I see my family’s grave, that moment is the most painful moment for me,’’ Mr. Mubarez said. “And when I see my ruined home, I don’t have any energy to accept it.”

A United Nations report released in April said airstrikes were the third-highest cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, killing 145 civilians and wounding 83 during the first quarter of the year, a 41 percent increase compared with the same quarter in 2018. The United States Air Force reported that American aircraft dropped 7,362 munitions in Afghanistan in 2018, almost twice as much as in 2017 and the most since the service started publicly keeping track in 2013.

Mr. Mubarez said he planned to rebuild his house, but for now he is living in Kabul. He has gone to the Afghan government, the United Nations and the Afghan Human Rights Commission looking for answers and for help.

“Whether there were Taliban or not, they have technology and modern equipment,’’ Mr. Mubarez said about the American and Afghan military forces. “They can kill the enemy, but they only destroy my home. So far neither local authorities or the defense ministry say that they will investigate and take action. They just say that there was a mistake.”

Source: NYT > World

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