Photo Gallery: The Killings of Kandahar
Cruelty and War in Afghanistan US Soldier Goes on Trial for 'Kandahar Massacre'
The 33 prayer beads slide through the man's hand; 33 repetitions of "Allahu akbar," "God is great."
"My name is Mohammed Wazir," he says. "I do not cry. I have 10 fingers on my hands. Such was my pain that day, as if someone had cut off all 10 of my fingers. I had seven children. Now I am left with one son. It doesn't bring the dead to life if I cry."
Then he smiles for no apparent reason. One of his hands bears a tattoo of two crossed swords. "You don't ask Allah, 'Why have you done this?'," he says. "I must be patient. The Prophet will reward me in paradise."
Wazir, 35, with his turban wrapped in the Pashtun manner, is answering questions in the garden of a hotel in Kabul. Searching for traces of desperation in his face, or sadness in his clear, dark eyes, yields nothing. Three other men are here with him and they nod in response to his slow-paced sentences. All of these men will be flying to Mecca tomorrow for the Hajj, the great pilgrimage that is a religious obligation for all Muslims.
Under the cover of darkness in the early hours of Sunday, March 11, 2012, around 2:30 a.m., a man approached the house where Wazir lived with his family, in the village of Najiban in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, a place of endless war. The man, according to prosecutors, is Robert Bales, 39, US Army staff sergeant with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
In the house were six of Wazir's children, as well as his wife, mother, brother, sister-in-law and nephew. Wazir wasn't home, having taken his youngest son to visit relatives.
"Why didn't the murderer wait for me?" he asks. "Why did he kill my children but not wait for me?"
'Drawn to the Impossible'
The world soon learned what happened that night at Wazir's home and in two other houses in the villages of Najiban and Alkozai. The crime, now known as the "Kandahar Massacre," is already considered to be perhaps the gravest war crime of this most recent conflict in Afghanistan. There was Haditha in Iraq, My Lai in Vietnam. And now the 16 dead in these villages near Camp Belambay, an American military base in the district of Panjwai in Kandahar Province. The victims' family members use the term "Ghamgina Wraz," or "sad day" to refer to March 11, 2012 -- or in the Afghan calendar, the 21st day of the 12th month of the year 1390 as calculated from the date of the Prophet Muhammad's migration to Medina.
"First let's see how much they can prove," says lawyer John Henry Browne. Browne too has a tattoo -- a ring of stylized barbed wire circling his arm.
Browne, 66, with his mane of hair and his hippie past, has been divorced six times -- and seen as something of a rock star among American attorneys. He has spent his life representing rapists and murderers, the types of cases that tend to attract cameras and microphones. He also likes motorcycles and once played in a band that opened for The Doors. He made a name for himself in the 1970s as one of the lawyers for serial killer Ted Bundy. In describing his motivation, Browne says: "Legally speaking, I'm drawn to the impossible."
He folds his two-meter (six-and-a-half-foot) frame into his rental car, a white SUV, and is driven to the prison at Fort Leavenworth for an appointment with his client. Balancing a laptop on his legs, he scrolls through a 5,000-page document, the conclusions of a military investigation concerning the case of Robert Bales. The document lists 34 violations of American military criminal law, including 16 cases of murder, six attempted murders, several cases of cremating bodies and the abuse of both alcohol and an anabolic steroid called Stanozolol.
Browne's strategy in court has remained unchanged for decades. He used it again just last year to obtain a light sentence for airplane thief Colton Harris-Moore, notorious as the "Barefoot Bandit." In court, Browne drew attention away from the crime itself, putting the focus instead on the accused's difficult living circumstances. As soon as Browne took on Bales' case, he started telling reporters about the staff sergeant's devastating war experiences, his three tours of Iraq, a concussion he suffered in the line of duty and his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
'Frankenstein Was Not the Monster'
Referring to soldiers such as Bales, Browne told the Seattle Times: "These people are broken, and we've broken them." He told the New York Times: "Frankenstein was not the monster. The monster was Dr. Frankenstein, who created Frankenstein." He told NBC: "I think the war is on trial." The public will soon be hearing more such statements from the attorney, when the initial hearings begin on Monday in Seattle and Kandahar for a case Browne considers the most important of his career.
