“There are not many witnesses to say what happened to Khorum village in eastern Afghanistan last Wednesday night; there are not many survivors. One thing is clear. The simple collection of mud huts and livestock pens in this village, around 38 miles from the east Afghanistan town of Jalalabad, was hit by a devastating firestorm.”
Zeeshan Haider “Stench of Death in a Flattened Village,” The Guardian, October 15, 2001
(The village referred to throughout this article is variously spelled Khorum, Kadam, Karam, and Koram. It is unclear which is the correct spelling.)
One week after United States-led forces began bombarding Afghanistan, disturbing evidence is emerging of unacceptably high civilian casualties and ill-defined military and political objectives. Afghans reaching the Pakistani city of Peshawar 60 kilometres from the border said the bombing on Friday of Kadam, a small rural community in Surkh Rud district near the eastern city of Jalalabad, had killed scores, possibly hundreds of civilians.” (1)
So said the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, October 15. This was just one of many reports filed Sunday and Monday concerning the destruction of an Afghan village. The first of these reports were based on the eyewitness accounts of the survivors of the attack, some seriously wounded, who fled into neighboring Pakistan.
A report in the Guardian began: “Serious blunders by American warplanes may have killed at least 100 civilians in Afghanistan, according to eye-witness accounts obtained by the Observer. Two U.S. jets, they said, had bombed a village in eastern Afghanistan, killing more than 100 people.” (2) According to one witness cited, the jets circled back twice to unload additional ordnance on the village.
The Guardian also noted that while “Western politicians have been quick to dismiss the claims as propaganda … apparent confirmation of serious casualties among non-combatants is beginning to emerge. If the evidence is accurate, an attack on Karam village, 18 miles west of Jalalabad, last Thursday was the most lethal blunder yet by Allied forces.” (2)
An article in the Independent held that Karam was just one of several villages to be targeted: “Something went terribly wrong at the end of the week. In conversations with refugees, a string of names come up again and again: Darunta, Karam, Torghar, Farmada – insignificant villages where, according to consistent accounts by eyewitnesses, as well as those of the Taliban propaganda machine, hundreds of civilians were killed.” (3)
Among the refugees that Independent reporter Richard Parry spoke to, he found that “many have seen at first hand the devastating effects which the attacks have begun to have on civilians. In hospitals, refugee camps and in the homes of friends, they describe how it feels to find yourself directly below one of the most technologically sophisticated bombing campaigns in history.” (3)
U.S. officials were quick to deny civilian casualties and denounce the witness accounts as propaganda. Taliban officials countered by allowing Western reporters into the country to view the carnage at Karam first-hand. The journalists, skeptical of what they assumed would be a staged scene, filed reports that revealed their shock and revulsion at what they encountered.
A reporter for The Times described the scene at a nearby hospital: “In a gloomy Jalalabad hospital ward Ahmed Zai clings to his one-year-old son as they lie on a dirty sheet. Both have shrapnel wounds … Across the crowded ward three-year-old Rahmed cries for his mother. Bandages cover his head, arm and legs. Blood is oozing through … Doctors tell us that both of his parents are dead … Along with twenty-five others in this hospital Ahmed and Rahmed were in the village of Koram.” (4)
In the village itself, the reporters were met with harrowing scenes of carnage and human suffering. First, however, their Taliban escorts had to subdue the wrathful villagers: “As we approached Koram, climbing a rocky hillside, the villagers erupted in fury, charging down the hill with shovels in hand. We had experienced orchestrated protests during our drive from the Pakistan border, but this was altogether different.” (4)
An Associated Press writer made a similar observation: “Waving shovels and sticks, enraged villagers surged toward foreign journalists brought here Sunday by Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia to see what officials say was the devastation of a U.S. air attack. ‘They are coming to kill us! They are coming for information, to tell the planes where to bomb!’ angry and terrified villagers shouted as they charged the reporters.” (5)
These were, mind you, ordinary Afghan villagers who – after just one week of terror bombing allegedly aimed at eliminating terrorism and keeping the Western world safe for democracy – were so enraged that they were prepared to violently attack the first Westerners they laid eyes on. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m feeling a whole lot safer already.
