Revisit last week's report on the Afghan massacre, which has seen Dateline's findings make headlines around the world.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 21:32

What really happened on the night of March 11 when 17 Afghan civilians were massacred in Kandahar province?

US soldier Robert Bales is in custody, facing charges of mass murder, but Afghan investigators suspect there may have been at least one other killer involved.

With unprecedented access to Afghan military investigators, Yalda Hakim travels to the villages where the massacre took place and interviews survivors of the attack, as well as Afghan guards at the US military base that housed the alleged gunman.

What she finds out from them has made headlines in the United States and around the world.

WATCH - Click to see Yalda's report, which was subsequently nominated for Most Outstanding Public Affairs Report in the 2013 Logie Awards.

RESPONSE TO MEDIA WATCH - Following criticism over the accuracy of this report by the ABC's Media Watch, read the response from Dateline's Executive Producer Peter Charley.

WORLDWIDE REACTION - Dateline's story made headlines around the world, including coverage on CNN and NBC in the US. After viewing the story, the Pentagon rejected the claims that Bales didn't act alone.

There's also a detailed blog on the Debating Chambers website looking at what's been reported worldwide about the massacre and the circumstances surrounding it.

INTERVIEW WITH YALDA - Yalda Hakim explains to SBS Radio's World News Australia how she was able to get such unprecedented access to the massacre investigation.

REPLAY - Look at Dateline's previous stories from Afghanistan, including Yalda's interview last month with President Hamid Karzai.

INSIGHT - SBS's Insight on 27th March looked at people who are trained to kill as part of their jobs and discussed what impact it has on their lives - click to watch online. Insight is shown before Dateline each Tuesday at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.

Photos (Robert Bales/Kandahar file image): AAP

Interview With Yalda

Yalda Hakim explains to SBS Radio's World News Australia how she was able to get such unprecedented access to the massacre investigation.

Response To Media Watch

Following criticism over the accuracy of this report by the ABC's Media Watch, Dateline's Executive Producer Peter Charley wrote to Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes on Friday 4th May with this response...


I watched with interest your recent examination of Yalda Hakim’s Dateline report on the killing of 17 civilians in Afghanistan. It is obvious that you were guided in your criticism by reporter Jon Stephenson who had launched a similar attack against Dateline on TVNZ’s Media 7 program. As you are aware, Stephenson’s claim on Media 7– that Dateline had pursued 'a false narrative" – was accompanied by a pernicious and defamatory attack on Yalda Hakim, details of which you wisely chose to exclude from your program. But the nature of Stephenson’s sustained personal derision of the Dateline report, and the apparent acceptance by Media Watch of his remarks as being fair and accurate, raises a number of serious questions:

1.    Media Watch quoted Dutch reporter Bette Dam as saying that President Karzai based his view that more than one gunman was involved on 'second-hand accounts". As you would be aware, Stephenson expressed the same view on Media 7, saying 'Karzai says there were multiple shooters, and of course Karzai was relying on the same people who were not eye-witnesses." Did Media Watch contact the office of President Karzai to verify that this was the case? If not, why not?

Following the Media Watch allegations that Karzai’s view was based only on 'second-hand" testimony, Dateline sought to clarify his position. Presidential Spokesperson and Director of Communications Aimal Faizi provided the following statement in response to our inquiry:

'We confirm that the remarks made by President Karzai in relation to the Panjwai massacre and the possibility of more than one shooter or soldier being involved was based on the evidence and testimony provided by a range of accounts, including the surviving eye-witnesses and their relatives. We stand by any remarks he made to the press during his meeting with the family members of the victims and elders of Panjwai after the massacre and any suggestion that the President was relying on second-hand accounts is false."

Does Media Watch concede that it was misled by Jon Stephenson into believing that President Karzai had not spoken to eye-witnesses to the massacre? Will Media Watch now issue a correction to that effect?

2.    Did Media Watch contact Afghanistan’s chief investigator, General Karimi, to confirm Jon Stephenson’s claim that Karimi now believes that only one killer was responsible for the massacre? If not, why not? If Media Watch did contact General Karimi to check whether or not he had changed his position on the 'multiple killer’ versus 'single-killer’ theory, why did it not broadcast details of General Karimi’s revised or unchanged view on the matter?

Since Media Watch’s report was broadcast, Dateline contacted General Karimi to establish whether or not his position on the 'multiple killer’ theory had changed. General Karimi issued the following statement:

'I totally reject the notion that I have back-tracked or changed my position. As you are aware, shortly after the massacre I travelled to the area to gather information for the president. Since then, my statements and interviews with the media about the issue have been based on testimony given to me by the surviving eye-witnesses and their relatives. I stand by the interview I gave SBS and reject claims that I have changed my position on this matter."

