2:15 a.m. update: A night of haunting testimony from witnesses to a March massacre in Afghan villages concluded with Haji Mohammed Naim testifying than an American soldier shot him in the neck at extremely close range.
The shooter “was as close as this bottle,” he said, gesturing to a water bottle a few feet from his face.
He pointed to three spots on his neck and upper chest, saying the gunman shot him “here, here and here.”
Naim testified from Kandahar province through a video link to a courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is in the fifth day of an evidence that could lead to a death-penalty court-martial for the 39-year Stryker veteran. He’s accused of murdering 16 Afghans and wounding six more.
Naim said he woke up early on the night of a mass shooting in his village to the sound of barking dogs and gunfire. He figured Afghan National Army soldiers were preparing to search his village, Alkozai.
Instead, an American with a rifle and a blinding flashlight on his weapon jumped a wall and appeared in his family compound, he testified tonight.
“What are you doing?” Naim said he asked the American.
Naim did not get a reply.
Bales’ Article 32 hearing is scheduled to resume Saturday night with testimony from three children Bales allegedly wounded and three relatives of Bales’ reported victims.
1:50 a.m. update: Two children of Haji Mohammed Naim woke up early March 11 with a neighbor’s wife screaming “He killed my man.”
A chaotic and violent scene followed, with children screaming and running for cover from an American soldier armed with a rifle mounted with an intimidating flashlight, the brothers Sadiquallah and Quadratullah remembered in testimony piped into Joint Base Lewis-McChord tonight.
They testified at an Army evidence hearing for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of murdering 16 Afghans and wounded six more. One of his alleged victims is known as Nazar Mohamed, the husband of the woman who ran into the brothers’ home wailing on the night of the massacre.
Sadiquallah is a soft-spoken 13-year old who was shot in the ear on the night of the killings. He fidgeted through his testimony, and frequently looked down at the ground while he answered questions through an interpreter.
He hid behind a curtain while the American soldier shot up his home, he said.
“He came after me,” Sadiquallah said.
Quadratullah is a year or so older than Sadiquallah. He escaped injury on March 11, but witnessed a neighbor’s grandmother being shot to death. He also saw at least one of his siblings being wounded.
“We kept saying we are children, we are children,” Quadratullah remembered. “Then he shot, he shot one of the children.”
Quadratullah spoke more confidently than his younger brother. He grabbed a neighbor’s motorcycle after the attack and alerted an older brother about the violence in their father’s home.
The brother, Faizullah, gathered five wounded villagers at the house and took them to a nearby American forward base for medical care.
In the morning, Quadratullah found footprints from what he assumed was the American soldier who attacked his home. They led back to an American outpost, he said.
Both boys said they saw one American soldier that night. Quadratullah recognized that the soldier was an American because of his American combat pants and his weapon.
Quadratullah said the American wore only a T-shirt on his torso, which corroborates testimony from U.S. soldiers who apprehended Bales at their outpost. It contradicts statements from two Afghan guards who saw an American walk into the base and and an American leave their camp. The Afghan guards said the man wore an armored vest that night.
Haji Mohammed Naim, the boys’ father, is now testifying. He was shot in the neck on the night of the killings.
11:05 p.m. update: Afghan gives chilling testimony of burned and bloodied corpses in his cousin’s home
Tonight’s testimony from Kandahar took a nightmarish turn when a man who lost 11 relatives in a March 11 massacre described traveling to his cousin’s compound to find children with gunshot wounds in their heads and a pile of naked, burned corpses.
“They were all shot in their heads,” Mullah Khamal Adin said. “Their brains were still on their pillows.”
Khamal is a cousin to Mohammed Wazir, whose home in the village of Najiban was among the compounds Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly attacked.
Mohammed Wazir was not home during the killings. He was traveling in Spin Boldak with one of his sons. Wazir is in Mecca this week and is unlikely to testify. He lost six of his children in the killings.
Khamal gave blunt and chilling testimony as he spoke to attorneys in Kandahar tonight, answering questions from lawyers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and in Afghanistan.
“This is my request: To give justice,” he told Army investigating officer Col. Lee Deneke.
Khamal said villagers in Najiban called him on the morning of March 11, the morning of the massacre. He traveled there from the city of Kandahar to find a crowd of people gathered around his cousin’s home.
He said he found the first body in the entrance to the home. It was Shatara, the wife of one of his uncles.
“When I grabbed her, half of her head fell down and her eyes fell on the ground.”