The Fort Leavenworth garrison was once a symbol of the United States' military might. Now, though, it comes up more often in connection with certain names that have brought disgrace to the US Army and to the country as a whole. Charles Graner, one of the torturers at Abu Ghraib, served his sentence here. Bradley Manning, alleged traitor and source of documents leaked to WikiLeaks, was long kept here as well.
The facility is located behind a hill, squatting low against the flat landscape. From atop the concrete walls, razor wire glints in the hot Kansas sun. And somewhere inside is Robert Bales, the man the Internet has dubbed the "Kandahar Killer" and who his wife Kari calls "the best husband ever." On one visit to Fort Leavenworth with the couple's two children, Quincy, 5, and Bobby, 2, Kari celebrated with her husband a small family milestone: that little Bobby had used the potty for the first time.
Witnesses found no gunshot wounds on the corpses of the two youngest victims in Najiban: Nabia, 4, and Palwasha, 1. The murderer presumably either burned them alive or allowed them to suffocate: He piled his victims up together, covered them in blankets and set everything on fire.
As Wazir describes his murdered children, he counts them off on his fingers. "Esmatullah was my oldest son. He was about 15. He went to the Koran school at the mosque. He could read and write. We were planning a wedding for him. Faizullah was about 11. He liked to ride his bicycle. He brought us tea when we worked in the fields. Masooma was nine. Her name means 'innocence.' She made little dolls and sewed faces for them. Farida was seven. She helped her mother. Nabia was perhaps four. Palwasha was still very little."
Searching for a Calm Heart
For attorney Browne, a fair trial is vital. He defines justice as: "Equality in the eyes of the law. That's why I defend those who are at the fringes, the indefensible, like Bales," he says. "If the government abandons them and sentences them to death arbitrarily, then our entire Constitution is worth nothing."
Mohammed Wazir, not surprisingly, sees things differently. "We want to see this man hang," he says. "I won't speak his name, I don't want to dirty my mouth. I would like to hang him myself. I'll go to America to the Mahkama, to the great court, to see him hang. Then my heart will be calm." The men accompanying him nod in agreement.
"Mahkama" is the Pashto word for a court. It's how Mohammed Wazir refers to the body before which he wishes to appear.
"Article 32 Hearing" is how John Henry Browne and the American military justice system refer to the hearing that will begin on November 5. The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether the case should proceed to a criminal trial, and if so, what kind. The hearing will take place simultaneously in Tacoma, near Seattle, and in Kandahar. The prosecution will present its findings and the survivors' testimony will be transmitted live to the courtroom on the west coast of the United States. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will be present.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the hearing officer will decide whether investigators have assembled enough incriminating evidence for a general court martial -- the military equivalent of a felony trial. The officer will also determine whether the trial will carry a possible sentence of the death penalty, which the prosecution will doubtlessly petition for. It may be years before a verdict is reached.
Wazir clears his throat and spits chewing tobacco on the ground. "The court in America will find the murderer guilty," he says. And then, he believes, they will ask him and the other family members of the victims how the perpetrator should be penalized. Shooting, Wazir says, is not excruciating enough. As if his wish were not yet clear, Mohammed Wazir mimes his preferred punishment, settling an invisible noose around his neck and pulling it tight.
An Afghan Farmer's Three Enemies
John Henry Browne cuts a bagel in half in the breakfast room of the Q Hotel + Spa near Fort Leavenworth. The meeting with his client went well, he says, adding that Bales is in good spirits, but misses his family. As he eats, Browne summarizes the body of evidence. "There are no fingerprints. There are no blood samples. There is no forensic data at all. There is no confession." And, he adds, his client has no memory of the night in question.
