(Warning: The following story contains graphic material)
Standing an arm’s length away, Haji Naim’s eyes fixed on the light shining from the gunman’s forehead.
He didn’t recognize the man, who looked American. Moments before, the shooter had fired multiple times inside Naim’s neighbor’s home next door. Some of Naim’s family who lived in the compound rushed to his room. Women and children from next door ran screaming to Naim’s home to escape the bullets.
But the gunman followed them by scaling and jumping from a wall that separated the two homes. In an instant, Naim found himself standing face to face with the man, the light beaming from his head. Naim didn’t see his weapon.
“What are you doing? What are you doing?” he shouted in his native language.
Saying nothing, the man fired a shot into Naim’s neck. The bullet sent him to the ground and he passed out. After that, the shooter went after the children.
For the first time, the military court in the Article 32 hearing of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales – the JBLM soldier accused of carrying out a nighttime massacre March 11 in Afghanistan – heard from actual witnesses of the shootings.
In all, Army prosecutors interviewed seven people Friday night and Saturday morning: Naim, three of his sons, two Afghan guards on watch at Bales’ base that night and a man related to the victims of that night’s most gruesome scene.
The witnesses testified live from Kandahar, Afghanistan, via video teleconference and translators. The difference in time zones meant testimony began around 7 p.m., Friday night, and didn’t end until shortly after 2 a.m., Saturday, here in Washington state.
Army prosecutors tried to build the case that Bales – whose charges include 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder – conducted the shootings across two villages, Alkozai and Najiban. They claim the Lake Tapps man left his base, Village Stab Platform Belambay, attacked one village, returned to his base, left and attacked another village before being arrested.
As he’s done all five days of the hearing, Bales showed little emotion in the courtroom. At times, Friday and Saturday, he watched the teleconference from a laptop on the defense table’s desk. At another point, he watched the courtroom’s large television screen.
Prosecutors say the site of the first shootings is the village of Alkozai.
After Naim was shot, his son, Sadiquallah, who’s about 13 years old, testified that he ran from the gunman to a storage room and hid behind a curtain with another boy.
The gunman followed.
“I just saw him one time” Sadiquallah testified through a translator, “when he came to the room after me, and I run to another room.”
The prosecution asked if there was a light on the shooter: “Yes. The light was attached to his weapon.”
One of the shooter’s bullets struck Sadiquallah’s ear. Still, the gunman wasn’t able to find the two boys. Frightened, they sat in silence as the screams and gunfire faded away.
Sadiquallah told the court that he thought the shooter was American. When asked how many Americans he saw, Sadiquallah responded: “One.”
Next, his older brother, Quadratullah, testified via video.
He told the court that he was asleep March 11 when he heard the children from next door come screaming. Someone shot their father, they told him.
Then, “the American came over the wall,” Quadratullah testified.
All the kids in the home ran to the room of his father, Naim, where the gunman followed and opened fire.
The children ran screaming in different directions. They even tried to plea with the gunman: “We are children. We are children.”
Still, the shooter opened fire and struck several of them. Among those shot were his sisters.
Quadratullah testified that he recognized the gunman as an American.
“I recognized him because of his pants, and t-shirt, and he had automatic weapon with a flashlight, and he had a flashlight on his head.”
He also recognized the shell casings.
Proscutors again asked how many Americans he saw, and he answered, “I saw one.”
After the shooter left the compound, Quadratullah ran to his father, who was lying on the ground with a bullet in his neck. They put a pillow under his head.
Then, Quadratullah drove a motorcycle to his older’s brother house nearby for help.
That brother, Faizullah, also testified Friday night.
Quadratullah, he said, came screaming. “He told me there was a shooting. My mother shot. My father shot.”
Faizullah drove to his father’s house, where he found Naim on the ground on a blanket.
“My father was shot right by throat, and his side, and so now his hands, he cannot move,” Failzullah recalled.
He put his father in the car, as well as four other wounded, including Sadiquallah, who had been shot in the ear. They drove to VSP Belambay because that was the closest place where they could receive medical attention.
In the hours after the shooting, Quadratullah told the court, he followed the gunman’s footprints in the sand. They lead back to VSP Belambay.
Prosecutors also brought the two Afghan guards who were on watch March 11 at VSP Belambay.
The first, a man named Nematullah, said he saw a man enter the base around 1:30 a.m.
The man came running from the north. Watching from the tower, he ordered the man, who appeared to be American, to stop when he was some 20 meters away, Nematullah said.
The man – who appeared to be an American soldier - didn’t stop. Nematullah described the man as “well-built,” with no facial hair and wearing a Kevlar vest.
The man ran into the base. Nematullah told the next guard on watch – Tosh Ali – to be on the lookout.
Tosh Ali also testified Friday night.
After his shift started around 2 a.m., Tosh Ali saw a man trying to leave VSP Belambay. When confronted, the man said to him in English: “How are you?”
The man was wearing a U.S. Army uniform with a helmet, Tosh Ali said. He was tall and muscular. At one point, the man was laughing.
The man exited the base. Later, Tosh Ali told the court he heard a noise in the distance.
“There was one shot,” he testified. “It was about an hour later.”
His shift ended around 4 a.m. He returned to his post the next day and found hordes of protestors outside the base’s main gate.
Khamal Adin reached his cousin’s home in the village of Najiban about 7 p.m., March 11, where thousands of grieving and angry villagers stood outside.
The 39-year-old from Kandahar City - whom hours before had received a phone call that something bad had occurred at his cousin’s house – approached the doorway of the home.
There, Adin testified via video, he saw the body of his cousin’s mother lying face down. She was bleeding from a bullet to the head.
Then, walking alone, he stepped into the most gruesome sight of the night, a room where a fire had roared hours before.
With the room still smoking and shell casings strewn across the floor, he saw it: a group of bodies, bloodied and burned, “all thrown together on top of each other.”
The pile contained 10 bodies, including seven children under 15 years old.
Five of the children were under 5 years old.
Almost all were shot in the head.
Two of the girls appeared to have shoe or foot marks on their faces.
The youngest victim – a baby girl – appeared to have been dragged into the fire.
All appeared to be naked.
Prosecutors asked Adin if he could smell gasoline or kerosene. His answer: “Only smell was that of the body smell.”
Adin told the court that his cousin, a farmer, was out of town during the killings.
So, Adin had some of the women in the village wrap the bodies, and they were placed in the back of pickup trucks.
Adin, along with other villagers, drove to VSP Belambay, where they protested and demanded justice. Adin said he even spoke with someone from CNN.
The people at the gate told the protestors that they couldn’t enter. Finally, they left and buried the bodies in one, large grave.
After seeing the bodies of his family, Adin said his cousin has given anything that was salvageable in the house away and hasn’t returned.
At the end of his testimony, the court asked Adin if he had any requests.
“My request is to get justice,” he answered.