Shattered Afghan Families Demand U.S. Compensation

Carlotta Gall New York Times 8 April 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 7 -- Victims of the bombing in Afghanistan handed in petitions from 400 families to the American Embassy here today, part of a growing movement to demand compensation from the United States for the loss of their families and homes.

Dozens of families travelled to Kabul, the capital, from all over the country to tell harrowing stories of whole families lost and of children maimed in the bombing. An 8-year-old girl named Amina, who lost 16 relatives in the bombing, her entire family except her father, handed the heavy folder of petitions to Michael Metrinko, who heads the embassy's political and consular sections.

The petitioners represent just some of possibly thousands of civilians who suffered in the campaign against the Taliban leadership and Osama bin Laden and his network, Al Qaeda, that began exactly six months ago today. Global Exchange, a human rights organisation based in San Francisco that is supporting the victims in their claims, estimates that about 2,000 families may have suffered losses in the bombing.

About 300 people are thought to have died in the bombing around the northern city of Kunduz, and 300 more in five villages in eastern Afghanistan, journalists who have investigated the areas say. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times Juma Khan and his daughter, Amina, said they lost 16 relatives in an American raid on Khanabad last fall.

"It is the responsibility of the U.S. government to do a survey and to help the innocent victims impacted by the air campaign," said Marla Ruzicka of Global Exchange, who helped organise the petitions.

But the petitioners got only a short meeting in the street with Mr. Metrinko and no promise of assistance. "I am telling them that we are trying, we hope we can help," he said. "But I cannot make a commitment."

Afghans have been handing in petitions since January, he said, and the embassy had asked Washington what answer should be given to them. "The embassy has recommended that a positive response be given," he said, but added that neither the Defense Department nor the State Department had replied yet.

Mr. Metrinko expressed his own frustrations at the Washington bureaucracy. "You cannot imagine how difficult it is to listen to stories like this and not to be able to give an answer," he said.

Emotions veered from weariness to anger among the petitioners gathered outside the embassy.

Juma Khan, Amina's father, a cobbler who borrowed money to travel from their home town, Khanabad, to deliver the petitions, said he was worried it had been in vain. "He said he would try to help, but I don't know when," he said of Mr. Metrinko.

It was a cold day in November when American planes bombed Khanabad and hit Mr. Khan's house. "We were all sitting inside, 18 of us, when suddenly a bomb hit," he said crouching against a wall with his daughter. "Just two of us are left."

"The house completely collapsed, and two beams landed on my shoulders." he said. "But fortunately, I survived."

Amina, who had been in another room, wriggled out from the rubble unhurt and ran for help. Neighbors dug Mr. Khan out. Then they dug deeper and found his wife, Bibi Gul, his seven other children, his mother, and his brother and wife and their five children. They were all dead.

The house was hit in an intense battle as American warplanes pursued Taliban forces toward their last stronghold in the town of Kunduz. But Mr. Khan said the Taliban had withdrawn two days before. "They destroyed our house and killed our children," he said of the American forces. "They should help us."

They live with relatives now, and his daughter often wakes at night, crying, he said. Amina, a clear-eyed, calm girl, said the same of her father. "He has mental problems," she said. "He wakes up at night."

Every petitioner had a similar sad story. Rabia and Ghulam Hazrat lost four children, ages 7 to 14, when a missile exploded in their courtyard on the outskirts of Kabul. They live near a military base used by the Taliban, but the neighborhood was showered with cluster bombs and other explosives, Ms. Hazrat said.

"There was no warning," she said. "I was in the kitchen making dough when I heard a huge explosion. I came out and saw a big cloud of dust and saw my children lying on the ground. Two of them were dead and two died later in hospital."

Abdul Rashid, 9, was blinded by shrapnel in a similar air raid, and he arrived with his father, Dad Muhammad, 45, a farmer still hobbling on a crutch from his injuries. "I just remember the airplane," Abdul Rashid said. "We wanted to water the animals, and suddenly my eyes were injured and I lost my sight." He could see a bit from his left eye for a few days before darkness closed in, he said. Now he can only see bright lights from a car or electric light, he said.

"The doctor told us that maybe they can treat him abroad, but they can do nothing in Afghanistan," his father said. "We just ask the U.S. government that they help us." His house had been demolished in the raid, he added.

There was anger, too. Hajji Ghulam Hussein, a Pashtun from the eastern province of Paktia, where the battle against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces continues, was scathing about the American diplomat. "I told him that our country has been suffering for 24 years and that we need an experienced physician, not a man who cannot do much," he said.