Does Media Watch concede that it was misled by Jon Stephenson into repeating the false assertion that General Karimi had changed his view that more than one killer may have been involved? Will Media Watch now issue a correction to that effect?

3.    Does Media Watch concede, in view of the errors outlined above, that it has failed to observe the 'caution and scepticism" that it claimed 'was so lacking from Dateline’s story"?

4.    Did Media Watch provide Jon Stephenson with a list of questions, seeking clarification and verification, as it did with Dateline? If not, would Media Watch concede that its investigation into Dateline’s report was fundamentally flawed in that it presupposed that Dateline had broadcast inaccuracies, while presuming that Jon Stephenson’s reports and claims against Dateline did not require verification or clarification? If Media Watch did provide Stephenson with a list of questions, will Media Watch publish those questions along with Stephenson’s responses to them?

5.    In an email urging Media 7 to investigate Yalda Hakim’s report, Jon Stephenson had complained that:  'she (Yalda) appears to be claiming to be the first western journalist to have reached the scene of the massacre, which surprised me, because -- as far as I´m aware -- she didn't get there until several days after I did". Is Media Watch aware that Jon Stephenson later withdrew that claim when Dateline pointed out that he had never visited the scene of the killings in the village of Alkozai?

6.    Media Watch has suggested that Yalda Hakim’s interviews with children who witnessed the massacre may have amounted to 'gross intrusion". Did Media Watch attempt to ascertain the circumstances surrounding those interviews and is it now aware that they took place with the imprimatur of President Karzai after village elders and relatives told Yalda that the children wanted to speak with her on camera?  Does Media Watch acknowledge that Yalda Hakim’s interviews conformed to the recommendations set out by the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, including the suggestion that the interviewer 'speak in language the child can understand’ (Yalda spoke to them in their native tongue)?

7.    Media Watch reported that Jon Stephenson visited the area of the massacre and 'spoke to several witnesses". Did Jon Stephenson disclose to Media Watch the names of the witnesses he spoke to? If so, is Media Watch willing to publish the names of those witnesses and provide details of what they said to Jon Stephenson?

8.    Media Watch reported that Jon Stephenson 'just discarded most of his (Mullah Barraan’s) testimony, he just didn't know what happened; he was just saying everything that was said by others." Is Media Watch aware that Mullah Barraan has provided extensive testimony describing how he 'scraped his brothers brains and parts of his skull off the ground after the attack" and does Media Watch consider that it is fair and reasonable to dismiss Mullah Barraan as 'not knowing what happened’ in view of his involvement of disposing of body parts after the massacre?

9.    Was Media Watch’s remark: 'I don’t think it was professional jealousy that made him (Jon Stephenson) speak out about the Dateline program"¦" prompted by a suggestion that Stephenson was motivated by malice in attacking Dateline after he had failed to obtain the same degree of access to the story that had been achieved by Yalda Hakim? And did the contemplation of 'professional jealousy" take into account attacks on Stephenson’s credibility by the New Zealand Prime Minister and others which, even if they’re proven to be unfounded, suggest that Stephenson’s assertions should be tested carefully?
Jonathan, I trust you will provide a prompt reply to these questions. In view of the errors detailed in points 1 and 2 which served to discredit Dateline; I request that Media Watch publish a correction and an on-air apology to Dateline on your program of Monday, May 7.

I shall place this letter on Dateline’s website once it has been emailed to you and request that you place it in full on your website, too.


Peter Charley
Executive Producer

Replay: The Karzai Interview

Replay Yalda Hakim's interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, first broadcast in February 2012.



Afghanistan has just become a more dangerous place for allied and Australian soldiers. Earlier today, three NATO soldiers were killed by Afghan army and police. Revenge attacks, it's thought, for the murder of 17 civilians by a rogue US soldier two weeks ago. That massacre is still shrouded in mystery and disinformation. We lift that veil tonight - a little, at least - with some incredible accusations from the villagers themselves. Accusations that more than one American soldier was involved in the killings. Yalda Hakim and cameraman Ryan Sheridan have just returned from the village where the killings occurred, and reveal a deeply disturbing story of what happened that evening.

REPORTER: Yalda Hakim

MAN (Translation): You know where your father is?

CHILD (Translation): He died.

REPORTER:How did he die?

CHILD (Translation): The Americans.

