Afghanistan: Unarmed civilians killed by Australian special forces

HajiThe last image Hazratullah has of his father Haji Sardar Khan is truly nightmarish.

It is of Sardar, bag over his head, bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound to the leg, being carried off like a sack over the shoulder of an Australian soldier.

Minutes earlier, the young Hazratullah said he watched his father venture unarmed outside their simple mudbrick home to see why soldiers had landed helicopters on the stony plain above their village.

Without warning, he said, the troops fired on his unarmed father, hitting Sardar in the thigh and dropping him to the ground. There he sat bleeding but alive, talking and lucid.

It was then that the Australian troopers pulled a bag over Sardar’s head and a soldier hoisted him onto his back and carried him away to a nearby mosque, said Hazratullah.

“We were not allowed inside but we heard shouts and cries for an hour, or 30 minutes,” he said.

“When they left the mosque we got inside and they had martyred him. He had bruises all over his neck. Before that he was wounded, but not critically.

Sardar was not the only villager to die that day in mid-March 2012, when the Australians mounted a raid to find a suspected Taliban bomb maker at Sarkhume, a tiny farming community in southern Afghanistan.

In a nearby field, mill worker Mirza Khan was confronted by Australian military dogs clad in special harnesses, villagers say.

As Mirza struggled to push away one of the dogs, the Australians, without warning, fired a volley of shots into his body, according to Hazratullah, who is now in his late teens.

“He was martyred (killed) on the spot … [the Australians] did not get closer to him; they did tell him not to touch the dogs.”

The raid might have occurred seven years ago, but residents still vividly recall the mission, that claimed the lives of two civilians and left others injured, as an example of pointless violence.

After the raid they complained to local authorities but the Australians conducted their own internal investigation, which reportedly classified the two dead men as combatants. It also found the raid was justified.

However, like some other controversial Australian special forces operations that provoked such complaints in Afghanistan, the report and the extent of its inquiries have been kept secret.

Now an investigation by the ABC, using reports from Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), has uncovered concerning allegations regarding the secret operation.

Sardar was not the only villager to die that day in mid-March 2012, when the Australians mounted a raid to find a suspected Taliban bomb maker at Sarkhume, a tiny farming community in southern Afghanistan.

In a nearby field, mill worker Mirza Khan was confronted by Australian military dogs clad in special harnesses, villagers say.

As Mirza struggled to push away one of the dogs, the Australians, without warning, fired a volley of shots into his body, according to Hazratullah, who is now in his late teens.

“He was martyred (killed) on the spot … [the Australians] did not get closer to him; they did tell him not to touch the dogs.”

The raid might have occurred seven years ago, but residents still vividly recall the mission, that claimed the lives of two civilians and left others injured, as an example of pointless violence.

After the raid they complained to local authorities but the Australians conducted their own internal investigation, which reportedly classified the two dead men as combatants. It also found the raid was justified.

However, like some other controversial Australian special forces operations that provoked such complaints in Afghanistan, the report and the extent of its inquiries have been kept secret.

Now an investigation by the ABC, using reports from Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), has uncovered concerning allegations regarding the secret operation.
The reports raise questions about the killings, with the head of the commission Shaharzad Akbar telling the ABC that the AIHRC stands by its findings that all the dead and injured were unarmed civilians.

The reports obtained by the ABC were compiled by the AIHRC’s staff in Uruzgan province between 2010 and 2013 and recorded numerous alleged human rights breaches by all parties, including some Taliban and Australian soldiers.

The files include investigation reports, witness testimony, photographs, detention records and civilian casualty logs.

“We have reported on any case of civilian casualties that our investigation proved to be true, including the case of Australian forces,” said AIHRC chair Shaharzad Akbar.
“It is then the decision of the court to further investigate and determine if these were war crimes.”

Earlier, the ABC revealed how one of the reports had reaffirmed allegations first raised in the public broadcaster’s controversial 2017 Afghan Files reports about another Australian special forces operation that led to civilian killings at Ala Balogh village in Uruzgan.

Among the reports are accounts of the Sarkhume operation directly contradicting the Australian military’s official account of the killings.

‘They have slaughtered people standing’
By tracking down villagers and sources associated with the initial complaint, the ABC has confirmed many of the details reported by the AIHRC.

“We don’t know, by God, why they were killed,” said Abdul Latif — Sardar’s eldest son — when he was interviewed about the case by an Afghan journalist working for the ABC.

“Our civilians were killed; they killed our elders … wherever they have conducted raids, they have slaughtered people standing.”At the time of the raid, Uruzgan was the operational area for Australia’s Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) — a combined force of about 320 elite soldiers made up of troopers from the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and commandos.

Their mission, which often involved working with Afghan internal security forces known as the Wakunish, was dangerous and conflicted; Australians straddled a line between hunting down high-value Taliban targets while trying to ensure Afghans could go about their lives peacefully.

Operations were nerve-wracking affairs — sometimes involving night raids and room-to-room firefights — in the mudbrick qualas where their battle-hardened Taliban targets hid, and innocent men, women and children slept.

‘Boot marks over his heart’
The Sarkhume raid took place in the morning while the villagers were already up and moving about.

According to the AIHRC report into the incident, Sardar had earlier been doing some work repairing a doorway in his home.
He heard the helicopters and had been on his way to see what the Australians were doing but first he took the local shortcut over a broken-down wall to wash some mud from his feet in a drain near his house. It was at this point he was shot.

“Foreigners (Australians) arrived at this moment and shot him in his thigh. He was wounded,” said the report.

Haji Sardar left behind a wife, three daughters, four sons and five grandchildren, notes the report.

Hazratullah confirmed the AIHRC account. He was there when his father went outside.

He says the only thing in his father’s possession at the time was the old man’s treasured transistor radio that he listened to while working in the fields.

“[The helicopters] landed close to our home. My father and I started moving. I stayed there. I was looking after the goats and sheep, they scattered them,” Hazratullah said.

He told the ABC his father moved to climb the wall into the garden and was shot in the thigh by one of the Australians.

“As soon as they got down (from the helicopter) they started shooting him,” said Hazratullah.

He said the Australians did “not issue any warnings — nothing”.

“My father was walking by himself, but he fell by the tower and he sat there. [The Australians] came and took him to the side of the house … he couldn’t walk on foot. Blood was dripping from his legs. He would get faint, so they placed him on their back and took him inside the mosque.”

The Australians refused to let him or anyone else go to his father, said Hazratullah.

“When he got wounded by the gate they pulled a bag over his head. They wouldn’t let one person know the situation of another,” he said.

“They had tough rules. Even if you simply looked they would beat you over the head with a gun. They would start kicking you. No-one could look at each other or talk.”

A shocking sight greeted Hazratullah and the other villagers when they finally got to examine Sardar’s body in the mosque.

“Big fat boot marks were over his heart” when they found the body, Hazratullah said.

“He had bruises on his neck. He was martyred (dead). Before [he was taken inside the mosque] he was wounded, but not critically.”

A short time later in the fields, down in the green zone below Haji Sardar’s home, the second villager was killed, according to the AIHRC file.
Source: ABC