The victims were buried as quickly as possible, following Muslim custom. There were no autopsies and none of the projectiles were retained. For security reasons, American investigators didn't gain access to the crime scenes until several days after the night of the murders, by which point all evidence had long since been obliterated. Browne claims that it still hasn't been proven how many people actually died, and the victims' identities are unclear as well -- he says he hasn't seen any death certificates. And for John Henry Browne, the only things that exist are those that can be proven. For Browne, the dead of Najiban and Alkozai are nothing more than rumors.
Mohammed Wazir counts the beads with his fingers, 33 repetitions of "Al-hamdu lillah," or "God be praised." The Americans asked him if they could exhume the bodies of his family to examine them, he says. He refused. "We would never allow our martyrs to be defiled. I saw them. They're dead. The murderer is in prison. What more do these people want to prove?"
In Fort Leavenworth, Browne says he doubts there are witnesses who can identify his client, since "it was pitch black night." He will fly to Kandahar for the hearing this month, then travel by armored vehicle to an army base where he will question the survivors, all of it simultaneously translated and transmitted live to Seattle. However, many witnesses -- "especially the women," Browne says -- will refuse to testify at all. This is fact that can presumably only act in his favor.
The First Victims
"A woman never goes to the Mahkama," Wazir says, explaining that as long as a woman has a male relative who can speak for her, she will not be sent to court. The families of the victims have already determined who should bear witness in front of the court: the eldest, the respected figures. The fact that they themselves were not present is irrelevant. Truth here depends not on whether a person was an eyewitness, but on how much authority that person holds.
Rafiullah was present, though. At the moment he's playing with a cell phone in the hotel garden in Kabul. He too does not know his exact age, Wazir explains, but is about as old as Wazir's eldest was when he died, so around 15. Rafiullah has a bit of fuzz on his upper lip and jet-black hair.
"We'd only had one side of sleep" is the answer Rafiullah, whose home the murderer invaded first, gives when asked what time the noise of shots woke him on March 11, 2012. He explains that he measures the passage of time during the night by his sleeping position. If he wakes up in the same position as he and his siblings were in when they went to bed, then perhaps a couple of hours have passed since they fell asleep.
One thing is clear: By the time the murderer left Rafiullah's house in the village of Alkozai, he had killed four people, the first of his victims that night. Several others were injured, including Rafiullah's sister Zardana, who sustained head trauma. Zardana later spent several months being treated in the US; she cannot walk properly anymore. Rafiullah himself survived with one gunshot that penetrated his left thigh and one that grazed his right. Since his sister returned, Rafiullah says, neither of them gets enough sleep anymore, because "almost every night one of us wakes up from a dream screaming and wakes the other one."
The murderer left Camp Belambay, a small US Special Forces base, on foot around 1 a.m. The base is located in a high-risk region over which the US Army hoped to win control. To the soldiers it was a Taliban stronghold. To Wazir it was home.
After the slaughter in Rafiullah's house, the perpetrator went back to the base, where he allegedly told a fellow soldier he had shot a couple of civilians outside. The other soldier thought he was talking nonsense and didn't inform anyone. Then, around half an hour later, the murderer set out a second time, now in the other direction, south toward Najiban. This time, an Afghan watchman raised the alarm. Everyone on the base was woken and a headcount conducted. Soon a search team was assembled and a helicopter sent out. By then, the murderer had long since reached Mohammed Wazir's house.
'My Mulberries Were so Sweet'
On his fields, which abut the walls that surround the American base, Wazir grows pomegranates, mulberries and grapes, which for generations his family has dried to make raisins. For a long time how, he says, three enemies have been making his life difficult: the Taliban, the Afghan Army and the Americans. He and those around him are stopped and checked by soldiers nearly every day. There is a curfew between dusk and sunrise. Panjwai District is known as the birthplace of the Taliban movement, the place from which Mullah Omar launched his revolution in 1994. To this day, it can be difficult to separate civilians from insurgents here. Indeed, they are often one and the same.