Violence is nothing new in this country. But no-one was prepared for what happened here on the night of March 11.

MOHAMMAD WAZIR (Translation): They came into my room and they killed my family, my two sons, my nephew and my mother who were sleeping in that room were also killed.

MULLAH BARRAAN (Translation): When they screamed, the small children were very scared, especially the six-month-old. When this child screamed, the American put the pistol in the child's mouth.

The massacre of 17 Afghan civilians has unleashed a wave of grief and outrage. A US soldier is now in custody, charged with the murders. But what really happened here? Did this man act alone? Or were others involved, as he walked from house to house shooting men, women and children in their beds? I went to find out more about this atrocity, and to see for myself where the killings took place. I travel to the Panjwai district, an hour's drive from Kandahar. It's a treacherous dirty in the heart of Taliban country.

When investigators first visited the scene of the killings, they were attacked by the Taliban. An Afghan National Army soldier was killed. At a base near the villages, I'm told the area is now laced with Taliban mines - too dangerous to visit.

REPORTER (Translation): What about the house and the village?

SOLDIER (Translation): It's impossible, we would have assisted you if possible but because of the danger we are not allowed in there.

REPORTER (Translation): what is your plan now to clear up the landmines?

SOLDIER (Translation): An extensive operational plan, a big one. With the recent events, the people hate us - because they hate the Americans they also hate us.

I'm turned back to the relative safety of Kandahar. The next day, an Afghan police team picks a path for me through the booby trapped roads and fields. I follow the steps of the man who came here on the night of March 11. I'm the first Western journalist to make it here. The massacre took place 20km south-west of Kandahar. The Special Forces Base of Camp Belambai is close to the villages of Alkozai and Najiban. Investigators say the gunman left the camp that night armed with an automatic rifle and a pistol. He walked to Alkozai, less than a kilometre away, entered two houses is, and opened fire.

It's taken us two days to get to the village of Alkozai. After questions about IEDs, mines and booby traps, we finally managed to arrive. Inside one of the houses, I find evidence of just how terrifying that night must have been -The fear the people inside must have felt. As one after the other, they were targeted and shot.

REPORTER (Translation): What happened here?

SOLDIER (Translation): When they run away from that end, they were hiding here. He then came and shot them here. Some were shot in the yard and some here. Just like that.

REPORTER (Translation): How many were killed here?

SOLDIER (Translation): 15 to 16 people were killed or wounded in this area. There are the bullet marks.

REPORTER (Translation): They ran away and came here?

SOLDIER (Translation): Yes, they ran here but some were killed in the yard and some here.

REPORTER (Translation): Where are all those people from the village now?

MAN (Translation): They went everywhere or to the city, after the incident. People are frightened.

Suspicion that there was more than one killer is now a view widely held in Afghanistan, spurred by comments from the President himself.

HAMID KARZAI, AFGHAN PRESIDENT: In four rooms, people were killed - children and women were killed - and than they were all brought together in one room, and then put on fire. That, one man cannot do.

GENERAL KARIMI, CHIEF INVESTIGATOR: I'm guessing - assumption - that he is helped by somebody. One person or two person.

Hamid Karzai's personally appointed chief investigator, General Karimi, tells me that village elders claim several soldiers took part and they've told him there's evidence to prove it.

GENERAL KARIMI: What the claim is that there were boot prints in the area. In some area, they say a kneeling position of three or four individuals. And also they claim that the helicopters were there to support the operations. Of course, I told them that helicopters - when the guy was started missing, to search him. They said, "No. The noise of the helicopters were there from the very beginning, when the shooting started." That means there were many Americans that were supporting this issue, that were doing this deliberately - it's not one individual. That's the claim of the people.

I wanted to ask survivors of the attack what they had seen, but I was blocked by the US military. The survivors were children, I was told, and the Americans now treating them said they didn't want them traumatised by my questions. It was only after personal intervention by President Karzai himself that I was finally granted permission to see the survivors, and to hear the chilling accounts of what they'd been through.

SEDIQULLAH (Translation): The bullet hit my ear like this and went through here scraped here and came out here. When my father came out, he shot my father and then he entered our room. We ran from that room to the other room - he came and shot us in that room and then he left.

NOORBINAK (Translation): He was shooting, he shot my father's dog first, and then he shot my father in the foot, then he dragged my mother by the hair. My mother was screaming and he held a gun to her and my father said "œLeave her alone" and then he shot him right there.

As 8-year-old Noorbinak watched her parents desperately trying to fend off the intruder, he turned his gun on her and shot her in the leg.

