KABUL, Afghanistan, April 22 -- A delegation of local leaders from Khost showed up at the U.S. Embassy here the other day seeking answers. What they got, they said, was the brushoff.
It has been four months since the U.S. military bombed a convoy heading from Khost to Kabul for the inauguration of the interim Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai. Even Karzai has called the attack, which killed innocent tribal elders, a mistake. But the Americans turned away the Khost representatives at the gate of the heavily fortified embassy without seeing them.
The seeming indifference has irritated Afghan civilian victims of the war who are now hoping for compensation, or at least recognition, from the United States as it continues to prosecute its battle against terrorism here. In recent weeks, hundreds of Afghans whose relatives were killed or whose homes were inadvertently destroyed by U.S. bombing have presented claims to the embassy, with no response.
"It's amazing," said Abdurrahman, a member of the Khost shura, or council, who traveled to Kabul to present the council's case to the embassy. "The Americans will accept wrong reports and bomb our people. But they don't allow us to come in and tell them the truth."
A senior U.S. official visiting Afghanistan said today that the Bush administration was sensitive to the issue and trying to help those who have been hurt.
"I can assure you that we try our darned best to avoid hitting innocent targets -- that's not what we're about," President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said at a news conference at the embassy as victims waited outside the gate. "But mistakes do happen. When charges are made, we investigate. And then we do the right thing to respond to the needs of those who have suffered."
Asked what "the right thing" meant, he gave no specifics. In fact, according to private organizations that monitor the issue, the United States has rarely responded to civilian casualties in Afghanistan with assistance of any kind. The only known instance cited by the organizations came in the southern province of Uruzgan, where U.S. agents distributed $1,000 to each family of at least 12 people killed in a raid in December that targeted the wrong people.
"They're absolutely not doing the right thing because there are families sleeping without homes," said Marla Ruzicka, an activist with Global Exchange, a human rights organization in San Francisco that is lobbying on behalf of Afghan victims. "Nobody's gone to talk to them, nobody's gone to help. If they were doing the right thing, they'd help widows, they'd help the orphans that were created by this campaign."
The question of how to handle the cases of civilian victims of the Afghan war has drawn only modest attention in Washington. The Pentagon has been reluctant to acknowledge errors and the Bush administration has preferred to highlight its broader efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.
Global Exchange has tried to force the issue onto the U.S. agenda by enlisting help from relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. The group's leaders met with State Department officials today and will meet with key congressional leaders this week in an effort to lobby the House Appropriations Committee to earmark $20 million for a fund to help civilian victims of the war.
The issue has attracted limited support so far. Reps. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.) and John Cooksey (R-La.) are circulating a "Dear Colleague" letter calling for a compensation fund and have collected just 22 signatures so far, according to a spokesman for Meek.
Advocates of aid to civilian victims stress that such help does not undercut the war effort. "The United States is at war with terrorism, not with the people of Afghanistan," Meek and Cooksey wrote in their letter.
No reliable figures exist on the number of civilians who have died in the Afghan war, but specialists say precision weaponry limited the damage compared with that of most wars in the past.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
BOB EDWARDS, host: Some Afghan civilians who say they suffered from the American bombing campaign, gathered in front of the American Embassy in Kabul this month to demand compensation. Efforts are under way in Congress to help, but it appears the Bush administration has yet to address the issue. NPR's Ivan Watson reports.
IVAN WATSON reporting: Eight-year-old Amina(ph) stands outside the US Embassy in Kabul and lists the family members she says were killed by an American air strike.
AMINA: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: 'Four bombs hit our house,' she says. 'They killed my five brothers, my two sisters, my mother, my uncle and my cousins.' Amina's one of several dozen Afghans who made a recent trip to the embassy where they delivered petitions on behalf of more than 400 families, who claim they've directly suffered from the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
American diplomat Michael Metrinko steps out from behind the embassy's heavily guarded walls to speak with the petitioners in their native language, Dari.
Mr. JAMAAL KHAN(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: 'Sixteen of my family members were killed when bombs landed on my house last November,' says Amina's father, Jamaal Khan. 'All I have left is my daughter.'
Mr. MICHAEL METRINKO (US Diplomat): (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: 'Something will happen,' Metrinko replies to the grieving man. 'I don't know exactly what. There may be compensation.' The international community has pledged a whopping $1.8 billion, including nearly $300 million from the US, to help rebuild the country. But the question of what to do about collateral damage, the accidental civilian victims of the air strikes, is one that remains unanswered. American diplomat Metrinko says he's still waiting for instructions after forwarding victim petitions to the departments of Defense and State.
Mr. METRINKO: I have been receiving letters, petitions, from a variety of people since I arrived here in January. From the very first time that we received one, we've sent the question to Washington. We have not yet received an answer.
WATSON: There is no official estimate of the number of civilians killed or wounded by American bombs. Two reports released by public advocacy groups put the number at between 1,000 and 3,700 civilian casualties. Marla Ruzika of the San Francisco-based human rights organization, Global Exchange, helped organize a separate one-week survey of seven Afghan provinces.
Ms. MARLA RUZIKA (Global Exchange): We believe that probably about 2,000 families are impacted, that being they lost family members, their home was destroyed, they were blinded, several different types of impact.
WATSON: Ruzika, who also helped collect the petitions at the American Embassy in Kabul, says the US government has an obligation to compensate these victims.
Ms. RUZIKA: It's compassion, one, and two, it's the right thing to do. We really need to show Afghans that we do care about their well-being. And when you're the most powerful country in the world, when you spent $30 million a day on the bombing campaign, you can spend $20 million. That's what we're asking--$10,000 per family.
WATSON: It's a cause that's been taken up by several members of Congress, including Earl Blumenauer, a House Democrat from Oregon.
Representative EARL BLUMENAUER (Democrat, Oregon): Since I've been in Congress, we've compensated innocent victims before. We did it for the Italian cable car victims, people who suffered as a result of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, so we've done this.
WATSON: The issue's been raised at two House committee meetings, but at the executive level, no clear policy has yet emerged. Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan:
Mr. ZALMAY KHALILZAD (Special Envoy to Afghanistan): If mistakes have been made, if innocent people have been targeted, we do the right thing, and I think that would remain the US policy.
WATSON: But Khalilzad wouldn't say what exactly the US is doing, and American diplomats here say no investigation has been launched to determine the extent of civilian casualties as a result of American air strikes. The only reported case of US compensation so far occurred last February after American Special Forces killed more than a dozen Afghans in a mistargeted night raid. Afghan authorities later told NPR that US officials supplied $1,000 for each victim's families. American officials publicly apologized to the innocent people targeted by the raid, but denied making any payments.
At the embassy this month, a nine-year-old boy named Abdi Rashid wanted only one thing from America: his eyesight.
ABDI RASHID: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: 'I'm angry,' he says. 'When a bomb exploded on my house, dirt and shrapnel hit my eyes. Now I can't go to school anymore.' Ivan Watson, NPR News, Kabul.
EDWARDS: It's 11 minutes before the hour.