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Questions from Oruzgan: A Special Investigation

This special report for the Dateline website is based on a 12-month investigation by Sophie McNeill and Geoff Parish...

Zahir and Amrullah Khan lived a simple life in the remote village of Sur Morghab, Oruzgan province, Afghanistan. The two brothers weren’t educated men. Neither could read nor write. They farmed wheat and corn on the dusty fields surrounding their family compound and herded goats, like their father had done and his father before that.

The evening of the 12th of February 2009 began like most other cold winter nights for the two brothers and their families.  Zahir and Amrullah went to the village mosque to attend prayer and then returned to the family compound to eat dinner with the family. Two of the brother’s sisters and their children had come from a nearby village to stay the night as they were attending a wedding in Sur Morghab the next day. The whole clan sat around after the meal talking until around 10 or 11 pm when they went to sleep.  

In the darkness, not far away, Australian soldiers from the Special Operations Task Group were silently making their way through the remote countryside, getting ready to raid compounds. They were out on a specific mission – to hunt down and kill a local Taliban leader as part of their ‘targeted assassination’ program. Where they gathered the intelligence from that underpinned their operation is not known, but what we do know is that it went horribly wrong.

Somehow, the soldiers ended up at the family compound of Zahir and Amrullah Khan. By sunrise, six members of the family had been killed by the raiding party, including four young children, and two others had been wounded.

A few hours later, on Friday the 13th of February, at 10.15 am local time, Lieutenant General Mark Evans, Chief of Joint Operations, stood outside the Australian Department of Defence office buildings in Canberra and spoke to journalists about an ‘incident’ in Afghanistan.

“There was an exchange of fire between our forces and the Taliban. Tragically a number of people were killed and wounded during this incident,” he solemnly informed the gathered reporters. “Current reporting indicates that those killed include a suspected insurgent and, sadly, local nationals including five children killed and two children and two adults injured.”

Can you give us more detail, he was asked? Can you give us any more details about how the children came to be caught in the crossfire? Was it dark? Was there a mistake?

Evans answered by telling the assembled media that he couldn’t go into ‘the tactical aspects of the operation,’ but that the ADF would conduct an investigation into the incident and the outcomes would be made available to the Australian public.

One month after the incident, a local journalist in Afghanistan filmed an interview with a man claiming to be a survivor of the Australian attack on the Khan’s compound.

Our broadcast of it caught the attention of Perth-based businessman and leading Afghan community member, Farid Popal. He wasn’t convinced by the man in Dateline’s report. Concerns over the man’s dialect and appearance led Popal to believe that he wasn’t really from Oruzgan and was an imposter, perhaps seeking the financial compensation that is quickly doled out by Australian forces when Afghans civilians are killed or injured as a result of their operations.

Annoyed that the real victims hadn’t had the chance to tell their story, Popal began to try and get in touch with the survivors of that night, using family contacts back in his homeland.  

Months later in October 2009, once Popal believed he had tracked the family down; he got in touch with Dateline.  Would we like to go and meet Zahir Khan, he asked? It was too dangerous for us to go out to the compound in Oruzgan, but Khan was willing to come to Kabul. Two days later, we were on our way to Afghanistan.

Zahir Khan arrives dressed in his Friday best for the occasion, while his wife Bakhtawar stays hidden away inside her sky blue burka. Coming from a remote village, the Afghan capital is clearly an intimidating and overwhelming place for them. They had only ever visited Kabul a few times before and were both nervous at the prospect of meeting a foreigner. “Our lives are at risk since the attack,” he confides fearfully. “The Taliban accuse us of being in contact with the foreigners.” 

As we sit and sip tea in the garden of a small guesthouse, Khan takes out his identification papers. They appear to confirm that he is Zahir Khan from Sur Morghab, the man the Australian military say is the person they took away for interrogation that night. “My name is Zahir Khan. I’m the son of Taj Mohammad Khan. I’m the grandson of Ghulam Akkal,” he tells me. 