NOORBINAK (Translation): One entered the room and the others were standing in the yard, holding lights.

I'm struck by her reference to more than one soldier being involved - a claim repeated by the brother of one of the victims.

MULLAH BARRAAN (Translation): The Americans left the room, my brother's children say they saw in the yard many Americans with lights on their heads and they had lights at the ends of their guns as well. They don't know whether there were 15 or 20, or however many there were.

Staff Sergeant Bales left the scene of the killings in Alkozai village and walked in the darkness back to the base. It was 1:30am when he arrived. He was spotted by Naimatullah, an Afghan guard on duty at the base that night.

NAIMATULLAH (Translation): I asked him to stop, he spoke but I did not understand what he said. He spoke in his own language and entered - I even cocked my gun.

The killing could have stopped here. Naimatullah alerted a fellow Afghan soldier, who tried to get a message to the Americans.

REPORTER (Translation): After that, what did you do?

NAIMATULLAH (Translation): I called out to the duty officer, he was walking just outside and he ran up to me and I told him that the American had just entered the base and he went to notify the foreign forces.

President Karzai's investigator is now trying to piece together what happened next. He's suspicious that Bales was able to come and go without his fellow Americans noticing.

GENERAL KARIMI: How come he leaves at night and nobody is aware? I mean, every time we have weapon accountability, you have an individual and personal accountability. So if this young man was not there, somebody must have known - his friend, his room-mate, you know, and must have reported that this guy was missing.

Bales then spent a full hour back at the base. What he did during that time isn't yet clear. But he hadn't finished killing. At 2:30am, he left Camp Belambai a second time. He headed to the village of Najiban to the south, about 1.5km from the base. He was spotted by another Afghan guard as he walked into the night.

AFGHAN GUARD (Translation): He had an M4 gun, a helmet and his bullet proof vest. He started to walk off. 5.30 When he started to move away I called a patrol and told them that an American has left the base. The patrol called the platoon commander and the platoon commander notified the foreign forces.

The soldier entered the house of this farmer, Mohammed Wazir - 11 family members were asleep inside.

MOHAMMAD WAZIR (Translation): They attacked during the night. They knocked on the door. When they knocked on the door my elderly mother, who opened the door, and was shot and killed right there and then they entered the inside - they went in to my room and killed my family in that room. And then they brought all the bodies and put them into one room and then they took all the linen and the blankets from the cupboard and covered them and set them on fire.

Bales was spotted once more by an Afghan guard as he walked back to the base from the village.

SOLDIER (Translation): I notified the foreign forces that someone is coming. They told us not to shoot because it's one of theirs. When we went out the foreign forces searched him, took his clothes, and brought him into the camp in his underwear.

As I'm speaking to the Afghans about the killings, Bales's lawyer appears on American television, casting doubt on a trial that could still be years away.

JOHN HENRY BROWNE, LAWYER: There's no forensic evidence, there's no medical examiner's evidence, there's no evidence about how many alleged victims or where those remains are. So, you know, it's fascinating from a defence lawyer's perspective. You know - prove it.

Investigator-general Karimi is angry that Bales is no longer in Afghanistan to be questioned over the massacre. As he hears claims from villagers that Bales had recently threatened to kill them in revenge for a recent attack.

GENERAL KARIMI: Three days, four days - that's what they said - before this incident, one of the US vehicles was hit by mine, in a village in that vicinity, that area. One of the American soldiers lost his leg. He was amputated. This guy happens to be a very close friend to this individual, Robert Bales - close friend to this guy. And he had called the people - he had gone to the village - and told the people that he will revenge his friend, he will shoot everybody and gain revenge. That's another issue that the people claim.

I travelled back to the city of Kandahar, where I want to speak to one more survivor - Aminea - not her real name - now lives here with her six children in a mud hut with no electricity.

AMINEA (Translation): As I was dragging him to the house, his brain fell into my hand and I put it into a clean handkerchief. There was so much blood - as if three sheep had been slaughtered.

Of all the stories I heard on this trip, hers was the most wrenching account of how the killings have changed this country. And how Afghan people now fear the soldiers who had promised to help them and protect them.

AMINEA (Translation): I had no feeling other than; if I could lay my hands on them, if I could lay my hands on those infidels, I would rip them apart with my bare hands.

MARK DAVIS: Whether more killers were involved or not, there's little doubt that many Afghans now believe there were. That will be a very tense province for a long time to come. More Dateline stories from Afghanistan, including Yalda's recent interview with President Karzai, can be seen online.


















Original Music composed by VICKI HANSEN

27th March 2012