We Spoke to the Afghan Family Who Lost 10 Members to a Botched US Drone Strike

Most of the victims were children.

Sep 13 2021, 3:34pm

At about 4:50 p.m. on August 29, the last known missile fired by the United States during its 20-year war in Afghanistan hit its target: a white sedan that had just pulled into a courtyard in a densely populated neighbourhood of Kabul. 

The drone strike was supposed to thwart a suspected terrorist attack against Hamid Karzai International Airport, and in the days that followed, U.S. military officials celebrated it as a success, calling it a “righteous strike” that killed “multiple” ISIS-K suicide bombers and saved numerous innocent Afghan civilians. This, as the drone strike came three days after a suicide bombing killed more than 180 people at the airport and warnings circulated about another imminent attack.

Multiple investigations have since indicated, however, that the American drone strike mistakenly targeted and killed an innocent Afghan aid worker, Zemarai Ahmadi, and his extended family. The U.S. military has so far acknowledged only three civilian casualties resulting from the explosion. The actual number is triple that.

“It is so hard to describe the depth of the sorrow we are going through. I could never imagine this can happen to our family,” Romal, Ahmadi’s 25-year-old brother, told VICE World News. “We lost 10 members of our family.”

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Romal said “life has turned to hell,” since their deaths, and said they have been unable to sleep at night. Romal lost three children in the strike.

“Our dreams and hopes have been totally shattered. We had big dreams for our children,” he said. “Anytime I remember my daughter, I just want to die myself.“

He also could not hide his frustration with the U.S.

“We can’t forget this brutal act… I can’t forget and forgive,” he said. “I wonder how the world’s best army—the U.S. army—can make such a mistake and cannot differentiate between a civilian house and a terrorist group.”

Farzad, 11, and Faisal, 16, were brothers and sons of Ahmadi. Photos obtained by VICE World News

Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, was, according to an investigation by The New York Times, probably just transporting colleagues to and from work and loading canisters of water into his trunk to take home to his family. It was as he arrived home that the drone operator fired the Hellfire missile.

“You can ask everyone in our neighborhood about the history of our family. We were never involved in any terrorist or even political groups,” Romal said.

He said that the negligence of foreign forces has “killed innocent children,” and he pleaded for “the entire world, particularly the Americans, to be tactful in their missions to prevent such civilian casualties.”

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Romal said the least the United States can do is compensate them for their loss.

“As the family who are victimized, we ask for justice and compensation. We want them to pay us for the loss we sustained,” he said. “It mentally tortures us to stay here. The memories of our loved ones stick with us and we will carry this grief for as long as we live.”

Somaia, 3, and Benyamin, 6, were among the children killed in the strike. Photos obtained by VICE World News

Aside from Ahmadi, 37, those killed were his children Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 11; his cousin Naser, 28; Romal’s children Arwin, 7, Benyamin, 6, and Hayat, 2; Malika, 3, daughter of Ahmadi’s other brother, Imal; and Somaia, 3, Ahmadi’s uncle’s daughter.

Photos obtained by VICE World News showed individual photos of each of the victims. Three were little girls, all toddlers. Two-year-old Hayat, in her pink sandals with kitten faces, is offering junk food to the photographer. Three-year-old Somaia is seen smiling and walking in a powder blue floral dress. Malika, also 3, wears a denim dress, her big round eyes staring straight at the camera.

The youngest boy is Benyamin, 6. He has light brown hair and is smiling cheekily. His brother Arwin, 7, wears a red backpack, and is on his way to school, wearing his uniform—khaki pants, a white polo, and a tiny brown tie. Farzad, 11, wears a button-down white shirt, and sits against a wall, his hair parted to one side, his face serious. Faisal, 16, wears a red collared shirt, is pictured against a blue gate—just like the one seen in photos on the site of the strike—staring pensively into the camera.

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Only three are adults. Zamir, 20, wears orange-tinted sunglasses and a vest, against a backdrop of trees and a mountain. Naser, 28, in an army-green T-shirt, is looking away from the camera, his face framed with dark facial hair. Then there’s Ahmadi, whom the drone targeted, standing next to a body of water, looking dignified in a gray coat and a collared checkered dress shirt, looking over his left shoulder into the camera.

Naser (left), 28, and Zamir (middle), 20, were Ahmadi's cousin and son respectively. Ahmadi (right) was the person targeted by the U.S. drone, whom reports said was an aid worker. Photos obtained by VICE World News

VICE World News earlier reported that six of those killed were so burnt they had turned into ash, and another four whose bodies were shattered were brought to the hospital.

Immediately following the drone strike, U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the American military's Central Command, said, “We are confident we successfully hit the target” and “We know [the strike] disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat to the airport.” The MQ-9 Reaper drone had followed the vehicle for several hours that day, and military officials said they treated the driver as suspicious because of his observed movements and the fact that he appeared to be loading what might have been explosives into the back of his car. His actual identity, they said, was unknown.

According to the account given by U.S. officials, the drone operator had seen only a single adult male greeting the vehicle as it pulled into a courtyard in the densely populated residential area, thus assuming with “reasonable certainty” that no women, children, or noncombatants would be killed in the strike. But there are conflicting reports from the ground. 

The Times said that Ahmadi’s children and his brothers’ children came out to greet him as he arrived home and even climbed into his car as he backed it inside.

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Urban’s earlier claims that “there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties” were also disputed by the Times, as experts reportedly found no evidence of a second, more powerful explosion. Chris Cobb-Smith, a British Army veteran and security consultant, suggested that this disconnect between officials’ claims and the evidence from the scene “seriously questions the credibility of the intelligence or technology utilized to determine this was a legitimate target.”

The Washington Post also published an investigation into the strike, which reached similar conclusions. Two experts told the newspaper that evidence pointed to an ignition of fuel-tank vapors, rather than explosives, as the potential cause of the second blast. The experts also pointed out that they were basing their conclusions on limited evidence, and some said it was possible the vehicle contained a small amount of explosives.

Several days after the drone attack—by which time reports were already circulating about the likelihood of civilian casualties—Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, defended the operation, claiming they “went through the same level of rigor that we've done for years.”

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“We know from the variety of other means that at least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator,” Milley said. “Were there others killed? Yes, there are others killed. Who they are, we don’t know.”

The United States has yet to apologize to the family.

In this Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021 file photo, Afghans inspect damage of Ahmadi family house after U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. Photo by AP/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi

“Unfortunately, after the incident happened, no one came to console us or investigate,” said Romal. “On the first day, three members of the Taliban came and asked what happened, and after that we haven’t seen any government or U.S. officials come and investigate the attack. We want a thorough investigation to prevent such innocent killings in Afghanistan.”

Romal said the family expected an apology, “but it seems the lives of the innocent people have no value for them.”

“Our country sustained horrible casualties during the past 20 years and no one even cared. We are unfortunately in a country where lives of civilians have no value,” he said.

“It is hard to forget and forgive such a crime. I just pray that things get better in our country so that no other family should be in grief. The mistakes of the politicians and governments destroyed the lives of civilians. The only victims are the civilians.”

Tagged:

Taliban, worldnews, world conflict

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