"Massacre in the Moonlight"
"Alarm of a different kind"

By Catherine Philp

Quetta 03nov01

WHEN Zamina Ahmed was awakened by the warplanes roaring overhead and heard the deafening boom of a bomb dropping close by, her first thought was to get out of the house. Grabbing her son, Sabir, 5, she ran into the courtyard of the sprawling family compound, searching for a safe place to hide.

Behind her in the house, her daughter, Shaida, 14, cowered in her bed, too terrified to run. As the door banged shut, she heard the deafening rattle of gunfire from the sky. She looked out of the glassless window in time to see her mother slump lifeless to the ground. "The moon was shining and in the light, I saw her fall to the ground with Sabir still in her arms," Shaida said. "I knew she had been shot."

Naseer Mohammed, 20, and his niece, Najia, 14, had nearly made it out of the compound when the bullets started raining down. One bullet caught Najia squarely in the chest, killing her instantly. Mr Mohammed ran on to find cover, leaving her body sprawled on the dusty ground.

Hiding in the entrance to a nearby cave, he watched as the gunships – believed to be American AC130s, deployed to hunt down and kill Taliban forces and terrorists from the al-Qa'ida network – circled over the village firing repeatedly at the people as they fled their homes.

"When they dropped the first bomb, everyone ran out and then they began firing on the people," Mr Mohammed said. "I was very frightened and confused. I wondered why are they doing this to us."

The attack lasted an hour. By the time it was over, 18 members of the family were dead, five of them children. All were killed by gunfire after they ran into the open.

"Just because I hid in a room, I am alive," Shaida said. "Those who ran into the yard were killed."

Survivors arriving across the border in Quetta, Pakistan, say as many as 17 other civilians died in the attack on Chowkar Karez village on the evening of October 22, bringing the total of dead to 35. The accounts they give of the attack are strikingly consistent.

Without exception, they say the first bomb was dropped around 11pm, that most people immediately ran outside in fear and were then mown down by gunfire from the circling gunships.

"They were huge planes," Mr Mohammed said. "If the Taliban and Osama bin Laden are the targets then why were they shooting at us?"

Whatever happened in Chowkar Karez, it does not appear to be a simple case of a bomb going astray. The gunners who strafed the village clearly believed that there was something there that they had to destroy. On the night of October 23, the day after the first attack, the planes returned, circling overhead and firing into the houses. That time, the people stayed inside. In the morning, they left.

None of the villagers seem sure if they would return. For those who survived, the wounds go as deep as shrapnel.

The Times
The Weekend Australian November 3-4, 2001


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