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An Anatomy of an Airstrike: Case Study -Garmsir, Afghanistan

Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Google Maps)

For Abdul Ahad, the evening of the 27th November 2018 began with a traditional Landay, a gathering of his extended relatives for a familial feast of mutton. This would’ve been more than just a meal. The freshly cooked meat, a rare reprieve from the daily staples of bread and yoghurt, bringing comfort, warmth and energy to get through the cold winter months ahead. 

Later that night, a kilometre down the road from Abdul’s, his older brother Aktar along with his wife Bibi Ghoncha, his sister, adult children, their partners and their own children. The family had just celebrated the birth of one-month-old Muslima, the first child of Aktar and Bibi’s youngest son Jan Mohammad, 22. 

Around 10pm, Abdul heard sounds from outside, including gunfire and helicopters. He went to look and saw a car fleeing the scene and heading down the road towards his brother’s house, Abdul correctly assuming it contained members of the Taliban. 

What he didn’t know was that the Afghan-American special forces team they were fleeing had called in an airstrike from their US Air Force above. Within minutes, a devastating amount of highly explosive material would be heading bearing down on his brother’s house. (Right: Abdul Ahad)

It killed nearly everyone inside. 22 members of the family, over three generations, were wiped out instantly. Qadarmana, her 18-year-old brother-in-law who had sat in for his brother who could not attend and her eldest teenage son, Esmatullah, all died. Her five young children, aged between one and seven, all remarkably survived. 

The impoverished, rural area of Kustay (estimated pop. 20,000) that sits in central Helmand River valley, has been controlled by the Taliban for the past five years and lies just 20km away from the battleline of Hazar Joft, in Garmsir district. The people of Kustay, including Abdul, are no strangers to fear or fighting. 

But after they witnessed the strike, saw the farm raging with fire and continued to hear helicopters overhead they knew they couldn’t risk venturing outside to help the injured. 

“No one could leave the house,” recounted Abdul. “It was a winter’s night and all of us were sitting in the house. No one came out of the house until morning. The dead and wounded were under the soil, but all the people were afraid of being bombed again.

“When our people arrived at the scene in the morning [around 5am], there was great panic and fear, the house was destroyed, human flesh, pieces were lying around, their hands and feet would be found under the dust in different areas.” 

The survivors who were pulled out of the rubble were all young siblings. Bibi Totia, 7, Bakht Mohammad, 5,  Ghows Mohammad, 4, Obidullah, 2, Nazia, 1 – the five children of father Agha (absent that night) and mother Qadarmana Mir (killed).

The first four were found in the morning and rushed to Lakary Hospital, within Garmsir, but Bakht Mohammad wasn’t discovered until the evening. 

He was severely burnt all over his body and so was taken to the more advanced Lashkar Gah Hospital, in the capital of Helmand. The road from Kustay to Lashkar Gah is “rough”, the 100km journey taking at least four hours to complete. 

Those who did not travel began to bury their relatives.

In the provincial capital, Dr. Khushal confirmed Bakht was transferred to Boot Hospital in the city as they were able to treat burn victims. He spent 12 days there. Despite his injuries and suffering for roughly 24-hours without treatment, the young boy survived. “God give him health. Now he is fine,” said his uncle Mohammadullah, although Bakht has not yet been able to go to school.

Back in Kustay, there was outrage. The family insist none of those in Aktar’s home were members of the Taliban, they were farmers. The NATO forces said the fighters were using Aktar’s farm as a “fighting position” and claimed the strike had killed 16 Taliban. 

But the combatants were not amongst the dead according to Kustay resident Feda Mohammad, interviewed by Reuters at the time. Yet the Helmand Governor, Mohammad Yasin Khan, claimed there had been both civilian and Taliban casualties. 

Whether all of the Taliban were killed, or some made a timely escape, is unclear. 

What is clear, and can still be seen at the untouched bomb site that used to be Aktar’s home – “We don’t want to build this house. It is still in such a state of disrepair” – is the devastation laid upon one family. 

“This incident has saddened our entire family, relatives and the people of our homeland. It has affected us very badly. Our homeland is still in fear. Our children are still afraid of planes,” said Abdul. 

The two relatives of the victims that we spoke to, Abdul and Mohammadullah, continue to work as farmers in Kustay, cultivating wheat and corn. They earn around $600-700 a year and live in extreme poverty. Due to the conflict, development programmes haven’t reached Kustay. Many have left for the more prosperous cities. Those who’ve stayed feel forgotten and unrepresented. 

Mohammadullah

Shortly after the incident, with complaints being made to local officials, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Maj. Bariki Mallya, blamed secondary explosions from stored munitions for the civilian deaths.

Later, a spokesperson for the NATO mission in Afghanistan said: “At the time of the strike, the ground force was unaware of any civilians in or around the compound; they only knew that the Taliban was using the building as a fighting position.

“We investigate every credible allegation of error and review every mission to learn, adapt and improve.”

Although as Mohammadullah pointed out to AOAV: “Our entire area is under the control of the Taliban, the government cannot come there nor did they come to investigate the incident at that time.”

The airstrike that killed 22 and injured five members of the same family, from grandparents Aktar and Bibi to their new-born granddaughter Muslima, is recorded in the US Department of Defense’s 2018 Annual Summary of Civilian Casualty Incidents – but only lists 14 civilians killed and three injured. Ten casualties unacknowledged by their killer.

The forgotten people of Kustay, even in the face of mortal injustice, remain forgotten. 

Report continues:

Chapter 3: SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Chapter 4: SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
Chapter 5: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
Chapter 6: SDG 4 – Quality Education
Chapter 7: Other Considerations
Conclusion and Recommendations

More in this series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack