Afghan Villagers Tell of Slaughter by a American Military Soldier in Kandahar
- By JACK HEALY - August 20, 2013 - The New York Times
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — One by one, the Afghan men and boys took the witness stand inside a military courtroom on Tuesday to tell of a night of gunfire, bloodshed and horror a world away.
They had been flown here on tourist visas by the American military, the first witnesses to testify at a sentencing hearing for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who has pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan civilians — most of them women and children — as he stalked through their mud-walled compounds in Kandahar Province in March 2012.
It was a striking sight: for the first time, seven men and boys from homes with no electricity or running water, wearing traditional, flowing shalwar kameez, turbans and skullcaps and speaking through interpreters, came face to face with the crew-cut sergeant in dress blues who has admitted to storming his victims’ homes and opening fire as they screamed for mercy.
“That bastard stood right in front of me,” said Haji Mohammed Naim, 60, his voice rising as he gestured toward Sergeant Bales. “I wanted to ask him: ‘What did I do? What have I done to you?’ ”
Pressed by military prosecutors to delve further into that night, Mr. Naim, who was shot in the attack and lost several family members, began to weep and stood up.
“I’m leaving,” he said. “For God’s sake, do not ask me any more questions.”
Over the next several days, a six-person military jury will decide whether Sergeant Bales, 39, deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars for carrying out one of the worst American atrocities in years, or whether he could one day be eligible for parole. By pleading guilty in June, he avoided any possibility of the death penalty.
The hearings are expected to offer sharply contrasting portraits of Sergeant Bales, a man who still remains mysterious despite months of hearings and testimony that have illuminated each gunshot, blood spatter and tearful plea in wrenching detail.
Prosecutors have painted Sergeant Bales as someone who felt “inadequate as a soldier and a man”: drowning in debt, behind on his home payments, bitterly unhappy with his family and frustrated with a stalled military career. He had been taking steroids in the weeks before the rampage, and the night of the shooting he drank whiskey with other soldiers and snorted Valium before slipping away from his combat post.
His lawyers have said he suffered from post-traumatic stress and a brain injury, and had been strained by four deployments in a decade — three to Iraq, and the last to Afghanistan. But even now, there is little to fully explain his mind-set on the night of the killings.
When Sergeant Bales pleaded guilty in June, he took responsibility for his crimes. But when questioned about those bloody hours, he said he had no memory of lighting fire to a pile of his victims’ bodies, and struggled to explain why he had done what he did.
“I’ve asked that question a million times since then,” he said. “There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did.”
On Tuesday, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, a member of the prosecution team, read jurors a narrative of Sergeant Bales’s life and his crimes. In grisly detail, accompanied by photographs of dead and wounded women and children, it described how Sergeant Bales armed himself and walked out of Camp Belambay after midnight on March 11, 2012.
The account — which the defense does not dispute — said the sergeant walked to one village, gunned down several families and returned to the American base when he ran low on ammunition. He woke a fellow soldier, admitted what he had done, and then gathered more ammunition and headed off toward a second village.
Sergeant Bales sat impassively through the hearing, sometimes looking away when images of dead children were projected onto the wall. He listened quietly as his victims described houses “full of blood and bodies” and how they had to load their trucks with their wounded brothers, sons, daughters and wives.
One of the youngest to testify was Khan Hekmatullah, a skinny 12-year-old who concluded his testimony with an unanswered question: “What did I do wrong against Sergeant Bales that he shot my father?”