He has not only family members, Wazir says, but his house and his land were also taken from him. He can't and doesn't want to go back, and now lives instead with his brother in a city called Spin Boldak. His fields in Najiban lie fallow and the trees have withered. "My mulberries were so sweet," he says. His voice is never louder than when speaking of his abandoned crops. The thought seems to pain him almost as much as the thought of his lost children.
"The Americans are always talking about the human rights they want to bring to us," he says. "Are those human rights, shooting children? Are those human rights, letting the trees wither? How is the pomegranate tree at fault? How is the grapevine at fault? My mulberries were so sweet."
In Bonney Lake in the US state of Washington, a cord bearing the words "Private Property" blocks off the entrance to the Bales family home. Most residents of this idyllic town, nestled between forests and lakes, keep a boat trailer in the driveway along with the car.
The garbage collectors will be around soon, and blue trashcans stand ready for them by the curb in front of every house -- every house except the Bales', where no one lives anymore. Robert Bales' wife and the two children have been given accommodation at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord for security reasons. A man at the Chevron gas station in Bonney Lake says, "We all feel for Bobby. He's a great guy. It's hard to believe the things they say happened over there."
'We Don't Know What He Did'
During her visits to the high-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kari Bales hasn't spoken to her husband at all about the terrible events that are the reason for his imprisonment. She doesn't ask about it, she has said, because this murderer everyone is talking about: "That's not my Bobby."
Bales was captain of his high school football team, an all-American boy and a leader who received a number of distinctions during his 11 years with the army. He served three tours in Iraq, and former superiors and subordinates describe him as a soldier who believed in what the military was doing there, who treated the civilian population with respect and who understood the importance of "winning hearts and minds," a strategic motto of the US Army. Court records show, though, that Bales also had a darker side. In 2002 he was arrested at a hotel and charged with assaulting a woman. The charge was dropped, but Bales had to attend 20 hours of anger management counseling.
In 2011, Bales and his family believed he would no longer be deployed in conflict zones. Kari Bales posted on her blog a list of the countries where she would most like to live, and expressed her hope that her husband would soon be assigned to an army base in Europe. Her first choice country was Germany; second was Italy. But then came the order deploying Bales to Afghanistan.
Asking Browne why Bales did what he did reveals more about the attorney's defense strategy than about the presumed perpetrator. "We don't know what he did," Browne insists. "But we know what the war did to him."
If a trial does result, which seems a certainty, Browne believes it is not just Robert Bales who will be in the dock, but the entire leadership of the US Army, the entire war. "Why would you send a man who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, who lost part of his foot in an accident in Iraq, to war a fourth time?" he asks. Thousands of young Americans are in much the same situation as Bales, Browne says: They're ordered out onto the battlefield to collect the bodies of their dead friends, and they come home as wrecks, he says. Browne quotes a headline from this past summer, which reported that since the start of the war in Afghanistan, more members of the US Army have committed suicide than have died in action.
A Victim of War?
One of the ironies of this case is that the accused -- the alleged perpetrator of a massacre that epitomizes the brutality of war -- is being defended by an avowed opponent of the war, and that the defense strategy is to transform the killer into a victim of war.
For Browne, this trial is the continuation of a different battle. As a young man, Browne was part of the American anti-war movement. He was exempted from the draft because of his height: Men taller than 6 feet 6 inches (198 centimeters) weren't enlisted. "I was too tall to go shoot little people," as Browne puts it. He doesn't see himself as a pacifist, but he opposes the American military involvement in Afghanistan, "as do 70 percent of my fellow Americans at this point," he says. The American public's war weariness is increasing, partly because of events such as the murders in Kandahar.
