Compensation for Bombing Victims The Price of an Afghan Life

The German military is paying $5,000 in compensation to every family that lost a member in a German-ordered airstrike in Afghanistan. But the seemingly generous gesture is just the latest twist in a bizarre dispute over how much the life of a dead civilian is worth.


By Jochen-Martin Gutsch

It's a hot Tuesday afternoon in Kunduz, more than eight months after the German-ordered deadly bombing of two hijacked trucks that had become stuck in a riverbed. Karim Popal, who is sitting cross-legged on the floor, tells his listeners that Germany intends to pay €4,000 (about $5,280) for each civilian killed in the Sept. 4, 2009 incident.

"Four thousand euros in compensation," says Popal, looking at the group. The room smells of carpet, men, feet and the dust from the street seeping in through the window.

Popal, who unlike his listeners is wearing socks, is surrounded by 15 men in Afghan traditional clothing. They are village elders from Chahar Dara, the district surrounding Kunduz. Most of them are Popal's clients.

"Four thousand euros is very little," says one man in the group.

Popal nods wearily.

The 15 men look at Popal. Four thousand euros. They know that he is their attorney, and that he's on their side, but somehow they had expected more.

'A Suitable Amount'

At around the same time in Berlin, a burly man with a short haircut is sitting in the German Defense Ministry. "I think that €4,000 or $5,000 is a suitable amount that's appropriate for the country," he says.

The burly man is wearing a brown leather vest, jeans and sandals. He looks like a bartender. He has only agreed to have this conversation under the condition that his name not be published. He spent months negotiating a compensation deal with Karim Popal and other attorneys. There was no agreement, just different ideas on what appropriate compensation should look like.

"The standard of living in Afghanistan is the key factor," says the burly man, leaning back in his chair. "We are talking about a foreign culture, and it's important not to provoke envy there."

Since that conversation, the Defense Ministry has settled on a number. Last Thursday, it announced that $5,000 each would be paid to the families of the victims. This meant that the Bundeswehr's biggest military mistake was only going to cost the German government half a million dollars.

For now, it is the last act in a months-long dispute over a single question: How much is a human life worth? More specifically, how much is an Afghan life worth? This question is the source of a dispute between the German Defense Ministry and the families of the victims, who are represented by a team of German attorneys working with Popal.

Not a Realistic Solution

When Popal was sitting on the ground on that Tuesday afternoon in Kunduz, speaking with the village elders, when he still believed that he could do something for them, he said: "I will ask for $33,000 for each person killed. I will write to the court in Germany, the regional court in Bonn. Then we'll have to see what happens."

The old men nodded. It was difficult to gauge what they were thinking. They were illiterate farmers, and none of them had ever been to Germany. Now they were suddenly being told that there was a German court that could reach a verdict on their case. It didn't sound like a realistic solution to them. It sounded more like a film in which Afghan farmers, in an unlikely twist of fate, sue the German government for damages.

"I don't know whether we'll succeed," Popal said, looking at his socks. "And it could also take some time. Perhaps a year or two. I don't know."

No Case

Half an hour later, Popal was sitting on the steps at the entrance of the Hotel Kunduz, lighting a cigarette. He was staying in a basic room at the hotel, furnished with little more than a bed, a toilet and a non-functioning television set. The next day, Popal planned to meet his remaining clients and convince them to support the lawsuit.

Does he even stand a chance of winning a case like this?

"The chances are good," Popal said. "I would say 60 percent."

At the Defense Ministry in Berlin, the burly man smiles. "We're not terribly worried about a lawsuit or a trial," he says.

Why not?

The man says that he has had a legal opinion prepared. The conclusion, he says, in a nutshell, is that a lawsuit will not succeed. The surviving family members of the victims don't have a case against the Bundeswehr. The burly man shrugs his shoulders, as if to say: Sorry, but that's the situation.


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