Son's death in Quran burning protest haunts Afghan family

McClatchy NewspapersApril 15, 2011 

Khand Mohammad, 35, a member of the Mazar-i-Sharif's police quick reaction force, examines a truck that was torched when protesters stormed the U.N. compound April 1. Seven U.N. workers and four Afghans died.

HASHIM SHUKOOR / MCT

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Habibullah remembers the last time he saw his 18-year-old son. It was a Friday morning, the first day of April, and his son, a high school student, wanted to go to the city to buy some clothes and a cellphone.

Habibullah, 48, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, gave his son some money and bade him goodbye. It was the last time he would see him alive.

"Around 3 p.m., I heard the sound of gunfire," Habibullah remembered. "I was worried when I heard the firing and went to the city to look for my son."

He searched for hours, without success. At 1 a.m. he learned from a brother-in-law that his son, Hashmatullah, had been found — in the hospital morgue, shot in the head.

His brother-in-law had known that Hashmatullah was dead, but had waited hours before delivering the news.

"He didn't know if I could take it," Habibullah remembered. "I can't tell you how I felt."

Today, Habibullah calls Hashmatullah's death an accident, and it may well have been — an occasion of in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time when demonstrators stormed a United Nations compound here to protest the burning of Quran by a Florida pastor.

Seven U.N. workers were killed in the violence, as were four Afghans, including Hashmatullah.

Habibullah is convinced his first son — Hashmatullah had an 8-year-old brother and three sisters — had no plans for violence when he left that day to go shopping.

"My son was not aware of the demonstration," he said. "After shopping he went to the mosque to pray, and I am not sure how he was killed."

Two weeks after the violence, people here are still sorting out how exactly what began as a demonstration at Mazar-i-Sharif's main mosque turned into the worst incident of violence in this city in the 10 years since U.S.-allied forces toppled the Taliban regime in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Mazar-i-Sharif had a nasty reputation then — the place where American CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann died during a revolt by Taliban prisoners who, as it turned out, included John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban now serving a 20-year prison sentence in California for siding with the Taliban.

But in the years since, Mazar-i-Sharif, in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, has been a relatively peaceful part of this war-torn country, far removed from the Taliban's home turf of Kandahar in the south or the near-daily suicide bombings of the eastern zones fast against Pakistan's lawless tribal regions. The city has been so conflict-free that it's one of four Afghan cities where security responsibilities will be passed this summer from the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force to Afghan police.

Still, the burning of a Quran in March by the followers of pastor Terry Jones, whose church, news reports say, is down to about 30 members, angered people here, where blasphemy is illegal and a sensitive topic, as it is throughout Afghanistan.

In 2007, Parvez Kambakhsh, a student at Balkh University here and a reporter for a local Mazar-i-Sharif newspaper, Jahan-e-Naw, found out how sensitive when he downloaded an anti-Islamic article from the Internet and shared it with his classmates. Arrested and charged with blasphemy, he was sentenced to death, an end he escaped only when President Hamid Karzai, under international pressure, pardoned him. He was taken out of the country with the help of the U.N. office in Kabul.

There is no simple answer to the question of who called for the April 1 demonstration. Early reports said the Balkh provincial council of Shiite Muslim clerics issued a statement calling for the protest. The head of the council denies playing any such role.

"The Shia clerics have not issued any statement calling people to a demonstration," said Mohammad Kazem Jafari.

The Taliban, for what it's worth, also deny claims that they infiltrated the demonstration and turned it violent.

"The police claimed that there were armed opposition members among the demonstrators; however there is not an iota of truth in the claim," a statement posted on the militants' website said.

A cleric who spoke that day at the mosque, Mohammad Shah Adeli, the Balkh provincial head of religious scholars and the head of a religious school outside this city, denied that any of the mullahs provoked the U.N. compound attack. "There were a few mullahs who called for a demonstration, but none of them gave provocative speeches, they talked about nonviolent protest."

But Adeli stopped short of denying a police claim that former members of the Taliban fomented the violence.

Gen. Abdul Raouf Taj, the Balkh police force's deputy chief, said the investigation had confirmed that three protesters arrested in the aftermath of the U.N. attack had renounced the Taliban and joined a peace initiative championed by Karzai. The initiative was set up last year to seek ways for negotiations with the armed insurgents to end the decade-long Taliban insurgency.

A member of an Afghan senate commission investigating the violence, Rohgul Khairzad, said the probe had confirmed that ex-Taliban who'd supposedly renounced violence took part in the attack. He said they'd been living in a government-provided safe house.

It might not have taken much to turn the crowd to violence. Anger at the U.S. is easily found here.

"Everyday we witness people being killed," said Attiqullah Ansari, a religious leader at the Ali Shrine, the mosque from which the demonstrators set out.

"U.S. soldiers take photos for fun with the body of one of our boys they have killed, and later they apologize," he said, referring to photos first published in the German magazine Der Spiegel of members of a Stryker brigade based in Washington state. The American soldiers are currently facing war crimes charges that they targeted Afghan civilians, then kept body parts of the dead as trophies.

Civilian deaths and night raids by U.S.-led troops have added to the anger, even though the U.N. reports that Taliban attacks have claimed more civilian lives.

"People do not want Americans in Afghanistan," Ansari said.

Ansari said the initial plan called for demonstrators to walk from the mosque to the site of the American consulate not far away.

But sometime after the march began, protesters changed course and headed to the U.N. compound, about 600 yards from the mosque.

"The protesters were condemning the Quran burning and chanting 'Down with the U.S. and up with Islam,' " as they marched, said Abdul Baseer Ahmadi, 17, who sells cellphone cards at the entrance to the main mosque.

Khand Mohammad, 35, a member of the local police quick reaction force who was stationed about 100 yards away, witnessed what happened next.

The protesters stormed inside the compound, overwhelming guards, and killed the foreign workers they found, he said. Three were Europeans — a Norwegian, a Swede and a Romanian — and four were from Nepal. One of the victims was a woman who was shot multiple times.

"The protesters killed the foreign nationals inside the compound," Mohammad recalled.

Then they torched U.N. vehicles parked inside and outside the compound. "Most of them had bottles filled with gasoline fuel," he said.

Trouble had been expected. Just before the compound was stormed, police told nearby merchants to close.

"The police came and told me to shut down my shop because there will be demonstration, and I did so", said Marai, 39, whose butcher shop is across the street from the U.N. compound.

The governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor, during a meeting with the Swedish foreign minister last week, blamed "some irresponsible youths" and supporters of a warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for the violence. Hekmatyar was a close U.S. ally during the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980s, but now opposes the Western presence in Afghanistan. Sweden has 500 soldiers here and leads the provincial reconstruction team that the U.S.-led coalition has assigned here to help local authorities with governance and development issues.

Gen. Taj, the deputy provincial police chief, said one of the former Taliban members arrested had confessed to giving the order to storm the compound. Taj said the man had hoped he would die in the attack and achieve martyrdom.

When he failed, Taj said, he called himself "unlucky."

That's the same way Habibullah feels about his son.

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