Not until fairly late in the proceedings did the prosecution add to its list of charges an offense unusual for a murder case: possession and consumption of Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid used by athletes and bodybuilders. The murderer, it appears, may have been on steroids.
"How did my client obtain this substance?" Browne asks. "Is there a medicine cabinet somewhere on the base, where the soldiers can just help themselves?"
If the case goes to trial, Browne wants to make the army's handling of performance-enhancing substances a focus. For years, there have been accusations that US soldiers are drugged up when they go into battle. A 2008 US Department of Defense study found that 2.5 percent of all Army members used illegal steroids. And this year the Los Angeles Times reported that more than 110,000 active soldiers take medications such as anti-depressants, sedatives and amphetamines, prescribed by military doctors.
Browne plans to place such findings into the context of the Army's rising suicide rate and the increasing number of cases of soldiers loss of control. He intends to paint a picture of a military force on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Mohammed Wazir lights a cigarette. The brand name is Pine, a Korean product, yet the package reads "American Taste." Just two weeks after the attack, the surviving family members in Kandahar received $50,000 (€39,000) per person killed and $10,000 per person injured, in cash. The money was designated as rapid emergency aid, not as compensation. Wazir received half a million dollars for the 10 blood relatives he lost. An Afghan employee of the BBC was on location and American authorities confirm that the payment was made, but Wazir refuses to admit it in the conversation in Kabul, saying he never received money from the Americans. Anyone who accepts money from the enemy becomes a target for the Taliban.
Tomorrow he will fly to Mecca with three other men, a journey a farmer from Najiban can't normally afford. Because of the pilgrimage, Wazir will likely miss the hearing in Kandahar, but he believes it won't be possible to start without him. Among the men accompanying Wazir to Mecca is his new father-in-law. Two months after Ghamgina Wraz, the sad day, Wazir took a new wife. No music was played at the wedding, he says, and they invited only 100 guests.
March 11, 2012, 3:30 a.m. Just a few meters on after setting out from Camp Belambay, the US Army's search team saw a figure approaching. Security cameras recorded how the man, Bales, wearing an Afghan scarf over his uniform, sank to his knees, lay down his weapons and raised his arms in the air. Five days later he was flown out to Fort Leavenworth.
It will take a long time to bring this case to a conclusion, and some of the reasons are political. The US plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in 2014, but diplomats are negotiating with President Hamid Karzai's government over conditions concerning certain contingents that will remain beyond this date. One important topic under discussion is military jurisprudence. Afghanistan wants the right to prosecute war criminals such as the Kandahar murderer, while the US is unwilling to turn its soldiers over to Afghan courts. A speedy decision from an American military tribunal sentencing Robert Bales to anything less than the death penalty would be received in Kabul as a scandal, and jeopardize the negotiations.
Into the Night
Najiban, 3 a.m. on March 11, 2012, the 21st day of the 12th month of the year 1390. The murderer was finished at Mohammed Wazir's house and no one was left alive. He even shot the dog, and the songbird that Mohammed's wife Zarah kept in a cage died in the smoke from the burning bodies. But the killer's rage wasn't spent. He pounded and kicked at other doors in the village at random, and the door to Mohammed Dawood's house happened to open.
Ten-year-old Hikmatullah, who watched as his father was shot, tells what happened here in the last minutes of the soldier's rampage.
Shouting the word "Taliban" over and over, the killer trampled over the sleeping children, waking Mohammed Dawood and his wife, their two daughters and four sons. The youngest, Hasratullah, less than a year old, lay in a crib. The mother screamed, everyone screamed, the father pled for mercy. The intruder dispatched him with a shot to the head.
The murderer could have continued, shooting more children, more women. He approached the crib and placed the muzzle of his gun in the infant's mouth.
The last time Robert Bales saw his son Bobby before leaving for Afghanistan for the endless war, the boy was about the age of this child.
The killer stopped and disappeared back into the night.