Ian Williams of The Times graphically described the village: “One man said that he was burying his wife bit by bit as he dug her out of the rubble. He put a severed leg into a plastic bag and dropped it into the hole that he had dug. The stench of rotten bodies was overwhelming in places. Dead cows and goats littered the hillside, as did chunks of metal, shrapnel from the bombs. Of around 40 stone houses more than half have been completely destroyed.” (4)
Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press took in the scene as well: “Villagers pointed out other evidence of an attack: a bloodstained pillowcase by a house, bomb craters and what appeared to be a rotting human limb. Dozens of sheep and goat carcasses were strewn about the mud-hut village, and the air was thick with a rancid stench.” (5)
Williams reported seeing “at least thirty fresh graves, villagers praying beside them.” (4) Gannon watched as an “old man knelt by one grave, sobbing. He looked up, furiously, at journalists and their cameras and lobbed stones to drive the outsiders away.” (5) Witnesses on the scene told the reporters that “more bodies were buried up in the mountains, taken there by residents as they fled the now mostly deserted community.” (5)
One villager showed the visitors a piece of bomb shrapnel with English writing on it. His wife and all five of his kids had been killed by the bombs. Another villager demanded answers: “They are innocent people living here. There is no military base. What is it they are looking for in Afghanistan? Where is Osama bin Laden? He is not here. Why did they bomb us?” (5)
Williams ended his report with the following observation: “from the evidence we have seen Koram is no terrorist training camp or military base. There appears to have been a horrible mistake.” (4) Not according to the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who put forth the preposterous story that it was an ammunition dump near the village that had been bombed.
As the Guardian reported, Rumsfeld claimed that “US bombs had hit the opening to two nearby tunnels believed to be possible ammunition dumps, causing powerful secondary explosions. People living near the site may have been involved in storing and guarding the ammunition store.” (6) The village itself, according to the Pentagon, was not actually bombed at all.
Despite the fact that reporters had seen and photographed bomb craters, and had seen at least one unexploded warhead, the Pentagon “denied there were bomb craters in the village.” (6) Left completely unexplained were the bombed-out dwellings, the livestock carcasses strewn about, the abundance of shrapnel, and the scattered body parts.
Rumsfeld washed his hands of the affair with the following shameless lie: “There’s no question that people who were in close proximity to these isolated ammunition dumps, who very likely were there for a good reason because they were a part of that activity, may very well have been casualties. They were not cooking cookies inside those tunnels.” (6)
No, actually they weren’t in any tunnels at all. Some were sleeping. Some had just been called to morning prayer by the village mullah. All were, by any reasonable interpretation of the evidence, civilians.
After reading these reports on Sunday evening – all from British and Australian publications – I decided to catch the 11:00 PM edition of ABC News to see what sort of spin the American media would put on these well-documented reports of civilian casualties. No mention was made of them.
They did though manage to squeeze in an important story about some other tragic victims whose plight had previously been shamefully ignored by all avenues of the media. The following exchange between the talking heads ‘teased’ the story:
Leslie Sykes: “Still ahead – the forgotten victims of September 11th.”
Phillip Palmer: “Tonight, a party to raise money for pets who lost their owners. That is coming up.”
I didn’t wait up to get the details.
1. Christopher Kremmer “Alarm Grows Over Scale of Civilian Casualties,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 15, 2001
2. Jason Burke “US Admits Lethal Blunders,” Guardian Unlimited, October 14, 2001
3. Richard Lloyd Parry “It Was If the Rocks Themselves Were on Fire,” Independent, October 14, 2001
4. Ian Williams “He Is Burying His Wife Bit by Bit as He Digs Her Out of the Rubble,” The Times, October 15, 2001
5. Kathy Gannon “Taliban Shows Fresh Graves and a Village Ruined by War,” International Herald Tribune, October 15, 2001
6. Julian Borger “Rumsfeld Blames Taliban for Civilian Deaths,” Guardian Unlimited, October 16, 2001