Khamal said he walked into another room, where he found the pile of bodies. They were no longer burning when he got there some time after 7 a.m., but he could smell smoke.
Khamal noticed that some of the youngest victims appeared to have boot marks on their faces. He speculated that 2-year-old Palwasha was thrown on the fire while she was still alive.
Prosecutors had Wazir estimate the ages of the 11 bodies he found in Naijiban. Seven were 15 or younger. Four were younger than 5.
He separated the males from the females in the pile, and then took their bodies to Bales’ combat outpost – Village Stability Platform Belambay. There, villagers from Najiban protested the massacre before burying the bodies.
Defense attorneys were gentle with Khamal. Bales’ lead attorney, John Henry Browne, began his questioning by saying, “I am sorry for your loss.”
Defense attorney Maj. Gregory Malson asked Khamal to describe how many people moved through the Wazir family compound that day. Several were there, and Wazir gave his belongings to the villagers.
Wazir “left everything behind and he has never come to the compound again.”
Afghan testimony begins with some details lost in translation
9:30 p.m. update: Afghan National Army guards assigned to a combat outpost with Staff Sgt. Robert Bales insisted they spotted one American soldier walking into their camp and one leave on the night the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier allegedly murdered 16 noncombatants and wounded six more.
One guard said he heard an American soldier laughing as he walked out of their outpost about 2:30 a.m. on the night of the killings.
Each guard said he tried to stop the soldier, but the American kept walking, using an Afghan phrase for “how are you?”
“I was shocked,” said Pvt. Nematullah, the Afghan guard who said he spotted an American soldier walking into his camp about 12:30 a.m. on March 11. “Also I was nervous.”
He and Pvt. Tosh Ali were the first Afghans to testify in Bales’ Article 32 evidence hearing over video teleconference link to Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar.
The hearing could shape a death-penalty court-martial for Bales, 39, and the Army is going to unusual lengths to gather evidence for the hearing. In coming days, several other Afghans – including ones whom Bales allegedly wounded – are scheduled to testify.
The video link connects a courtroom at Lewis-McChord with the one in Kandahar, and it allows attorneys for the Army and for Bales to interact with witnesses.
Both the prosecution and defense had attorneys in Kandahar to question the witnesses in person, including Bales’ lead defense attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle.
Col. Lee Deneke, an Army Reserve judicial officer, oversaw the hearing and interjected several times to clarify details while Nematullah and Toshi Ali spoke.
Deneke sounded frustrated at times as defense attorneys and interpreters tried to discern facts from Afghan witnesses.
The Afghans were consistent in describing the broad details of what they saw on the night of the killings, but some of the details they shared were lost in translation.
Nematullah, for instance, said the soldier walked into Village Stability Platform from the north.
That gibes with the Army’s allegation that Bales attacked two family compounds in the village of Alkozai, about 600 meters north of his base at Belambay, and then returned to his post before making his second assault that night in the village of Najiban.
But defense attorneys confused Nematullah in asking him to describe the road that leads to Belambay. They said it runs east to west. Nematullah agreed, but insisted that the soldier he saw walked on the road from the north.
Nematullah also gave conflicting testimony about his position that night, saying once that he was on the ground at the gate to Belambay and once that he was in a tower.
He said he told the American to stop, but the American brushed by him. The American used an Afghan term that means “How are you?,” a response that confused the private.
Later, Tosh Ali said he saw an American leave Belambay about 2:30 a.m. Tosh Ali said the soldier was armed and wearing an American uniform. Tosh Ali said the American was laughing as he walked out.
Tosh Ali told the American to stop, but the armed American kept walking. Again, the American asked the guard “How are you?” in an Afghan tongue.
Toshi Ali said he hear shots about half an hour after he saw the American leave the post. Najiban, the second village Bales allegedly attacked, is about 1,000 meters from Belambay.
Both Afghan soldiers said the American they saw was wearing body armor, which contradicts previous testimony from U.S. soldiers who apprehended Bales at Belambay without his Kevlar vest.
Bales has been in court all week with four days of testimony gathered from soldiers and criminal investigators at Lewis-McChord. His wife, Kari, has sat behind him each day.
She and supporters have been taking notes. They appeared to smile a little when the Afghan witnesses contradicted themselves.
The two courtrooms are about 7,000 miles apart. Last year, no Afghans except for ones on the U.S. payroll as interpreters testified in hearings for Lewis-McChord soldiers convicted of murdering three Afghans in Kandahar during their deployment there in 2010.