Afghans seeking help rally in front of U.S. Embassy

Many who lost families, homes in bombings now look for aid to rebuild

`We are just poor people'

April 08, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan -- When Harafa came to the U.S. Embassy here yesterday, she didn't ask for compensation for the loss of her husband, a carpet-maker killed when a stray American bomb landed on her family's compound last fall.

She didn't want damages for the death of her 14-year-old son or the six other members of her extended family killed in the same raid on her eastern Kabul neighborhood.

All she asked was help in rebuilding her home.

The 30-year-old woman and her five surviving children have worn out their welcome at a neighbor's, where they are crowded into a single room. "They are arguing at us to get out," she said with tears in her dark eyes.

Harafa and about 60 other Afghans from across the country came here seeking help, if not answers, from the United States yesterday. They are neither Taliban nor al-Qaida. Yet they lost homes, possessions and loved ones to the anti-terror bombing campaign.

Michael Metrinko, an embassy official, emerged from the heavily fortified compound to listen to the Afghans and accept their petitions for aid. But he said apologetically that he could offer only his sympathy.

The embassy, he said, recommended in January that Washington offer compensation to civilians who suffered from the bombing. But the State Department and the Pentagon haven't agreed on how to respond after weeks of discussion, and he finds the delay frustrating.

"You can't imagine how difficult it is to listen to stories like this," he said. "We get them a lot. It's not easy to tell people we can't give them an answer."

Harafa recalled the bombing. About 6 a.m. one day in the fall, a plane roared over her neighborhood in a Hazara section of Kabul and dropped a bomb. It missed a targeted anti-aircraft battery by a wide margin and landed a few feet from where her husband slept. A son, Ali Jawad, 13, was sleeping several yards away in the same room as two other children.

Their mud-brick house blew up in a cloud of fire and dust. Ali was told that rescuers dug him out of the rubble while he was unconscious. Both of the children sharing his bedroom were killed.

Because of the raids, Harafa and her younger children were living with relatives in another community. She did not hear about the bombing for two days. By the time she returned, what was left of her husband's body and that of a 14-year-old son were being wrapped in a sheet at a mosque. "The bodies were destroyed," she said. "They were in pieces."

Harafa knows the bombing was an accident. But that doesn't explain, she said, why Americans don't seem to care what happened. "Why?" she asked. "We are not Taliban. We are just poor people. We are just laborers."

Because of the bombing, Ali refuses to go to school. He was injured in the head, and his face is permanently scarred. He hates walking by the bombed-out remnants of his home, turned to lumps of mud by recent rains. "I never want to see my house again," he recently told Harafa.

Harafa's daughter Fatima, 10, is energetic, bright-eyed and talkative. But she grew quiet when asked what will happen if she has to leave her neighbor's home. "Right now, we don't know where we will go," she said. And she started to cry.

Yesterday's rally was organized by the human rights group Global Exchange, based in San Francisco.

Marla Rukzicka, spokeswoman for the group, said that it has dispatched a 10-member survey team to find victims of the bombing campaign and that the United States government should do the same.

She said she didn't know how many civilian victims the Global Exchange survey has found. But other organizations, she noted, have estimated that the number of families affected by the bombing range from 1,300 to 4,000.

In front of the embassy gates, Rukzicka stood on a concrete barrier and called on the United States to pay for a survey of victims. Her organization supports legislation that would provide $10,000 to each family.

Nervous young Marines in flak jackets and helmets shouted at marchers to stay clear of the entrance. "Get away from there!" one shouted. Americans and Afghans in plain clothes also appeared, to keep the rally from blocking the gate -- and the Marines' view of the street.

Harafa's neighbor Raihela added other details about the raid on their neighborhood. Raihela was sweeping outside in the compound courtyard when she heard the sound of the plane. "I heard a big explosion," she said. The blast tore through a wall, burying her.

She lay under a pile of mud bricks, she said, until her husband -- who had been at prayers at a mosque -- ran home and dug her out. After pulling her clear, he continued the hunt.

When he stepped on some rubble, it gave way, and there was a muffled cry. Clawing at the dust, he pulled out his daughter Zageya, 13.

He and his neighbors found one other child alive. But Raihela's 1-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter were dead.

Since the raid, Raihela's husband has suffered from uncontrollable shaking. Occasionally, he will take his peddler's cart and try to sell used clothing on Kabul's streets.

Often, though, the clamor of Kabul's wild traffic unnerves him, and he returns home early. Most days, she said, he just sits in a corner of the house.

"I cannot be compensated for the blood of my children," Raihela said.

But she does hope for help in rebuilding her home.

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