By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Kunduz
September 11 2009
Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
At first light last Friday, in the Chardarah district of Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, the villagers gathered around the twisted wreckage of two fuel tankers that had been hit by a Nato airstrike. They picked their way through a heap of almost a hundred charred bodies and mangled limbs which were mixed with ash, mud and the melted plastic of jerry cans, looking for their brothers, sons and cousins. They called out their names but received no answers. By this time, everyone was dead.
What followed is one of the more macabre scenes of this or any war. The grief-stricken relatives began to argue and fight over the remains of the men and boys who a few hours earlier had greedily sought the tanker’s fuel. Poor people in one of the world’s poorest countries, they had been trying to hoard as much as they could for the coming winter.
“We didn’t recognise any of the dead when we arrived,” said Omar Khan, the turbaned village chief of Eissa Khail. “It was like a chemical bomb had gone off, everything was burned. The bodies were like this,” he brought his two hands together, his fingers curling like claws. “There were like burned tree logs, like charcoal.
“The villagers were fighting over the corpses. People were saying this is my brother, this is my cousin, and no one could identify anyone.”
So the elders stepped in. They collected all the bodies they could and asked the people to tell them how many relatives each family had lost.
A queue formed. One by one the bereaved gave the names of missing brothers, cousins, sons and nephews, and each in turn received their quota of corpses. It didn’t matter who was who, everyone was mangled beyond recognition anyway. All that mattered was that they had a body to bury and perform prayers upon.
“A man comes and says, ‘I lost my brother and cousin’, so we gave him two bodies,” said Omar Khan. “Another says I lost five relatives, so we gave him five bodies to take home and bury. When we had run out of bodies we started giving them limbs, legs, arms, torsos.” In the end only five families went away without anything. “Their sons are still missing.”
Omar Khan’s small eyes narrowed and his mouth formed a disgusted circle. “The smell was so bad. For three days I smelled of burned meat and fuel.”
Omar Khan was one of 11 villagers the Guardian interviewed about the airstrike. We arrived in the region early this week with the intention of visiting the site of the attack, but the kidnapping of a New York Times journalist and the firefight that preceded his rescue, leaving four people dead, meant the journey there was too difficult. Instead the villagers came into the city to tell us their stories.
We sat around a table in the basement of a hotel, and one by one their accounts of the airstrike – which killed 70-100 people, making it one of the most devastating of the war – spilled out. The villagers said the Taliban had hijacked the fuel tankers at 7pm on Thursday evening and driven them off the main road to Kabul, through Ali Abad district, into their stronghold of Chardarah, to the south-west of Kunduz.
To reach Chardarah they had to ford a shallow river to avoid a bridge garrisoned by the Afghan army. But when they drove the trucks into the water they became stuck, so the Taliban summoned the people in the nearby villages to help.
Jamaludin, a 45-year-old farmer, had been praying in the mosque when he heard the sound of a tractor. “I went home and found that three of my brothers and my nephew had left with my tractor,” he said. “I called my brother to ask him where they had gone. He said the Taliban had asked him to bring the tractor and help them pull a tanker.” Jamaluddin was alarmed. “I asked him what tanker? It wasn’t our business, let the Taliban bring their own tractors. I called him back an hour later. He said they couldn’t get the trucks out and the Taiban wouldn’t let him leave, so I went back to sleep.”
Realising the tankers were stuck, the Taliban decided to siphon off the fuel and asked people to come and help themselves to the ghanima, the spoils of war. There would be free fuel for everyone.
Assadullah, a thin 19-year-old with a wisp of black hair falling on his forehead, got a call from a friend who said the Taliban were distributing free fuel.
“I took two fuel cans with me, I called my brother and a friend and we went. There was a full moon and we could see very clearly. There were a lot of people already there. They were pushing and shoving, trying to reach the tap to fill their jerry cans. We are poor people, and we all wanted to get some fuel for the winter.
“I filled my cans and moved away while my brother was pushing to fill his. I walked for a hundred, maybe two hundred metres.”
It was about 1am on Friday that the aircraft attacked and incinerated the stolen fuel tankers. “There was a big light in the sky and then an explosion,” Assadullah said. “I fell on my face. When I came to, there was thick smoke and I couldn’t see anything. I called, I shouted for my brother but he didn’t answer. I couldn’t see him. There was fire everywhere and silence and bodies were burning.”
He pulled up his long shirt to show me four small shrapnel bruises and two burns on his neck.
