Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 29,  2001
U.S. bomb hits civilians, and doubt begins to surface
A woman was killed in a village 4 miles from Taliban targets. Some Afghans are questioning military tactics. 

At War With Terror

GHANIKHEL, Afghanistan - She was sewing clothes for her brother-in-law's wedding when the stray 500-pound bomb fell from the wing of a U.S. warplane Saturday afternoon and crashed through the roof of her house.

The flash and the explosion were deafening, leveling the center of the two-story structure built of mud bricks and sturdy poles.

Kukugul, 25, a mother of two who was working on a hand-powered sewing machine, was killed instantly by shrapnel. Ten others, mostly her relatives, were injured.

Yesterday morning, the townspeople of this village inside the lines of the anti-Taliban Afghan opposition forces stoically buried Kukugul. They also laid to rest some of their confidence in America's fabled precision bombing.

"The United States announced they could defeat our enemies by computer technology," said Baluch, 57, a local military commander who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. "Why do their bombs miss? They should destroy our enemies, not us."

The bomb that struck here was a colossal blunder. Ghanikhel is two miles from the front lines separating fighters of the Northern Alliance with soldiers of the Taliban, the fanatical Islamic movement that rules most of Afghanistan and has been the target of U.S. bombing raids for more than three weeks.

Situated among plots of corn and cotton on a broad plain north of Kabul, Ghanikhel is at least four miles from the Taliban targets that American jets were hammering Saturday in the heaviest attacks yet during a week of bombardment of frontline positions.

What galled residents here even more is that the stray bomb fell within sight of foreign military observers - said to be either American or British - who they say are camped on a nearby hill to help pilots target their weapons.

"The foreigners even have their headquarters over on that hill," Baluch said, gesturing to a nearby knoll where the forward spotters are said to be camped. Presumably they are the same people whose English voices were heard on two-way radios Saturday commenting on the air strikes.

"Why did they allow their planes to bomb here?" Baluch said.

International health workers, quoting patients admitted to the Italian-run emergency hospital in nearby Anawa, said U.S. planes bombarded two other villages Saturday, killing as many as nine people. One village was on the Taliban side of the front, and the other was on the Northern Alliance side. Neither was accessible, and casualty figures could not be confirmed.

Witnesses in Ghanikhel on Saturday told reporters that 10 people were missing and 20 injured, but the numbers appear to have been exaggerated in the excitement just after the explosion. The death of the young woman was the only confirmed fatality, though Abdullah, the chief spokesman and foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, said two people died.

Abdullah, speaking to reporters last night, called the bombing of Ghanikhel a "tragic mistake," but he said such incidents were "inevitable" in times of war, especially along a front line that stretches for more than 600 miles in various locations.

"We should bear in mind it's quite a lengthy front line, and this was the first time" a bomb struck civilians in areas under control of the Northern Alliance, he said.

Abdullah praised the increased intensity of bombing Saturday, which followed several days of complaints from Northern Alliance commanders about what they saw as the indolent pace of the American attacks.

"If yesterday's type of bombing becomes the standard, our objectives could be achieved much quicker," Abdullah said.

But the skies over the Shomali Plain, where the front line stretches over a broad basin about 25 miles north of Kabul, were relatively quiet yesterday as few jets flew overhead. The occasional thump of distant weapons came from tanks and artillery, rather than aerial bombing.

Abdullah said other fronts were calm where Northern Alliance soldiers were expected to make advances, including the lines around the key northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

In Ghanikhel, there were mixed reactions to the bombing. Reporters who visited the village a few hours after the bomb struck were met with hostility.

But yesterday morning, the anger had subsided, though some people were still angry when questioned.

"If the United States repeats this action again, we will stand against them as we stood against the Russians," said Abdul Jan, who identified himself as a local commander. "If they cannot destroy our enemies, they should just stop bombing."

Mirza Khan, 35, who was outside his house when the bomb killed his wife, extended his hand and accepted condolences from foreign journalists who crowded into the village yesterday to crawl over the rubble of his house, where a thick layer of dust covered a bird cage, a half-buried bicycle, and a clock on the wall, stopped at 4:25 p.m.

"We know it was a mistake," Khan said. "But they should be more careful. If they're going to bomb here, they should evacuate this place."

Khan said that his palsied hands trembled more than usual, and that he suffered from an intense headache.

"The pain is circling everywhere," he said, motioning around his head with his hand.

Khan said he heard nothing before the bomb struck his house. Photographed by a British Sky News television crew, the bomb left the outside position of the right wing of a Navy F/A-18 Hornet and fell straight down.

Khan, who last saw his wife sewing in an upstairs room, was standing a few hundred yards away when the explosion knocked him down and filled the air with dust of what used to be his home.

He and his two brothers moved to Ghanikhel only a month ago. They were forced to evacuate their village, Sangi Burida, after it came under threat from a Taliban advance on the front line.

The three brothers occupied separate apartments in the house. There were 15 members of their family in the dwelling, now destroyed.

"We came here because we thought this place was safe," he said. home page   
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