Like many illiterate people from the remote areas of Afghanistan, Khan doesn’t know how old he is. “I think I’m about 25 or 30 years old,” he remarks uncertainly, examining the back of his Afghan national ID card. “No, you’re at least 40!” pipes up his wife, Bakhtawar, who is sitting next to us on the couch. “In our village there’s no counting years or anything,” she explains, “When you’re born you’re born, when you die you die, there’s no counting.”

We begin to talk about that night and how, Zahir says, it has destroyed the quiet, peaceful life he once led. “I’m not at peace, I don’t know what’s happening in my house in my life now, I don’t what’s where,” he tells me sadly. Taking my pen and paper, Zahir carefully starts to draw a map of his family compound. “I was in this room and my brother was in this room,” he explains. “It was about 2 o’clock at night when the Australians came and broke the door to my room. They held machine guns at me so I couldn’t move.” 

The Australian soldiers, he says, then dragged him out of his room where he was sleeping along with his wife, his sister and her children, and onto the verandah. There, they quickly blindfolded him, tied his wrists together and put earmuffs over his ears. It was only then that he heard the sounds of gunfire and explosions coming from the next room where his brother’s family was sleeping. 

“I could just make out the clatter of bullets so I knew there was shooting,” recalls Khan. “Otherwise I couldn’t tell what was being used, I just heard the clatter. I didn’t see, my eyes were covered, I just heard the shots and then they took me away.” The last thing he heard as he was swiftly marched away from his compound was the sound of helicopters landing.

The Australian soldiers made him walk and walk, Khan says, stumbling with his blindfold on through the muddy night. “I was just worried about the shooting and I was wondering who had been injured and who hadn’t. I have no idea how much time lapsed, whether it was 1 hour, half an hour, or 2 or 3 hours,” recalls Khan. They arrived at a place, Khan describes, that was in the middle of nowhere, where there were a few Army tanks and many soldiers standing around. (It is worth noting that Afghan civilians frequently refer to armored vehicles as ‘tanks.’)

Through a translator, the Australians started asking him questions. “He (the translator) was standing far away and would yell out and ask me for example ‘what is your name, what’s the name of your village, what’s your father’s name.”’ says Khan. “They didn’t say anything about the Taliban nor ask me if I was a Talib or not.” For the next 24 hours or more they remained at this site, during which Khan claims the soldiers didn’t let him sleep for any of that time.

“So I was like that,” he shows me sitting straight up with his legs crossed underneath him. “They wouldn’t let me lean on my side or lie down. I spent the one and a half days and night sitting like this or standing.” The soldiers brought him food but Khan says he couldn’t bring himself to eat. “No, I just didn’t feel like it,” he says shaking his head. “I was worried and anxious, I was thinking about what had happened to my brother and my family and what might happen to me. I didn’t eat for a day and a half.”

Then, at daybreak the next morning, Khan says the troops took him back to the main Australian base in the Oruzgan capital, Tarin Kowt. “My hands were swollen and the tie had dug into them. When I got to the airbase and they couldn’t untie them so they had to cut the tie off with scissors and then they put handcuffs on me,” he says.

They searched him and took him into a room for more interrogation, where he was put in a chair with an Australian soldier sitting in front of him and a Pashto interpreter sitting in behind him so he couldn’t see his face. “The Australian said look towards me, he would talk to the interpreter and the interpreter would talk to me,” he says, “They asked me if my brother was a Talib, I told them he wasn’t a Talib. They said that was the report they had received.”

After the questioning, he was then put in a shipping container as a kind of holding cell, where Khan remained until later that afternoon when elders from his village came to the base and told the Australians that Khan was just a poor farmer and had nothing to do with the Taliban. “I was at the airbase till about two or three in the afternoon and then they thankfully and God willingly let me go,” Khan says.

