By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
BAGHLAN, Afghanistan -- Mohammed Asadullah, a high school teacher in this quiet northern town, was lining up his students to greet a group of visiting legislators from the capital when the bomb went off, hurling bodies into the air and sending up a cloud of thick, dark smoke. What happened next, he and other survivors recounted, was worse.
"The bodyguards got nervous and started shooting. The police started firing, too. They even tried to shoot me," the teacher said Monday, angry tears coming to his eyes. He pointed to a charred, splintered pine tree where the bomb had detonated. "It was horrible. People were running and screaming, but it just went on. Five other teachers were killed by bullets, and so many students. They should all have been in class studying."
The horrific Nov. 6 incident outside the New Baghlan Sugar mill, which left 70 schoolchildren, six members of parliament and half a dozen other people dead, was initially described as Afghanistan's worst terrorist attack to date in two years of suicide bombings and other assaults by Taliban insurgents. It was also seen as an alarming sign that extremists had extended their reach into peaceful northern regions of the country.
But the Taliban immediately denied responsibility for the bombing, and over the course of two weeks marked by emotional funerals and rising public anger, witnesses have emerged to lay blame on Afghan security forces who, for still unexplained reasons, retaliated with such sustained and wild barrages of gunfire that they killed many survivors of the blast.
Both the magnitude and the murkiness of the slayings in this remote town, previously cut off from insurgent violence by the Hindu Kush mountain range, have shaken the country. The deaths of so many children in a culture where family is paramount have added to the sense of outrage.
The event has generated fresh criticism of the government's poor security record, unleashed conspiracy theories and reinforced concerns about the number of former anti-Soviet militiamen, sometimes of questionable training and loyalty, now being employed as bodyguards by various individuals, groups, private firms and public agencies.
According to an internal report by the U.N. assistance mission in Kabul that was obtained by the Associated Press, some security guards fired "deliberately and indiscriminately" into the crowd of children and others who had been sent to the mill gates to greet the VIPs. The report, which has not been officially released and is one of several conflicting accounts of what happened, said that the gunfire had caused up to one-third of the casualties and that there had been virtually "no effort" by Afghan authorities to identify or punish the shooters.
Afghan officials initially attributed the entire death toll to a suicide bomber and suggested the punctures in many of the victims' bodies had been caused by ball bearings in the bomb, not bullets. Now they say that a more thorough investigation is underway and that they expect to release the findings by the end of this week, after a group of legislators returns from conducting its own probe.
"We have some preliminary results, but the investigation is not over yet," President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said at a news conference Tuesday. Disputing allegations that gunfire had killed a large number of the victims, Hamidzada said that witnesses and local officials had been questioned and that he expected the forthcoming official report to be "definitive and bulletproof."
Karzai, in an interview in his palace in Kabul on Tuesday evening, said he had been "deeply hurt" by the killings in Baghlan and had tried to travel there to meet with victims' families last week before bad weather canceled his trip. He said he later spoke to them by telephone.
The president suggested that "recklessness" on many sides was to blame for the deaths in Baghlan, adding, "There is no way it will go unanswered."
Karzai has been described as increasingly frustrated by the poor performance of the Afghan police, based in the Interior Ministry, and he has publicly accused the ministry of corruption and incompetence. He has also expressed exasperation at the tendency of foreign donors to bypass his government and deal directly with private contractors.
A particular source of complaint has been the dozens of private security companies that operate in Kabul and other cities with little oversight, often employing former Afghan guerrilla fighters. The Karzai government has raided several of these firms in recent weeks, seizing equipment and weapons.
"This bodyguard culture is killing Afghanistan, and we have to remove it," Karzai said in the interview.
A new report prepared for the United Nations by the group Swisspeace found that Afghan and foreign security firms in Afghanistan employ 18,500 to 28,000 men. It said that although the companies may provide security for their clients, they are viewed by the public as creating a "sense of distrust and insecurity." Reasons include their ties to local militia bosses, their heavily armed presence, their rudeness toward civilians and their alleged ties to crime.
In Baghlan, the security personnel at the scene of the bombing included a mix of local police and teams of bodyguards for each legislator and other officials; former militia commanders were among those in the crowd. When the blast occurred, witnesses said, gunfire erupted in many directions and lasted several minutes. When it was over, bodies were strewn across the scenic, tree-lined driveway and field surrounding the mill.
The protracted absence of a satisfactory official explanation of the incident has bred numerous rumors of political plots and counterplots. Many center on the most prominent victim, Sayed Mustafa Kazimi, 48, a member of parliament and former commerce minister who had recently become the spokesman for the main coalition opposing Karzai.
Kazimi was a rising political star from the country's long-suffering ethnic Hazara minority. Since the bombing, posters of his face under the headline "Martyr," together with smaller portraits of his five slain bodyguards, have been plastered on shops and utility poles throughout West Kabul, a Hazara stronghold where thousands attended a memorial ceremony for Kazimi on Nov. 8.
Some opposition figures have suggested that the government orchestrated the entire incident to get rid of Kazimi, who was being groomed as a rival to Karzai and his camp in elections two years from now. Other observers have hinted at an equally dark plot by rival groups within Kazimi's United National Front coalition that mistrusted his ambitions and close ties with Iran.
"With all the delays, the people are wondering a great deal, and they have many questions," said Kazimi's younger brother Sayed Ali, who has now inherited the leadership of his political party, National Pride. "I am not accusing anyone, and I have patience to wait for the final report, but it must be neutral and clear about what happened. The government needs to say something to the people to make them calm."
The confusion and official silence surrounding the slayings have been especially hard on the families of the children who died that day, leaving them torn between grief and suspicion. Dozens of families in the small Baghlan community lost a child in a few moments of lethal chaos, and one sugar mill worker named Asadullah, 44, lost three of his five sons.
"I was at work when I heard the explosion outside and then all the gunfire," he said, staring at his parlor carpet Monday and fingering his untouched glass of tea. "I thought my boys were safe in school, but then someone told me they had all been sent to meet the guests from Kabul. I rushed over there, and I saw blood and smoke and people running. I saw so many bodies on the ground, and I could hardly bear to look. Then I found Zaki, and Khoshal, and Wisal. All dead."
Glancing up with reddened eyes, Asadullah grimaced in anger.
"The government always says that such killings are done by the enemies of Afghanistan, but this time we Afghans killed them," the grieving father said. "We took them from school and made them stand by the road, and they died. I am a good Muslim, so I must believe this is God's plan. He gave us sons and He took them away, but I would like to know why."