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Labor Pains in Kabul Lead to Fatal Burst of Gunfire


18 February 2002

Kabul, Afghanistan - By midnight, Faria's labor pains had become intense. Kabul's strict curfew had begun two hours earlier, and the muddy slum where she lived was completely dark. As the young woman gasped in agony, her family made a fateful decision to take her to a hospital.

Less than half a mile away, six British paratroopers manned an observation post atop an abandoned grain silo that looked out over Faria's hillside neighborhood. They were under orders to be alert for the slightest sound or movement anything that could represent potential peril.

Afghan Mohammed Din holds the one-day old unnamed son of Faria and Mohammed Isaq, in a Kabul neighborhood Sunday, Feb. 17, 2002. International peacekeepers and Afghan authorities are investigating a shooting early Saturday in which Isaq's brother-in-law Amaun was killed and Isaq and his wife Faria were wounded while they were getting ready to drive to the hospital for the birth. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Before the night was out, the neighborhood's silence would be shattered by gunfire. Faria's brother-in-law would lie dead after helping fetch a car for her. And the paratroopers, part of the 18-nation peacekeeping force helping keep order in Kabul, would face difficult questions about the bullets they fired in what their commander said was self-defense.

Investigations are under way by both the Afghan authorities and the peacekeepers into the shooting early Saturday. By Sunday, no responsibility had yet been established for the fatal burst of gunfire.

But certain truths were already evident: that the presence of armed peacekeeping troops in a densely populated area carries the risk of tragic error, and that despite the best efforts of the 2-month-old interim government, Kabul remains a volatile and dangerous place.

The peacekeepers admitted immediately that something troubling had happened in the pre-dawn hours Saturday. Their chief of staff, Col. Richard Barrons, briefed journalists hours after the shooting occurred, describing it as the first time peacekeeping troops had come under fire.

The paratroopers' post had been shot at, he said, and the soldiers fired back. None of the paratroopers was hurt, but the body of an Afghan man had been discovered near the scene of the shooting, and circumstances of his death were being looked into.

In a southwest Kabul neighborhood called Silo after a huge, abandoned granary that dominates the landscape Faria and her 25-year-old husband, Mohammed Isaq, went to sleep on Friday night wondering how soon their first baby would be born.

Within hours, Faria was awake and moaning. The pains were coming closer and closer together; her mother-in-law thought the baby would arrive that night. Just after 1 a.m., the three of them decided Faria should go to the hospital.

Mohammed Isaq ran to borrow a neighbor's car. His brother, 20-year-old Amaun, came along to help roll it out of a tiny garage built into the hillside.

All five of them had already settled themselves in the battered car Faria, her husband and her mother-in-law in the back, the neighbor driving and Amaun in the passenger seat when the engine roared noisily to life and the car's lights came on. Almost immediately, Mohammed Isaq said, there was another sound: gunfire.

An uncle who lived nearby, Mohammed Din, had come out of his house in time to see the family get into the car. He said firing went on for several minutes, with bullets hitting the car and slapping into the muddy hillside.

He helped the family drag Amaun into their house, black hair matted with blood and fragments of brain tissue. Several of the others were bleeding from flying glass and metal, including Faria, who had been hit in the knee and the neck.

"We could not imagine who would shoot at us, or why," said Mohammed Isaq. "We did not have weapons of any kind ... We were only trying to take my wife to the hospital."

Initially, it was not clear whether there was a link between the shooting related by the family and the exchange of fire reported by the peacekeepers. But by Sunday, it was obvious that both sides were describing the same incident.

Both sides reported the shooting took place shortly after 1 a.m., and the peacekeepers had identified the observation post in question as the one atop the abandoned silo directly across from the family's house.

The aftermath of the shooting, as described by both the family and the peacekeepers, was exactly the same: a car damaged by gunfire, the dead youth, his bloodied companions.

In some respects, the two sides' versions did not necessarily contradict one another. Shots could have been fired at the British position by someone other than the family.

But other aspects were more difficult to reconcile: Witnesses reported hearing no sound except the loud starting of the car's engine before the burst of gunfire from the direction of the observation post. And the peacekeepers said the soldiers targeted the spot where the gunfire aimed at them had originated.

"The soldiers identified the firing point, and they returned fire," said a peacekeeping spokesman, Capt. Graham Dunlop. He did not know how many rounds were fired by the soldiers, who were armed with SA-80 rifles and night-vision equipment.

The peacekeepers confirmed a post-mortem showed the 20-year-old man in question Amaun had been killed by a gunshot wound to the head. They identified those found in the house as a woman and her newborn child; the woman's husband, who was the dead man's brother; and the mother-in-law.

No weapons were found at the scene, Dunlop said.

Afghan and military police are investigating the incident, which could take several weeks, the peacekeepers said, adding that the soldiers would be made available for questioning by the authorities.

Interim leader Hamid Karzai, asked about the shooting, had no details beyond what the peacekeepers and the family had already separately described. "The circumstances are not clear," he said at a news conference Sunday.

Most Afghans consider the peacekeepers' presence an essential protection against an outbreak of factional fighting. Fears of such internecine battles are particularly sharp in Kabul, where rocket duels during the 1992-96 civil war left swaths of the city in ruins including much of Faria's neighborhood.

Karzai suggested at the same news conference that if the security situation deteriorates, he might ask the international community to beef up the peacekeeping force and expand its deployment beyond Kabul.

Mohammed Isaq, whose arm was cut and bandaged, said peacekeepers made their way to the house at about 3:30 a.m., two hours after the shooting. His brother was already dead by then, and his wife had given birth to a boy.

On Sunday, she was cloistered with the other women of the family. The baby, yet unnamed, was swathed in wrappings secured with a tight band, as is the Afghan custom. In a neighbor's house, Mohammed Isaq wrapped his hands around his knees and mourned alone.

"I am happy, very happy, that I have my son," he said, resting his head on his bandaged arm. "But how can I forget my brother?"

Laura King
Published by the Associated Press (c) 2002 Associated Press


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