And did the soldiers apologize? “No they didn’t,” he tells me. “They said go home.” That’s it? “Yes. When they let me out of the airbase, outside the airbase a car from my village was waiting; I got into our car and left.” It was only then that that Zahir Khan learnt about that the deaths of his brother Amrullah, his teenage sister Zakera, his two nephews ten-year-old Esanullah and eleven-year-old Nawab, and two babies, a two-year-old girl Gulsima and one-year-old Esmatullah. 

“Why did they kill my people, why did they cause me so much unjustified grief?” he asks me sadly in the small meeting room in Kabul. I’m the first foreigner he has spoken with since that night. The Australians, Khan says, have never come to speak with him since the incident, despite his willingness to do so. “Of course I’ll speak with them,” Khan tells me, “I’ll ask them for my rights, I’ll ask why did you kill six of us, why did you injure four of us, why did you trouble me?”

Khan’s wife and Amrullah’s wife had remained at the compound the whole time in the wake of the attack. They told him that while he was being dragged away, the Australian soldiers fired bullets and threw grenades inside his brother room. The teenage sister, the eleven-year-old boy and the ten-year-old then died on the veranda of the house of their wounds, while Amrullah and the two babies died after being evacuated by the Australians for treatment.

Zahir Khan says there was no fighting near the village that night and disputes the Defence Department claim that the Australian soldiers were fired upon by the Taliban. “They’re the six people that have been killed. Now if they are saying they were Taliban well they weren’t and no attack took place elsewhere. Unless they are saying that one of the children were Taliban, then okay they were Taliban,” he says angrily.

He rejects any suggestion he or his brother had anything to do with the Taliban. “We are poor people; we don’t have the strength to face them or the others. We weren’t with the government or with the Taliban. We just did our own work,” he says. A Taliban member, Khan tells me, would not sleep at home without any security.  “But we had no security and no-one was watching over us,” he says. “Before attacking they should have asked the village, and asked the government, whether that person was a Talib or not. Just because someone tells you ‘He’s a Talib’ would you barge into his house at night, kill six people and injure four, for no reason?”

Zahir Khan also claims the Australian soldiers took his land ownership papers that night, very important documents for a poor Afghan farmer. “They have my land and house documents and they are not giving them back to me. They took them by force. I went to the airport two or three times asking for the documents, but they wouldn’t return them,” he told us.

Back in Australia, officers from the Australian Defence Force Investigative Service (ADFIS) had begun their own examination of what went wrong that night, which Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston spoke to Dateline about in September 2009.

After our meeting in Kabul with Zahir Khan, we provided them with images of him and a transcript of his claims. They thanked Dateline and officially confirmed to us in an email that, yes, Zahir Khan is the man they took away for interrogation on that fateful night.
 
Defence sources have also told Dateline that Khan’s list of those killed matches theirs. We told the Defence that the Afghan community in Perth could put them in touch with Khan and his relatives. An ADF military investigator then flew from Canberra to Perth to meet with Farid Popal.

“Whatever I knew, I told them,” says Popal of the meeting. “How I tried to contact this family, and also the material I received, the footage, the videos and also the documents I had in my possession.” Knowing it was too dangerous for ADF staff to travel out to the remote village where they lived, Popal offered to bring the family to Kabul or even to Dubai or Islamabad to be interviewed.

“I basically gave them the option that we would be able to bring them to some kind of neutral place, a safe haven where it is more convenient for the defence staff to visit this family, recalls Popal. “So they can make their own judgement as to whether there was excessive force used against the civilians.” 

Dateline understands that the ADF investigators were keen to take up Popal’s offer. However, bureaucratic red tape and security concerns cited by the Defence department prevented the investigators from doing so.

And so in late November 2009, despite the fact they hadn’t interviewed any of the Afghan civilians involved in the incident, the ADFIS investigators handed their brief over to the Director of Military Prosecutions, Brigadier Lyn McDade. The decision as to whether any Australian soldiers would face charges over what happened that night was now in her hands.

Over in Perth, Popal was upset that Defence had not taken up his offer. How could the investigation be regarded as thorough if they didn’t hear the victims’ version of the story? And apart from what Zahir Khan had already told us, there was the wife of Kahn’s dead brother Amrullah, Shapero, who claims to have been in the room when the killing took place.

