Afghan family ravaged by US drone strike error wants gravestones for the dead – and possible new life in the US
KABUL, Afghanistan – By the time the US apology arrived, the life of the Ahmadi family was already turned upside down. And being falsely accused by the US military of links to the Islamic State was not the worst part of the ordeal.
There was their broken family home. There were the nightmares, crying spells and screams triggered by the memory of a US drone strike on August 29 that killed 10 of their loved ones, including seven children.
There were new fears of persecution by the Taliban after media spotlight on the family noted that some members, including survivors, worked for US-based companies.
The Hellfire missile – the weapon used in the attack on the Pentagon’s cornerstone at the end of a two-decade war – also killed the family’s only breadwinner, Zamarai Ahmadi.
“We had no money to bury our loved ones,” his 32-year-old brother Emal said on Saturday a few steps from the mutilated carcass of a white Toyota sedan. “We had to borrow the funds.
Without a doubt, the Pentagon’s mea culpa on Friday – that a series of miscalculations led to the unwarranted targeting of Zamarai Ahmadi, an aid worker for a US-based group – lifted a heavy weight on the family. .
“The Americans kept pointing out that they had killed an ISIS-K terrorist,” Emal said, referring to the Afghan branch of ISIS. “Now we are happy that they have recognized their mistake and confirmed that they have killed innocent people.”
What the family is looking for now is to get out of their American-made hell.
Family members in interviews on Saturday expressed no visible animosity towards the US government for killing their loved ones. But forgiveness may be too strong a word.
On the contrary, Ahmadis cling to a sense of pragmatism. They want compensation from the US government and help to leave Afghanistan and resettle in the US or another safe country, family members said.
“You can see that the situation in Afghanistan is not good,” said Samim Ahmadi, 24, Zamarai’s stepson. “Whether in America or another country, we want peace and comfort for our later years. Everybody makes mistakes. Americans can’t bring our loved ones back, but they can get us out of here.
On Saturday, other worrying signs arrived from Afghanistan. A series of explosions rocked the eastern city of Jalalabad, potentially targeting Taliban vehicles, killing at least three people and injuring 20. There were no initial claims of responsibility, but the province is a stronghold of the Islamic state.
Prior to last month’s drone strike, Emal and Zamarai had pending applications for special visas to enter the United States due to their work with American companies, family members said.
The drone strike heightened the urgency to leave, they added.
“We are worried,” said Ajmal Ahmadi, another brother. “We feel threatened because we are so exposed to the public by the media. Everyone has heard that we have worked for foreigners, served in the Afghan army as well as in the Afghan intelligence agency.
They also want justice. Those responsible for their tragedy, such as the commander who oversaw the strike, the drone operator or anyone with footage on the ground, must be held accountable in a U.S. court, family members said.
“The US government must punish those who launched the drone strike,” said slim, bearded Emal Ahmadi, his firm voice sometimes softening with emotion. “They knew and saw that there were children on the ground. Can someone bring them back?
Yet so far family members have said they have had no contact with U.S. officials from any branch of government, not even to personally apologize.
“They should have contacted us and at least asked us about our situation,” Emal said, shaking his head.
Until Friday, the Pentagon had defended last month’s operation as a “fair strike.” Defense officials said they tracked a white Toyota sedan for hours after it left a suspected ISIS safe house and destroyed it to prevent an impending suicide attack.
In fact, the driver of the car, Zamarai Ahmadi, was a long-time employee of Nutrition and Education International, a California-based charity. It was carrying large water cans that were apparently mistaken for bombs, officials acknowledged, echoing earlier investigations by the Washington Post and other media that raised questions about the attack.
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Just before the drone strike, Ahmadi had stopped at his closed family compound, where he and his three brothers grew up in a working-class enclave west of Kabul airport. Now they were all living there with their own families. Their children played in the yard every day.
That evening, several jumped into Ahmadi’s car. That’s when the missile struck, a one-time attack that gutted the sedan and threw shrapnel into the doors and walls, shattering the windows.
Zamarai and three of his sons – Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 11 – were killed. Another brother’s three children – Arween, 7, Binyamin, 6, and Ayat, 2 – also died, along with Emal’s 3-year-old daughter Malika and her nephew Nasser, 30. A cousin’s granddaughter, Sumaiya, was also among those killed.
The whole family depended on Zamarai’s $ 500 monthly salary, Emal said. With their home destroyed, the remaining 15 family members moved to her sister’s small four-room house, an hour’s drive away.
“Every night we sleep on the roof because there is not enough space in the house,” Ajmal Ahmadi said. “For the first 15 days, I couldn’t sleep. I kept getting flashbacks from my brother, my nieces and nephews.
The wives of Emal and another relative, Romal, are more traumatized, family members said. The two women witnessed the deaths of their children. “They have constant nightmares, often waking up screaming at night,” Emal said.
Her 7-year-old daughter, Ada, always asks when her sister, Malika, will come home.
“I can’t bear to tell him that his sister is dead,” Emal said. “I told her that Malika is in the hospital and that one day she will come back.
Ajmal’s 8-year-old Imran remembers how he rode a bicycle and played football with his cousins. They picked fresh grapes from the vines for snacks.
“Now,” he said, “they are in the other world. “
The family tries to avoid their destroyed house as much as possible.
“Whenever our loved ones come here, they remember everything about the explosion,” Ajmal said. “It’s just too hard. We can no longer live in this house.
Meanwhile, the family’s financial difficulties worsen. The brothers have been living on his sister’s savings for three weeks. Those savings are gone and the family is forced to borrow money again, Emal said. They owe nearly $ 2,000, a princely sum in Afghanistan.
And they still have unfinished family affairs.
In a cemetery, half an hour’s drive away, 10 graves are scattered on the side of a rocky hill. Each has a stone painted red to mark their location and a white cloth with the family member’s name on it. The family cannot afford the tombstones.
But they say someday they will.
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Ezzatullah Mehrdad of the Washington Post in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.