America says “Nothing Happened”
The village where nothing happened is reached by a steep climb at the end of a rattling three-hour drive along a stony road. Until nothing happened here, early on the morning of Saturday and again the following day, it was a large village with a small graveyard, but now that has been reversed. The cemetery on the hill contains 40 freshly dug graves, unmarked and identical. And the village of Kama Ado has ceased to exist.
Many of the homes here are just deep conical craters in the earth. The rest are cracked open, split like crushed cardboard boxes. At the moment when nothing happened, the villagers of Kama Ado were taking their early morning meal, before sunrise and the beginning of the Ramadan fast. And there in the rubble, dented and ripped, are tokens of the simple daily lives they led.
A contorted tin kettle, turned almost inside out by the blast; a collection of charred cooking pots; and the fragments of an old-fashioned pedal-operated sewing machine. A split metal chest contains scraps of children’s clothes in cheap bright nylon.
In another room are the only riches that these people had, six dead cows lying higgledy-piggledy and distended by decay. And all this is very strange because, on Saturday morning – when American B-52s unloaded dozen of bombs that killed 115 men, women and children – nothing happened.
We know this because the US Department of Defence told us so. That evening, a Pentagon spokesman, questioned about reports of civilian casualties in eastern Afghanistan, explained that they were not true, because the US is meticulous in selecting only military targets associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida network. Subsequent Pentagon utterances on the subject have wobbled somewhat, but there has been no retraction of that initial decisive statement: “It just didn’t happen.”
So God knows what kind of a magic looking-glass I stepped through yesterday, as I travelled out of the city of Jalalabad along the desert road to Kama Ado. From the moment I woke up, I was confronted with the wreckage and innocent victims of high-altitude, hi-tech, thousand-pound nothings.
The day began at the home of Haji Zaman Gamsharik, the pro-Western anti-Taliban mujahedin commander who is being discreetly supplied and funded by the US government. The previous day I had followed him around Jalalabad’s mortuary, where seven mutilated corpses were being laid out – mujahedin soldiers of Commander Zaman who had been killed when US bombs hit the government office in which they were sleeping. And now, it had happened again.
There they were in the back of three pick-up trucks – seven more bloody bodies of seven more mujahedin, killed when the guesthouse in which they were sleeping in the village of Landi Khiel was hit by bombs at 6.30am yesterday morning.
Commander Zaman is a proud, haughty man who fought in the mountains for years against the Soviet Union, but I’ve never seen him look so vulnerable. “I sent them there myself yesterday,” was all he could say. “I sent them for security.”
But the commander provided us with mujahedin escorts of our own, and we set off down the road to Landi Khiel. We found the ruins of the office where the first lot of soldiers had died, and the guesthouse where they perished the previous morning. And there, in the ruins of a family house, was a small fragment of nothing. It was the tail-end of a compact bomb. It bore the words “Surface Attack Guided Missile AGM 114″, and a serial number: 232687. It was half-buried in the remains of the straw roof of a house where three men had died: Fazil Karim, his brother Mahmor Ghulab, and his nephew Hasiz Ullah. “They were a family, just ordinary people,” said Haji Mohammed Nazir, the local elder who was accompanying us. “They were not terrorists – the terrorists are in the mountains, over there.”
So we drove on in the direction of the White Mountains, where hundreds of al-Qa’ida members, and perhaps even Osama bin Laden himself, are hiding in the Tora Bora cave complex. A B-52 was high in the sky; a billow of black smoke was visible, blooming out of the valley. Something, surely, was happening over there. And then we reached the ruins of Kama Ado. Among the pathetic remains I found only one sinister object an old leather gun holster with an ammunition belt. It is conceivable that a handful of al-Qa’ida members had been spending the night there, and that US targeters learnt of their presence.
But after 22 years of war, almost every Afghan home contains some military relic, and the villagers swore they hadn’t seen Arab or Taliban fighters for a fortnight. Certainly there could not have been enough terrorists to fill the 40 fresh graves. One person told me a few holes contained not intact people, but simply body parts.
We had been warned that white faces would meet an angry reception in the village where nothing happened, but I encountered despair and bafflement. I had only one moment of real fear, when an American B-52 flew overhead. We halted our convoy, clambered out of the cars and trotted into the fields on either side. The plane did a slow circle; I was conscious of electronic eyes looking down on us, the only traffic on the road. Then, to everyone’s relief, the bomber veered away.
Before we left the city, an American colleague in Jalalabad telephoned the Pentagon and informed them of our plans to travel to the village where nothing happened. I can’t help wondering, in these looking-glass times, what that B-52 would have done to our convoy if that telephone call had not been made. Perhaps nothing would have happened to me too.