The Afghan children awakened in the dead of night with a terrifying warning: An American soldier was in their village, and he had shot at least one man to death.
“He killed my man,” their neighbor’s wife cried as she ran into their home. Sadiqullah, 13, hid behind a curtain. His older brother, Quadratullah, shouted “We are children! We are children!” only to see the soldier shoot his sister.
Haji Mohammed Naim, the father of the household, saw the American approach and asked, “What are you doing?”
The soldier shot him at close range, “here, here and here,” Naim testified early Saturday, gesturing to wounds in his neck and upper torso.
Naim and his sons were among 13 Afghan witnesses testifying from Afghanistan’s Kandahar province over the past two nights in an extraordinary judicial hearing weighing evidence against Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians and wounded six more in a nighttime rampage March 11. Bales could face the death penalty if his case proceeds to a court-martial.
The Afghan victims and their relatives gave haunting accounts of violence in Naim’s home in the village of Alkozai and the aftermath of another slaughter Bales allegedly committed in the village of Najiban.
One child, 7-year-old Robina, said she saw her father shot to death right in front of her, taking bullets to the neck and chest. She said she hid behind Nazar Mohamed and was shot in the knee herself.
“I didn’t realize I was shot until later,” said the small girl wrapped in a red scarf. The chatty girl said she’s fine now, describing months of recuperation.
Bales watched the Afghan testimony intently Friday and Saturday, alternating between a television screen showing the testimony from Kandahar and another on a laptop at his table.
His wife, Kari, also attended the hearing. She has sat behind him every day in court, taking notes with supporters and occasionally exchanging glances with her husband.
The Afghans testified on the fifth and sixth days of the evidence hearing over a video link that piped their testimony into a Lewis-McChord courtroom from Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar. Their testimony came in clearly, with attorneys in both countries interacting with witnesses and interpreters.
They described a shooter terrorizing children in Naim’s home and a grisly scene in Najiban where they discovered a pile of burned corpses.
“This is my request: justice,” said Mullah Khamal Adin, who lost 11 relatives in Najiban.
Another 7-year-old girl testifying late Saturday, Zardana, represented a kind of miracle. She was shot in the head in Naim’s home and nearly died on the night of the killings.
The military sent her and her father to her a Navy hospital in San Diego, where she recuperated for three months. She took the witness stand limping but smiling, her head wrapped in a purple scarf.
“I’m not going to lie,” she said when she was briefly sworn in.
Several times, the Afghan witnesses described stunning scenes of depravity, such as 14-year-old Rafiullah’s recollection of an American soldier walking into his house in Alkozai. Rafiullah is Zardana’s brother.
The soldier “came, he put a pistol in my sister’s mouth and then my grandmother started wrestling with him,” said Rafiullah, who was shot in his legs that night. He saw the soldier shoot his grandmother, Nikmarghah, to death.
Adin was not a witness to the massacre, but he collected the corpses of his family members when villagers called him and told him that something terrible had happened in the home of his cousin, Haji Mohammed Wazir.
Adin, 39, found an uncle’s wife, Shatara, shot to death at the entrance.
“When I grabbed her, half of her head fell down and her eyes fell on the ground,” he said.
He moved into another room where he found the pile of naked, burned corpses. Seven of the bodies belonged to children younger than 15. Four were children younger than 5. Several of the young ones had boot marks on their faces.
He speculated that someone threw 2-year-old Palwasha on the fire while the child was still alive.
“They were all shot in their heads,” Adin said. “Their brains were still on their pillows.”
Adin testified in a stoic manner, tilting his head slightly for an hour on the witness stand. He wore traditional Afghan clothing, a turban and a formal shalwar khameez shirt.
He recounted how he separated the males from the females in the pile, then took their bodies to Bales’ combat outpost – Village Stability Platform Belambay. There, villagers from Najiban protested the massacre before burying the bodies.
Adin said his cousin, Wazir, was away on the night of the killings. He gave away his belongings rather than stay in his family compound where he lost six children. He is now in Mecca for an Islamic pilgrimage.
Wazir “left everything behind and he has never come to the compound again,” Adin said.
Defense attorneys were gentle with Adin. Bales’ lead attorney, John Henry Browne, began his questioning by saying, “I am sorry for your loss.”
The trend continued through both nights of Afghan testimony, with defense attorneys respectfully asking questions to determine whether more Americans could have been involved and discern how much coaching they might have received from Army prosecutors and investigators.
Bales allegedly made two forays out of Belambay. First he reportedly walked to Alkozai, killing four people and wounding three in Naim’s family, and second to Najiban, killing Adin’s relatives.
Prosecutors on Friday night called three witnesses who said they saw an American soldier in Alkozai shooting up Naim’s household. Naim first saw the American when the soldier jumped a wall with a rifle and a blinding flashlight.
Naim’s testimony grew forceful at times. His sons spoke more quietly. The boys smiled shyly when they swore an oath to tell the truth.
Sadiquallah is a soft-spoken 13-year-old who was shot in the ear on the night of the killings. He fidgeted through his testimony and frequently looked at the ground while he answered questions through an interpreter.
He said he hid behind a curtain while the American soldier shot up his home. Quadratullah is a year or so older than Sadiquallah. He escaped injury March 11 but saw Rafiullah’s grandmother being shot to death.
“We kept saying, ‘We are children, we are children,’” Quadratullah remembered. “Then he shot, he shot one of the children.”
Quadratullah spoke more confidently than his younger brother. He grabbed a neighbor’s motorcycle after the attack and alerted an older brother about the violence in their father’s home.
The brother, Faizullah, gathered five wounded villagers at the house and took them to a nearby American forward base for medical care.
In the morning, Quadratullah found footprints from what he assumed was the American soldier who attacked his home. They led back to an American outpost, he said.