KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Sitting on a dirty straw mat on the parched ground of southern Afghanistan, Masooma sank deeper inside a giant black shawl. Hidden from view, her words burst forth as she told her side of what happened to her family sometime before dawn on March 11, 2012.
According to Masooma, an American soldier wearing a helmet equipped with a flashlight burst into her two-room mud home while everyone slept. He killed her husband, Dawood, punched her 7-year-old son and shoved a pistol into the mouth of his baby brother.
“We were asleep. He came in and he was shouting, saying something about Taliban, Taliban, and then he pulled my husband up. I screamed and screamed and said, ‘We are not Taliban, we are not government. We are no one. Please don’t hurt us,’” she said.
The soldier wasn’t listening. He pointed his pistol at Masooma to quiet her and pushed her husband into the living room.
“My husband just looked back at me and said, ‘I will be back.’”
Seconds later she heard gunshots. Her husband was dead.
Masooma, who like many Afghans uses only one name, defied tribal traditions that prohibit women from speaking to strangers to talk to The Associated Press while, half a world away at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the military prepares to court-martial a U.S. soldier in the killing of her husband and 15 other Afghan civilians, mainly women and children.
The AP also interviewed other villagers about the case, all of whom are identified by the U.S. Army as witnesses or relatives of witnesses.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, formerly of Lake Tapps, is accused of the killings. Prosecutors say the Lewis-McChord Stryker soldier slipped away from his remote outpost to attack two nearby villages, returning in the middle of the rampage and then for a final time soaked in blood.
During a hearing last fall at the base south of Tacoma, other soldiers testified that Bales spent the evening before the massacre watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whiskey from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost a comrade his leg.
Bales, a 39-year-old husband and father of two, has not entered a plea, but his lawyers have not disputed his involvement in the killings. They have said his mental health may be part of his defense; he was on his fourth combat deployment with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division and reportedly had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a concussive head injury while serving in Iraq. The Army is seeking the death penalty.
The killings took place in Kandahar’s Panjwai district, deep in the ethnic Pashtun heartland that spawned the Taliban movement, an area where women are hidden inside all-enveloping burqas and rarely leave their homes.
Masooma’s account of the night has been reported variously over the past year, differing over details such as whether there was one or more than one U.S. soldier involved. However, the four hours she recently spent with the AP was her first face-to-face interview with a news organization. She spoke as her burly brother-in-law Baraan loomed nearby.
Masooma said that the soldier returned to the family’s bedroom after killing her husband. She stood in terror. Her children hid under their blankets. The soldier moved slowly and seemed angry. Gesturing to show how he hit her in the arms and shoved her to the ground, Masooma said he then moved toward her son Hikmatullah, then 7.
Her son said he remembers the sight of the attacker in full military uniform. “I was so afraid. I pretended I was asleep,” he said.
Masooma said the soldier found Hikmatullah and punched him repeatedly in the head.
She said the soldier then found her 2-year-old daughter, Shahara. He grabbed her pigtails and violently shook her head back and forth.
He then went to the crying baby Hazratullah and shoved the muzzle of his black pistol into the infant’s mouth, she said.
“He just held it there in his mouth. I screamed and screamed, ‘He is just a baby. Don’t kill him. Don’t kill him.’ But he just kept the gun in his mouth. He didn’t say anything. He just stared at him,” she recalled.
After some time, she said, the soldier took the gun from the baby’s mouth and walked back into the living room. Masooma dug her bare foot into the dirt to demonstrate how the soldier slipped his foot beneath her husband’s head to lift it from the floor, as if to be sure he was really dead. The soldier looked down at her husband, shrugged his shoulders and returned to searching her home. After he finished rifling through their belongings, he left.
Investigators say Bales was armed with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle outfitted with a grenade launcher when he walked off his base and went on a nighttime killing spree in five homes, including Masooma’s. He faces 16 counts of premeditated murder; six counts of attempted murder; seven counts of assault; and one count each of possessing steroids, using steroids, destroying a laptop, burning bodies, and using alcohol.
Last month, Bales appeared in a military courtroom at Lewis-McChord for a hearing that focused on what might happen if he is convicted, including which relatives and friends could speak on his behalf during a sentencing hearing.
The U.S. government flew Baraan and five other Afghan men – all members of families who were attacked – to Washington state to familiarize them with the U.S. judicial system and notify them that they would likely have to return when the court-martial begins in September. Only three of those who went to the U.S. in March said they saw the attack. Some, like Baraan, went on behalf of relatives who were slain or women prevented from traveling.
None of the Afghan witnesses was able to identify Bales as the attacker, but other evidence, including tests of the blood on his clothes, implicated him, according to testimony from a DNA expert.
The AP also spoke with several others who survived the attack or lost family members. To avoid putting the Afghans in danger should they be seen talking to foreigners, the AP arranged for those interviews to take place at a nondescript hotel in Kandahar. The Afghans drove the dusty, dangerous road from their villages.
Mohammed Wazir said he returned home from a trip the morning after the attack to find 11 members of his family dead – his wife, his mother, two brothers, a 13-year-old nephew and his six children. Their bodies were partially burned.
He was left only with his 3-year-old son, Habib Shah, who had accompanied him on the trip to Spin Boldak, a town on the Pakistan border.
While Wazir spoke of the horror of finding his home spattered with blood, Habib, now 4, played by his side, chewing on his toy police car.
“He misses his mother all the time,” Wazir said, trying to straighten Habib’s curly brown hair.
An 11-year-old girl named Zardana, who was shot in the head by the soldier, removed her scarf to show where the wound had healed; the effects will last a lifetime. She suffered nerve damage on her left side and has to walk with a cane. Her hand is too weak to hold anything heavy.
Zardana spent about two months recovering at the Kandahar Air Base hospital and three more at a naval hospital in San Diego receiving rehabilitation therapy.
“They showed me so much love,” she said with a tiny smile. “They asked me about what happened and when I told them how my grandmother died and how afraid I was and how I was shot, they cried and cried.”
The accounts of many villagers have varied over the past year, making it a challenge for investigators and journalists to get a full narrative of the attack.
For example, Masooma gave an telephone interview to a reporter days after the attack, with Baraan, her brother-in-law, acting as a translator. According to the resulting story, she described a single attacker in her home, but said she saw many soldiers outside.
In the interview with the AP, Masooma did not waver in her insistence that one soldier attacked her home. Masooma did recall flares lighting the sky until “night seemed like day” – which is consistent with testimony from the hearing, as guards said they fired a flare that illuminated the sky for 20 seconds after hearing gunshots. Masooma also said she heard helicopters overhead.
No physical evidence has emerged to suggest more than one soldier took part in the killings. Surveillance footage from the base showed one soldier returning to the camp; the soldiers who greeted him said he was covered in blood.
Masooma is absolutely certain of one thing: what it will take for her to find closure.
“I just want to see him killed,” she said of Bales. “I want to see him dead. Then I can let go.”