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Australia Investigates War Crime Allegations In Afghanistan

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Afghanistan has seen conflict almost without stop for the past 40 years. For about half that time, the U.S. and allied nations have been fighting the Taliban. All sides are accused of inflicting casualties. Late last year, a key U.S. ally, Australia, found that some of its soldiers might have committed war crimes. They belong to Australia's most elite forces, and the military inquiry implicated 19 soldiers in the murders of over two dozen Afghans. And as the Australians begin their investigation, more Afghans are coming forward hoping for justice. NPR's Diaa Hadid has more.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Ras-Mohammad Dost lives in Sorgh Murghab, a village in Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province. It's an area controlled by the Taliban, so producer Khwaga Ghani and I reached him over a fuzzy WhatsApp line.

RAS-MOHAMMAD DOST: (Speaking non-English language)

KHWAGA GHANI, BYLINE: (Speaking non-English language).

HADID: We wanted to hear what happened to his family 12 years ago, when he was just a boy. He says he was sleeping on a mat in a room crowded with relatives.

DOST: (Speaking non-English language).

GHANI: They had all gotten together for a wedding.

HADID: He remembers the shudder of heavy vehicles zooming up to their home.

DOST: (Speaking non-English language).

GHANI: "I remember them screaming. I remember the dogs barking. I remember when they hit the door."

HADID: His uncle Morlah thought they were being attacked and rushed out with his weapon. He didn't know they were elite Australian forces. They exchanged fire. Then, the soldier threw two grenades into the house. They killed three boys and two girls, a 2-year-old and a teenager. The uncle, Morlah, also died of his injuries. Six family members killed, most of them children.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: The attack in 2012 was covered by Australian media, including a public broadcaster called SBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF SBS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This woman claims she survived an attack by Australian soldiers.

HADID: Australian media reported two soldiers who conducted the raid were court-martialed. Charges of manslaughter were brought against them. They were ultimately dismissed.

And despite the buzz of attention, Dost says they never found out why they were attacked.

DOST: (Speaking non-English language).

GHANI: "We're not the enemy. We are not insurgents. We're only farmers."

HADID: Dost's family is among the half a dozen we spoke to who allege their loved ones were unjustly killed by Australian forces. They've come forward now, years after these incidents occurred, to give new witness statements to local human rights organizations, even though the Australian military had previously looked at and dismissed these cases.

RAWAN ARRAF: That's because the Afghanistan inquiry identified that there were serious problems with the military's investigation.

HADID: Rawan Arraf is the director of the Australian Centre for International Justice. She's referring to the military inquiry that investigated the alleged war crimes. That inquiry investigated dozens of cases, and it identified 23 incidents as potential war crimes. It has referred them on for further investigation and possible prosecution.

The case of the Dost family might be one of those. But the military inquiry was heavily redacted, so it's not clear which incidents are being investigated.

ARRAF: We would hope that the Afghan victims whose complaints were heard previously and they were dismissed, that this would be a chance for them now where criminal investigators are actually looking at these incidents and hopefully undertaking a more serious job.

HADID: Experts say it could take up to a decade to look at just the cases the inquiry identified. Many of them involve the killing of unarmed civilians and captive detainees, which means they could include the case of Hajji Khan's brother. One day in 2012, helicopters swooped around Hajji Khan's village of Sarkhome Oliya. Australian forces came for his brother, Hajji Sardar. He was about 65 then.

That day, he was building a mud brick wall.

HAJJI KHAN: (Speaking non-English language).

GHANI: "His hands and feet were in mud. The choppers came, and these people come out, and they shoot him. They pick him up on their shoulder."

HADID: Hajji Khan says they carried his brother through the village and dumped him near the mosque. And there, he alleges, they killed him.

It wasn't the only killing. He and other villagers allege Australian forces raided the village multiple times and killed other young men.

KHAN: (Speaking non-English language).

GHANI: "The things they did here, a human being can never think of doing stuff like that."

HADID: Hajji Khan wants to testify in court about his brother's case, but experts say Australian investigators will likely rely on military whistleblowers, partly because many of the Afghan witnesses live in Taliban-held territory and are difficult to reach. Human rights advocates say that's a missed opportunity. Afghans are the chief victims, and they should be part of the investigation.

HADI MARIFAT: This has to be a proper process, a process that include the victims from the very onset of the investigation.

HADID: That's Hadi Marifat. He's the executive director of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization. Marifat and others say including the victims will be one step to pulling off a credible investigation.

And a former Australian war crimes investigator, Graham Blewitt, says it could also be a model for other countries that fought alongside the U.S. and Afghanistan.

GRAHAM BLEWITT: Australia doing this is a fantastic example and showing clear leadership to the rest of the world. But if we screw it up, what signal does that send? It just adds to the impunity that currently exists for these people.

HADID: The U.S., which has the biggest foreign military force in Afghanistan, has prosecuted a few individual cases. But former President Trump pardoned two Army officers, one who was set to stand trial in the killing of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker. The other was convicted of murder. And that's raised questions of whether the American judicial process really offers justice to Afghan victims. The U.S. has also pushed back against the International Criminal Court, which said it would investigate alleged war crimes committed there. America doesn't recognize the court's jurisdiction, but other countries do, including America's allies in Afghanistan.

Afghan human rights lawyer Fereshta Abbasi says while all parties in the Afghan war have committed atrocities, including the Taliban, she says its foreign forces that have to be held to account urgently because they're leaving.

FERESHTA ABBASI: Once international troops withdraw from Afghanistan, they're trying to forget Afghanistan. The international community is tired of Afghanistan, very exhausted with Afghanistan.

HADID: But Hajji Khan, who says his brother was killed by Australian forces, says he can't forget.

KHAN: (Speaking non-English language).

HADID: All these years on, he says all he wants is his day in court.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEDERICO ALBANESE'S "THE CRADLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.