So in early January this year, Popal set off to Afghanistan with a small video camera, flying straight into the war-torn southern city of Kandahar.

There, he met up with Zahir Khan for the first time and with Khan’s five-year-old niece Shuri-noor, the daughter of the late Amrullah. A quiet little thing with big eyes, Shuri-noor was injured by shrapnel that night and was evacuated in a helicopter by the Australians and treated at their base in Tarin Kowt. Popal filmed the long, thick scar that now runs the length of her stomach and Defence sources have since confirmed to Dateline her injuries and treatment. 

“She is very traumatised,” Popal told me later. “There was one night when we stayed in the same place and in the night-time she woke up and she was screaming and crying, so I guess it’s not very easy for her to forget even though she is five years old. She still remembers.” Zahir Khan wanted to take Farid Popal back to the family compound to interview other survivors of the attack, but it was too dangerous for an outsider to go.  So Popal sent two trusted local men to go to Sur Morghab with his video camera and for the first time the scene of the attack was filmed. 

The footage is shaky, but it clearly shows a dusty compound that Zahir Kahn says was raided that night by the Australian soldiers. “They fired shots through here,” says  Khan on the video, pointing at the window of his late brother’s room. The video also shows Zahir Khan’s sister, Jamela, and Amrullah’s wife Shapero, plus the interior of the room where the six people died. 

“My sister in-law was asleep here, the kids were over there, my brother was asleep there, right there,” Jamela says crying. “When they started firing my nephew stood up here. He stood up, said “What is it?” and they shot him.” If their chilling description is correct, then this is the first time since the attack occurred over twelve months ago that we have seen the location of the killings and heard from survivors. 

Shapero sits on the floor crying, talking about her husband and kids that were killed. “My white trousers and white dress were covered with the blood of my children,” she was filmed saying, “My oldest son was cut to pieces. My daughter was shot in the head and chest, and she died.”

One of many unanswered questions about that night is why the Australian troops raided this particular compound. Despite numerous requests from Dateline, Defence remains tightlipped about what happened that night, and has never revealed whether they may have been in the wrong place. But in the video taken at the compound, Shapero claims that immediately after the attack, the Australian troops’ translator admitted to her that they had made a mistake. 

“They said, “We made a mistake”’ tells Shapero. “I asked the interpreter what they said. He said they made a mistake. They were meant to be in the other house. Instead of the house on the hill, they attacked us. ‘We made a mistake and attacked the wrong place.” According to Shapero, the name they confused her husband’s with was ‘Mullah Noorullah’ a local Taliban leader. “They asked if he was Mullah Noorullah. I said he was Amrullah Senior,” she says.

Dateline asked Defence if it is true that the Taliban leader Mullah Noorullah was the intended target that night. They declined to answer but did confirm to us that “on the night of February 12, the Special Operations Task Group was conducting an operation to disrupt Taliban activities and target a significant Taliban leader.”

However, Dateline has learnt from Defence sources that Mullah Noorullah was indeed the ‘significant Taliban leader’ they were targeting that night.  But it wasn’t until three months after the attack on Zahir Khan’s compound, that the Australians appear to have got their man.  On the 6th of May 2009, Defence announced that they had just killed the ‘senior insurgent commander’ Mullah Noorullah in a special operation in Oruzgan province they day before.

Shapero also claims that after admitting they made mistake and taking away the injured to be treated, the Australian soldiers gave her 15 thousand Afghanis, (approximately $US 300) and told her that money was to pay for transport for her to come the hospital later that day. 

“Sweat was running down their faces, they were covered in sweat. And then they said, “Sister, this is money”. They threw 15 thousand at me,” says Shapero. 

Dateline has also learnt that in the days following the attack, Australian soldiers gave $US10,000 to a local government official – a payment apparently intended to be passed on to Zahir Khan as compensation. However, apart from the few hundred dollars given on the night, both Zahir Khan and Shapero say that the family has never received any other compensation for the deaths of their six relatives. 

