In a remote corner of western Afghanistan, a team of high-ranking Afghan officials on Tuesday made reparation payments to survivors of U.S. airstrikes last week. The team from Kabul also announced the official death toll from the battle in Farah province, saying 140 innocent people were killed, along with 25 Taliban fighters.
The Afghan numbers, which the U.S. military disputes, make the attack the worst incident of civilian casualties blamed on Western forces in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Mourning The Losses
During a ceremony at the provincial governor's compound, Mullah Mohammed Shah — hands and voice trembling — offered the opening prayer.
The elderly cleric came at the invitation of the governor — not as a holy man, but as a grieving one. He lost a son, two daughters-in-law, a grandson and more than 50 other relatives in a compound he says was destroyed by an American bomb on May 4.
Another of the mullah's sons, Abdul Manan Farahi, recalls frantically clawing at the rubble to find their relatives. He says his wife, who was severely burned by the blast, is being treated in a hospital in Pakistan.
The mullah, his son and some two dozen other men from nearby Garani village traveled to the governor's compound to receive condolence payments for the attack.
Relatives are being paid the equivalent of $2,000 for each person killed and $1,000 for each one injured. It is a small fortune by Afghan standards.
Many of those interviewed say they will use the money to rebuild their homes and buy new brides and livestock.
Afghan government investigators from Kabul say 140 civilians in two family compounds in Garani were killed during the intense battle between U.S. and allied Afghan forces and hundreds of Taliban fighters in the area. Provincial officials and survivors say most of the casualties were caused by three bombs dropped by American planes.
The U.S. military, in a joint statement with the Afghan government late last week, acknowledged the airstrikes had killed civilians. But U.S. officials said it was not possible to determine the number because the bodies had been buried. The statement also suggested that Taliban insurgents may have worsened the civilian toll by using noncombatants as human shields.
In remarks last week, President Obama expressed "sorrows and apologies" over the deaths.
Avoiding Questions Of Responsibility
The six-member team of Afghan officials making the reparation payments avoided discussing the causes of the incident. The delegation, headed by Afghan Maj. Gen. Shahzada, told the villagers that the enemies of Afghanistan force the government and its Western allies into battle.
Shahzada, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said the same pilot dropping bombs might otherwise be dropping wheat and other supplies were it not for the insurgents. But excuses and condolences soon gave way to the business at hand.
"We've brought money to pay for every martyr in our register," he told the crowd. "We'll get your thumbprints and photos in case someone else shows up the next day to collect again."
The mistrust escalated as the first survivors came forward. Two brothers, Humayun and Mohammad Yassin, were looking for work in nearby Iran when their home in Garani was reduced to rubble. They returned to find they had lost their parents and nine brothers and sisters.
The general and his team members argued with Mohammad Yassin, saying that two of the siblings he claims were killed were not on the official list. In the end, the Yassin brothers were given money for only nine of their family members.
'Like Losing 55 Limbs'
Roohul Amin, the governor of Farah province, believes the payments will ease survivors' suffering.
"Now we give them money and they can re-establish their family and their life for the remaining people," he said.
But the cleric's son, Abdul Manan Farahi, bristled when asked if the money eases the loss.
"I give you everything I have, would you let me cut off your hand? We lost 55 people; that's like losing 55 limbs," he said.
Then, he began to weep. "I can't talk about it anymore," he said.