By the start of 2017 the Taliban was pushing hard to take Sangin city’s district centre, Afghanistan, a fortified compound which housed the local security and administrative officials, just a few miles from Hamid Gul’s family home. The compound was the only thing stopping the Taliban from claiming the whole district as their own. The US, which had lost at least 70 of its own troops keeping Sangin out of insurgent hands over the years, scrambled to respond with scores of airstrikes. Hamid was convinced that his family were still safer behind Taliban lines than in Laskhar Gah, one of the Taliban’s prime targets. But on the morning of February 10 2017, he got an unexpected phone call from a neighbour in Sangin: the family’s house had been flattened. In that one night Hamid Gul lost his 50 year-old mother, Bibi Bakhtawara, six brothers and a sister. All seven children were under 16 years of age. Bibi Rahmania, his niece, also died. She was just two years old.
By the end of those three days, five women and 19 children were dead
Hamid was not the only person given devastating news on that day. On the same night, a few hours later, a second civilian house, just a few miles away from his own, was also hit. The following night a third one was struck.
To this day, there is no consensus about what happened to those three houses and why. What is clear, however, is that by the end of those three days in early February five women and 19 children were dead, among a full toll of 26 civilians, a Bureau investigation has established.
Three local officials interviewed by Bureau reporters on the ground claimed US airstrikes had destroyed the houses and killed their inhabitants. The United Nations (UN) said the same, in its biannual accounting of Afghan civilians killed in the war, released in July 2017, adding that there appeared to have been no fighting in the area at the time, meaning the attacks may have been pre-planned.
A spokesperson for Resolute Support, the US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan, told the Bureau that after four investigations the organisation could not confirm or deny responsibility for killing the civilians, though he pushed back strongly against the UN’s claims that there was no fighting in the villages at the time. Resolute Support has officially concluded the case as “disputed”, one of four categories for recording allegations of civilian casualties. It was used in this case because Resolute Support cannot decide if insurgents or the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were responsible for the casualties, the spokesperson told the Bureau.
The fact that no-one has taken responsibility for the deaths of 24 women and children offers an insight into the lack of accountability of America’s longest-running conflict, which it now fights largely from the air under opaque rules of engagement against 20-odd armed groups.
Excerpts from Caught in the crossfire
Civilians are bearing the brunt of conflict in Afghanistan, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Sept. 30, 2017