We asked Defence if they were aware that some local official had apparently pocketed their payment. They replied, acknowledging that a meeting was held with ‘a senior provincial official’ but that ‘for reasons of privacy and security, Defence does not provide individual case details,’ and that they has not been advised of any issue related to the payments.

Dateline has also been made aware of serious concerns within some Defence circles about the conduct of the investigation into the deaths of Khan’s relatives. The ADF Investigative Service (ADFIS) was set up specifically to deal with cases like this, and the organization prides itself on conducting independent investigations into serious incidents involving Australian forces. 

But in the 24 hours following the bungled attack on Zahir Khan compound, the commanders on the ground apparently declined to refer the case to ADFIS for investigation – and began to conduct their own inquiry. It then took nearly six months for the case to be finally handed over to ADFIS.

Dateline has learnt that this delay caused serious disquiet within some Defence personnel, with one source even telling Dateline that if those on the ground had nothing to hide, ADFIS would have been put onto the case within days of the incident. 

Dateline has co-operated with Defence throughout their investigation – spending hours with officials and even the Director of Military Prosecutions, showing them our footage. But despite confirming the identity of Zahir Khan, Defence still won’t commit to interviewing him or the other members of his family who were there that night. Defence sources also say that any concerns over compensation or the welfare of the family are not relevant to their investigation into the incident. 

However, in response to questions from Dateline, Defence has agreed to provide follow up treatment for the children injured in the attack, should they require it and has also said that that they would endeavor to return Zahir Khan’s missing land ownership documents. 

There are many questions arising from this bungled raid that destroyed Zahir Kahn’s family.

First and foremost is: will any Australian troops be charged over the raid, and if so when will this happen? In response to a detailed series of questions on the matter from Dateline, Defence says that the Director of Military Prosecutions will decide in the near future what action will be taken.

Other issued raised by the deadly attack include: Should Australian Special Forces even be involved in such an extrajudicial style assassination program, hunting down and killing suspected Taliban leaders in the dark of night based on ‘local intelligence’?

And were the reservist soldiers who were apparently involved that night properly trained for the tasks they were assigned? And why did Afghan forces not lead this nighttime raid? (Two months earlier a NATO directive to international forces had stipulated that Afghan forces must lead all searches of homes and religious sites.)

Click here to read the full response from Defence to Dateline's questions.

On 11th March 2010, Greens Senator Bob Brown raised a motion proposing an independent inquiry in the Senate.

While Defence Minister John Faulkner failed to support the motion, he did acknowledge the importance and complexity of the matter.

Click here to watch the highlights of the Senate discussion.

Back in Afghanistan, Zahir Khan is still waiting for answers. Apart from a formal apology and an acknowledgment that his brother was not a member of the Taliban and should not have been killed, Khan is extremely concerned about his safety and that of his remaining family. 

He claims that as a result of the time he spent in Australian custody, the Taliban now accuse him of ‘assisting the foreigners.’ “My life is at risk because after I was detained and then freed,” Khan told me in Kabul, “They say ‘the foreigners took him and helped him, gave him money and continue to help him.’ But I haven’t been helped by anyone yet or seen any help.”

He is asking the Australians for help to resettle his family. “I want them to protect me, to find me a place, that’s what I want from the Australians,” says Zahir Khan. And when we asked him exactly what he wanted and where he hoped to resettle, his requests were humbling.

The ‘nice safe’ place that Khan dreams of being resettled is not Sydney or Melbourne, but the Afghan capital Kabul or even the Pakistani border town of Quetta. And Khan’s simple final request? “My message is free my life from danger and give me money for one meal a day, that’s my message.”

Article by Sophie McNeill
11th March 2010

Watch Sophie's report for Dateline, broadcast on 7th March 2010.

If you have more information about this case, please contact us at sbsdateline.investigations@gmail.com

Return to the main Questions from Oruzgan page.

On air: 7th March 2010

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