Jamaludin woke up at about 1am to start making food. It was Ramadan, and he had to prepare Sehur, the last meal before sunrise. “I called my brother again and told him I could hear lots of aeroplanes in the sky, why wasn’t he back? He said he was bringing some fuel and would be home soon. I hung up and went into the courtyard, and then there was a big fire, like a big lamp in the middle of the sky. I called my brother again and his phone was off. I left home and ran towards the river. The smell of smoke was coming from there.
“When I got there I couldn’t see my brother.I shouted for him. I saw some people carrying injured on their shoulders, then I went back home to pray and wait for the light.”
Jan Mohammad, an old man with a white beard and green eyes, said angrily: “I ran, I ran to find my son because nobody would give me a lift. I couldn’t find him.”
He dropped his head on his palm that was resting on the table, and started banging his head against his white mottled hand. When he raised his head his eyes were red and tears were rolling down his cheek: “I couldn’t find my son, so I took a piece of flesh with me home and I called it my son. I told my wife we had him, but I didn’t let his children or anyone see. We buried the flesh as it if was my son.”
He broke off, then shouted at the young Assadullah, who had knocked at the old man’s house and told his son to come with them there was free fuel for everyone, “You destroyed my home”, Assadu-llah turned his head and looked at the wall. “You destroyed my home,” he shouted again. Jan Mohammad dropped his head again on his palm and rolled it left and right, his big gray turban moving like a huge pendulum, “Taouba [forgiveness],” he hissed. “People lost their fathers and sons for a little bit of fuel. Forgiveness.”
Omar Khan, the village chief, was crying now and looking at the ceiling.
Fazel Muhamad a 48-year-old farmer with seven deep lines creasing his forehead and a white prayers cap, threw two colour passport pictures in front of me, one of a thickly bearded man and the other a young boy. “My cousin and his son,” he said. “Around 10pm, my cousin told me the Taliban were distributing fuel to the people and he was going to get some for the winter. I asked him to stay and not go, there were planes and it was dangerous at night, but he went anyway.
“At one or two in the morning we heard a big explosion and I saw fire coming form the sky. My cousin’s wife came running, she said go look for your cousin, but I waited until I had finished my dawn prayers, no one could eat anything.
“I arrived there and I saw dead bodies, some were in the middle of the river, I walked around looking for him and his son but I couldn’t find him. I went back home and his wife asked me did you see him, is he dead, where is he? I said I couldn’t find him. She was wailing and crying.
“I went again looking for him. There was light now, I picked through the bodies, the Arbabs [village elders] were distributing the flesh, but I didn’t go there. I looked through the ground and I could only see his two feet and his son’s feet. I recognised them because he and his son had henna on their toes.”
Islamu-ldin, a 20-year-old from Issa khail village with tufts of hair sprouting from his cheek, took his turn to speak. He said he ran for three hours to get to the riverbed to look for his brother.
“Our village is far from the river, I searched a lot through the dead, and I found my brother. I recognized him from his clothes. But we only found his upper body, maybe someone took the legs, maybe it just burned to ashes.”
Omar Khan was weeping openly now. A few other men resisted, but their eyes were as red as those of Jan Muhamad, who was babbling and shouting at the young Assadullah again and again.
Saleh Muhamad, a 25-year-old man with thick beard, wanted to get some fuel but no one would give him a lift. His brother and brother-in-law went and he went to sleep, then he heard the explosion. “I waited till darkness ended, then went there. I didn’t find anyone I knew, so I waited for the elders. They gave me two bodies, they looked like my relatives and I came back with them.”
Another village elder said that at least a dozen of the dead were from the Taliban. Although most of them had already left when the explosion happened, the rest stayed trying to keep some order while the villagers shoved and pushed.
“At midnight my brother and nephew went to get fuel. I also wanted to go but I didn’t have a car,” said Saleh Muhamad.
“At one in the morning I went to bed. When I heard the explosion I called my brother but his phone was off … when I arrived at 3am there were dead everywhereI was searching for my brother and nephew but I couldn’t find anyone.
“I had a torch with me and I could see well, but I still couldn’t recognise anyone.” His eyes looked straight through me as he said: “I found one body and took it home and we buried it. It was a full body, with arms and legs. We buried it well.”
There are few words to describe how these people must feel.
They are the innocent who must suffer the deaths of those they love.
The despair they feel is unimaginable.
So this how the so called, civilized, world helps them?
Below are pictures of some of the injured.