HARMARA, Afghanistan -- Mohammad Wazir can barely take a sip of water because it reminds him of his 7-year-old daughter, who brought him a glass three days before she was killed with 10 other loved ones in a shooting spree allegedly carried out by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan.
Wazir said he had asked his wife for a drink but his daughter Masooma brought it instead.
“She said: ‘Ask me, daddy. I can bring you water too,”’ Wazir recalled. “She was the beauty of my house. She had black magical eyes.”
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged Friday with 17 counts of premeditated murder and could face a possible death penalty if convicted. But that has done little to ease the pain of those left behind, who are demanding justice as they struggle to rebuild their shattered lives.
While no motive for the killings has been proffered, much of the discussion in the U.S. has focused on what could have caused the soldier to snap and whether the trauma of warfare and multiple deployments is at least partly to blame. Bales, himself a father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, has been confined at the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Bales also was charged with six counts of attempted murder and six counts of assault in the March 11 pre-dawn massacre in Balandi and Alkozai, two southern Afghanistan villages near his base in Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban.
The maximum punishment for a premeditated murder conviction is death, dishonorable discharge from the armed forces, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade and total forfeiture of pay and allowances, according to Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The mandatory minimum sentence is life imprisonment with the chance of parole.
The charges offered few details of what happened that night. But the 38-year-old soldier is accused of walking off his base with his 9mm pistol and M-4 rifle, which was outfitted with a grenade launcher, killing four men, four women, two boys and seven girls and burning some of the bodies. The ages of the children were not disclosed.
In the most detailed descriptions of the shootings to date, the charges say Bales shot a young girl in the head, a young boy in the thigh, a man in the neck and a woman in the chest and groin. The documents also say that he “shot at” another girl and boy, but apparently did not hit them.
Afghan officials and villagers have counted 16 dead: 12 in Balandi and four in Alkozai. The U.S. military has charged Bales with 17 murders without explaining the discrepancy.
Wazir — who also lost his wife, five other children ages 2 to 15, his mother, his brother, his sister-in-law and his nephew — said he would travel to the U.S. for the trial if given the opportunity but the death penalty for just one man would not be enough. The only child he has left is his 4-year-old son Habib, who was with him in another town when the shootings occurred.
“They took everything from me,” he said.
Away from home
Wazir, who is in his mid-thirties and splits his time tending his grape fields and helping with a family electronics store, was not home in Balandi that night because he had taken his youngest son to the nearby border town of Spin Boldak to have dinner with his cousins. The area is dangerous so Wazir and his son spent the night. As they were getting ready to return home in the morning, Wazir got a phone call.
The caller said Wazir’s house had been the target of a U.S. attack and some relatives had been injured, but didn’t mention any dead. He rushed home to find hundreds of people gathered outside around some bodies that they were preparing take to Kandahar city for a funeral.
“I didn’t know that all of them were members of my family,” Wazir recounted as he sat in a friend’s courtyard in the nearby market town of Harmara, where he is staying to avoid the ghosts waiting for him at home. As he spoke, he stared down at his hands, focusing on the knife tattoo on his right knuckles.
People tried to pull him into the crowd but he said he needed to check on his family first.
“Then one of my relatives hugged me and said, ‘Nobody is there for you to talk to.'”
Still disbelieving, Wazir ran to his house and found the kitchen still filled with smoke, ashes and blood.
“I was crying and I said to my uncle, ‘Tell me, is anyone in my family alive?’ And my uncle said, ‘It is God’s will. Pull yourself together and come out.'”
Neighbors told him they had heard the gunshots but were too afraid to leave their homes. When the shooting stopped and they entered his house, they found corpses on fire. Wazir and his fellow villagers buried his family, then Wazir went to the Afghan capital, Kabul, to tell President Hamid Karzai his story.
Unsure of justice
Afghan officials have made payments to all the families as compensation for the deaths, but Wazir said he’s looking for justice, and he’s not sure that the Americans are really interested in finding out what happened.
He’s suspicious, he explained, because U.S. forces said from the very beginning that only one shooter was involved, even though some witnesses reported multiple attackers. Wazir himself still thinks it is likely others were involved.
“It shows that they are not interested in the truth. At least they should wait for an investigation,” Wazir said. “They claim that it is one person who did it, if that is the case they have to prove it.”
Wazir says his two elder sons, 15-year-old Asmatullah and 9-year-old Faizullah, were both in school. Asmatullah was more responsible, but Faizullah was the clever one. He thought Faizulla might become a doctor some day.
Then he brought up his 2-year-old daughter, Palwasha, and his eyes brimmed over with tears.
“I can still feel her small hands on my face and feel her pulling my beard,” Wazir said as he cried and shivered in the warm air. “Even when I saw her burned body, she still had that beautiful smile.”
While Wazir lost the largest number of family members, other villagers also are dealing with the trauma two weeks after the deadly rampage.
Baran Akhon, whose brother Mohammad Dawood was also killed in Balandi, said he’s not sure how he is going to support his brother’s family. He has brought all of them to live with him in Kandahar city, but he barely makes enough selling cigarettes and other small items from his pushcart to support his own family.
Another man whose wife, cousin, brother and 3-year-old granddaughter were killed in the neighboring village of Alkozai said people there are too scared to sleep alone, so they cram as many people into one house as possible each night. Saeed Jan also complained that U.S. troops continue to patrol the area.
“There is still blood in our houses. It hasn’t been removed. And they are moving through our streets again. It’s like they are pushing us, just showing that they can,” Jan said.
He also says monetary payouts will not suffice.
“Even millions of dollars would not be enough for my brother. First they should give us justice and punish all the people who did this,” Akhon said.