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Most of Abdullah Shah's family was wiped out in an air strike in 2006. He received premium compensation from the Afghan government - new land, a new house, even a new wife - but says nothing can stop his depression and grief. (Allauddin Khan/AP2007)
Most of Abdullah Shah's family was wiped out in an air strike in 2006. He received premium compensation from the Afghan government - new land, a new house, even a new wife - but says nothing can stop his depression and grief. (Allauddin Khan/AP2007)

Globe Focus

'In Afghanistan, where is the truth?' Add to ...

Abdullah Shah weeps as he tells the story of Oct. 24, 2006. "Allah saved me," he says. "But I wish I was killed that night too, with my family."

The tragedy that struck them also drew Mr. Shah into the complex, controversial business that counting Afghanistan's civilian dead has become.

The white-bearded Afghan farmer, who is in his 70s, recalls his family that night preparing and enjoying a feast for Eid, the end of the Ramadan fast. "We were eating sweets, cookies, milk," he says.

But fighting broke out between coalition forces and the Taliban near their village of mud huts, Zangabad, in the Panjwai region 35 kilometres southwest of Kandahar.

Fatefully, Mr. Shah decided his relatives should seek refuge.

"I told all my family to go out from the village and stay near the nomad tents on the south side," the old man says. He would stay behind and face what might come.

Hours later, after a long firefight, air strikes were called in. But the bombs didn't hit the family's compound - instead, they fell on the nomads' tents. Mr. Shah's one surviving male heir broke the news hours later: "My son who is alive came and told me that my family was completely killed."

At least 50 people died, perhaps 30 of them civilians, including Mr. Shah's wife of 40 years, four of his adult sons and many of his grandchildren - part of the grim and growing tally of "collateral damage" in Afghanistan.

But calculating casualties here is not an exact science: Politics, military strategy and money all play a large part. The Americans are usually accused of low-balling the number of civilian dead, the Afghans of exaggerating.

Observers say Taliban fighters now seek out human shields, in hopes of drawing air attacks. For the insurgents, civilian deaths are a small price to pay for the popular backlash they inspire.

The Taliban's message thrives amid stories of Afghans slain by infidel "crusaders."

Take for instance an American air strike in May that went terribly awry. As Taliban gunmen pinned down Afghan soldiers, the U.S. forces mentoring the fledgling army called in planes that dropped two 2,000-pound bombs along with lesser munitions.

Dozens of fighters were killed, but so were a large number of non-combatants. Afghan President Hamid Karzai rushed to the province of Farah, near the scene in Bala Baluk, to announce he would compensate relatives of 140 civilian victims.

The Pentagon said it could only confirm 26 civilian dead, with at least 78 insurgents killed.

That amounts to a fivefold difference in body counts - between allies.

DECLARED DEAD, AFGHANS LATER FOUND ALIVE

A human-rights investigator in Kabul, while explaining the gritty mechanics of air-strike postmortems, pauses for a rhetorical question: "In Afghanistan," he asks, "where is truth?"

He is venting. "We've interviewed some people who are supposed to be dead," he says. "And they are very much alive. Half of them are working in Iran."

The investigator, who requests anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his work, is employed by a non-governmental organization that tasks him with trying to figure out the true number of civilian dead after air strikes - a growth industry, given how commonplace and controversial such deaths have become in Afghanistan.

Investigators for coalition forces and the Kabul government, along with those from NGOs, rush to the scenes of tragedies to compete to reach the definitive assessments. The only certainty is that each side will interpret the information to their advantage.

Air strikes usually occur in remote communities and religious custom compels people to bury their dead by sundown and keep strangers away from the graves. Such villages are hostile to outlanders at the best of times. Some regard the Taliban as native sons.

As a result, many investigation teams can stay on the ground for only a few hours, canvassing hospitals and checking claims against what paltry records may be available.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government usually compensates families $2,000 (U.S.) per relative killed. In a country without central records and an $800 per capita gross domestic product, that amounts to a huge incentive to pad the numbers.

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