Remarks by Jon Stephenson, co-author of Hit and Run

(Delivered in absentia to the Rally for Peace 6 May 2017 @ Aotea Square)

Thank you all for coming today, and for taking the time to remember Fatima – a three-year-old girl who was killed in a night raid on the remote Afghan villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad on the 22nd of August 2010. That raid was led by New Zealand SAS troopers, supported by Afghan commandos and US aircraft.

The names of the five other civilians who were also killed that night will be familiar to some of you, but they are worth repeating here as an act of remembrance and respect:

  • Abdul Qayoom (Fatima’s uncle), a farmer;
  • Islamuddin, a 22-year-old teaching graduate;
  • Abdul Faqir, a farmer.
  • Mohammad Iqbal, a farmer; and
  • Abdul Qayoom, Mohammad Iqbal’s son.

The details of their deaths – and the events of that SAS-led raid – are outlined in Hit and Run, which some of you will have read. Again, they bear repeating:

Fatima was killed by a piece of shrapnel – probably from a US helicopter gunship that was firing on Khak Khuday Dad – as her mother tried to carry her to safety.

Abdul Qayoom, Fatima’s uncle, was also killed at Khak Khuday Dad while fleeing the raid. He was found dead with what the villagers described as potentially a bullet wound rather than an injury caused by helicopter gunfire.

Abdul Faqir, a farmer aged around 27, who was also related to Fatima, was hit by shrapnel as he fled his home in Khak Khudad Dad. He was found some time later with a piece of rocket lodged in his body and died nine hours after the raid.

Islamuddin, the 22-year-old graduate teacher, was back at Khak Khuday Dad after completing his studies in the provincial capital. He was killed, as he ran up a hill, by bullets that appear to have been fired by an SAS trooper.

At Naik village, a few hundred meters away, Mohammad Iqbal, a 55-year-old farmer, and his son, Abdul Qayoom, also fled their homes when their village was raided.

No evidence has ever been presented that either man was an insurgent, that they were armed, or that they in any way threatened the New Zealand, US or Afghan forces involved in the raid. Yet they were hunted and killed some distance from their houses – almost certainly by cannon fire from a US helicopter gunship.

A further 15 villagers were wounded during the raid, many of them women or the elderly. In the past three years, I’ve met a number of them. They have left a profound impression on me which I would like to share with you.

They are very poor and, some would say, unsophisticated people. They have recounted their stories in a manner that I have found compelling, answering any questions I have put to them and providing photos, video and documents to support their testimony. In doing so, they have never asked for money or other favours.

Despite the obvious risks involved, they have not denied that insurgents sometimes lived in or operated from their villages, and they’ve given a significant amount of detail about those insurgents which other sources have confirmed. They are adamant that there were no insurgents in their villages on the night of the raid.

Throughout all our interviews I have been humbled by the gracious, dignified and good-humoured manner in which the villagers have conducted themselves. They have never expressed anger towards New Zealand or New Zealanders – only sadness and a sense of injustice about the events that shattered their lives or those of their loved ones.

People have asked me: What do the villagers want? Perhaps most of all, they would like their losses acknowledged. The evidence of what happened during the raid on Naik and Khak Khuday Dad is laid out in Hit and Run, and the villagers have been moved by the response of many New Zealanders to their stories.

In contrast, the reaction of our government and military leaders has been disappointing, if not surprising. I suspect that history will not judge them kindly.

Now is not the time to traverse the issues that have arisen since the book’s publication or to dissect the dissembling, denials and falsehoods that have characterised much of the government and military’s response in the subsequent debate. Suffice it to say that legal action on behalf of the villagers is likely, and I am confident the book’s central claims will be borne out in any impartial inquiry.

I say this for three reasons: First, on the basis of the testimony not only of the villagers but of members of the New Zealand and Afghan military, of politicians and officials from both nations, and from NGO workers and numerous other sources here and overseas.

Second, on the basis of a previous encounter with our government and defence force following their response to my reporting of another disastrous and not dissimilar SAS-led raid in Afghanistan – a three-year legal battle that ended in defeat for the defence force.

And third, on the basis of years spent reporting from the ground on America’s so-called “war on terror,” where countless raids like the one on Naik and Khak Khuday Dad have been documented in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, often in spite of official denials. Since September the 11th, 2001 there have been all too many cases like Fatima’s.

Even those with a limited understanding of the present situation in Afghanistan and Iraq will realise that the so-called “collateral damage” inflicted in America’s “war on terror” – to say nothing of the human rights abuses perpetrated by US and allied forces in those countries – has been not only a moral catastrophe but a disaster in practical terms.

In many ways, New Zealand’s involvement in the “war on terror” has also been a disaster, as Hit and Run seeks to demonstrate. Our defence force knew in early-2002 that our allies in Afghanistan were terrorizing and torturing people, and they knew our allies were still doing this almost a decade later in the wake of the raids on Naik and Khak Khuday Dad.

The evidence is in the book: Not only did New Zealanders lead a raid that led to the death and injury of 21 civilians, an insurgent we were hunting was beaten by our troopers when he was captured the following year and then transferred – in a direct breech of international law – to the Afghan secret police, who we knew had a reputation for torture.

Predictably, that insurgent was then tortured. The New Zealanders were aware of this but did nothing. Instead, they covered up what had happened. Curiously, since Hit and Run was published, our government and defence force have remained almost completely silent in response to that particular claim.

Perhaps they are hoping that this very serious allegation – like others raised in the book – will quietly go away, that their attempts to dissemble and to deny the book’s claims will succeed. It is up to people like you to show them they’re wrong.

It is easy to feel helpless when confronted by powerful forces, especially by the political, economic and military forces that lead the charge to war. But there is much you can do. As the celebrated war photographer James Nachtwey once said, “Each one of us is only a grain of sand on the beach, but all together we make an impact.”

One way to start is by educating yourself and others: by reading widely; by discussing issues with friends and family; by questioning the claims being made and the narratives constructed by political and military leaders, remembering that wars are almost invariably built on lies.

All of us have a responsibility to learn the lessons from events like the SAS-led raid on Naik and Khak Khuday Dad and to do what we can to ensure they do not happen again – not in our name. It is up to all of us to ensure that people like Fatima have not died in vain.

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