KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Angry Afghan villagers chanted “Death to the Canadians” and paraded the blood-spattered bodies of two young children through the streets of Kandahar city Monday after a tribal elder accused Canada of firing the shell that killed them.
Residents of the village of Salehan, about 15 kilometres southwest of the city, staged an angry protest outside the white gates of the Kandahar provincial council office after an elder in the war-racked district of Panjwaii laid the blame for the tragedy at the feet of Canadian forces.
The allegation, which prompted the army to launch an immediate investigation, was one of several conflicting accounts to emerge Monday about exactly what caused the fatal explosion.
The protest, however, left little doubt that the tragedy had shaken the village – a community financed in part by Mohammed Bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai, and dedicated, ironically, to housing those maimed and dismembered by war – to its foundations.
The victims, two boys who looked to be in their pre-teens, were laid out in the open back of a red three-wheeled wooden taxi known as a “tuk-tuk,” their bodies partially covered with a blood-stained pink sheet.
One child, who had clearly suffered a horrifying abdominal wound, was lying on his back, his lifeless brown eyes wide open and his face spattered with blood. The second child, with a mess of brown hair, was arranged beside his companion, his face turned away.
Angry relatives and friends wailed with grief at the side of the vehicle as bystanders, visibly aghast at the spectacle unfolding before them, covered their mouths with the cloth tails of their turbans.
The Canadian military said the children were most likely killed when they somehow came across unexploded munitions in a field outside of the tiny community, which is also known as Mohammed Bin Rashid Village.
“This area is known – at least by us, and I assume it is the case with the residents – (to be) littered with all kinds of unexploded ordnance and mines,” said Maj. Mario Couture, a spokesman for Task Force Kandahar.
“It’s a very dangerous area, so anything is possible.”
Couture confirmed that Canadian troops had been conducting range practice in the vicinity of the village on Sunday, firing all sorts of heavy weapons – up to and including the mighty Leopard tank cannon – but he insisted the soldiers walked the area to ensure it was clean.
“Our troops are conducting ranges frequently to maintain their level of competency with the weapons they’re using,” he said.
“All I know is that they did cover the ground (to) make sure nothing was left.”
NATO has been engaged in an aggressive ad campaign among local Afghans advising them “not to pick up or play with unidentified or unexploded ordanence in the ground,” Couture said.
Some villagers, however, tell a different story.
They claimed the settlement, which is known by locals simply as “the handicapped village,” came under mortar fire Monday, hours after Canadian troops had completed their range exercises.
A mortar round, fired from the direction of a Canadian forward operating base to the west of the village, landed among the children, who were on their way back from a local madrassa.
“This is disgusting, firing these kind of mortars on civilains,” said Abdul Wahid, a resident of Salehan.”This (is) unbearable for us.”
In addition to the Canadian military investigation, Afghan police were also trying to determine Monday exactly what happened, but pointed an early finger of blame squarely at the Taliban.
Col. Matiullah Khan Qatah, the provincial police chief, insisted the Canadians could not have been responsible for the tragedy and tried to sway the protest’s angry leaders.
“I don’t know that they were satisfied or not,” Qatah said in an interview late Monday.
Couture, meanwhile, was unable to reconcile the differing accounts. There was also no clear indication how many children were wounded in the blast.
Officials at Kandahar’s main hospital said they treated three people in connection with the explosion – two boys aged 4 and 8, plus a 20-year-old man.
NATO officials, however, insisted only two other people were wounded.
A spokesman for Tooryalai Wesa, Kandahar’s provincial governor and an Afghan-Canadian, refused comment on the tragedy and barred local journalists from interviewing the wounded or family members of the victims who were gathered at the hospital.
Assadullah Wafa, the former governor of Helmand province and now a top corruption investigator for the federal government in Kabul, said he’s spoken with the police chief about the attack.
But Wafa, who was in a nearby meeting hall when the protest took place, said he had no further details because he “had not received a written report.”
Just three months ago, Salehan was the scene of a shura involving the former commander of Canadian troops, Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, local Afghan leaders and Canadian officials, including development representatives.
At the time, expectations were high that the village would be the focus of future development.
– With files from A.R. Khan in Kandahar.