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Support for compensating innocent Afghan victims grows

It was 6 o’clock on a mid-autumn morning last year when a bomb hit Roala Sahibdad’s house, located in the Qula Khater neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan. Her husband and oldest son were at the mosque, but she and three of the children -- Fareshta, Sadjia and Ali Sajad -- were home. Roala’s husband returned to find his house totally destroyed, his wife bleeding from the head and only one of the children, 3-year-old Sadija, still alive. Roala spent 12 days in the hospital and then moved into her brother’s house, where she has been living for the past eight months.

“Bygones are bygones,” she said. But she wants to have a home where she can raise her 3-year-old, who still cries a lot, she said.

Roala was one of several women who told her story during a meeting last month at Kabul Hospital between American religious leaders and family members of victims of U.S. bombing. Seven Catholics were part of the 19-member delegation, including Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; David Robinson, president of Pax Christi USA; and Marie Dennis with Maryknoll’s Office for Global Concerns. The event was part of an ongoing effort to emphasize the need for compensation of innocent Afghan war victims.

Initiated last January, the campaign for an Afghan Victims Fund is spearheaded by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization, and a group of relatives of Sept. 11 victims known as Peaceful Tomorrows. Both groups say such a fund would provide badly needed help to people in dire conditions while improving the United States’ image internationally.

Members of Peaceful Tomorrows have visited Afghanistan twice and met with family members of U.S. bombing victims. Rita Lasar, whose brother Abe Zelmonowitz died in the World Trade Center, visited Kabul last January. “Ever since I returned from Afghanistan and saw the devastation there and met with families who, like I, lost loved ones, we have been trying to get Congress to establish an Afghan Victims Fund,” Lasar said. “Unfortunately, it seems that all we are creating is more Afghan victims.”

Last month’s U.S. air attack on an Afghan wedding party in the village of Kakarak, which killed 40 civilians and injured 100, provided new impetus to the call for U.S. humanitarian aid to victims. At a mid-July news conference in Washington, Medea Benjamin, founding director of Global Exchange, urged the government to assist bombing victims and respond to compensation claims already submitted.

A State Department spokesman said the U.S. government is not going to give money to family members of the victims from Kakarak, located in Uruzgan province. “But we are providing assistance to inhabitants of the area affected,” through the U.S. Agency for International Development for educational and agricultural development in Uruzgan, he told NCR.

Major Ted Wadsworth, spokesman for the Department of Defense, said he was unaware of the call for an Afghan Victims Fund, but said the Department of Defense is engaged in “an inter-agency discussion on the issue of whether or not to provide compensations.”

“It is a well-established principle of international law that nations are not liable to compensate civilians killed in the normal conduct of war,” Wadsworth said.

Calls for creating an Afghan Victims Fund seem to be gaining popular support. According to a June poll by Zogby International, 69 percent of Americans believe the United States should aid Afghan war victims as a gesture of goodwill. Forty members of Congress signed a letter May 29 endorsing the allocation of $20 million dollars for an Afghan Victims Fund in next year’s budget.

Global Exchange proposes that the U.S. government give $10,000 to each Afghan who has lost a family member or property, or is in need of medical care because of U.S. bombing. A conservative estimate of 2,000 civilian deaths from the war puts the total for the recommended fund at $20 million, approximately two-thirds the cost for one day of bombing.

-- Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002