Afghan family ravaged by U.S. drone strike mistake wants headstones for the dead - and possible new life in America


KABUL, Afghanistan - By the time the American apology arrived, the lives of the Ahmadi family were already upended. And being falsely accused by the U.S. military of ties to the Islamic State was not the worst part of the ordeal.

There was their shattered family house. There were the nightmares, the bouts of crying and the screams triggered by the memory of a U.S. drone strike on Aug. 29 that killed 10 of their relatives, including seven children.

There were the fresh fears of persecution by the Taliban after the media spotlight on the family noted thatsome members, including survivors, worked for U.S.-based firms.

The Hellfire missile - the weapon used in the Pentagon's capstone attack at the end of two-decade war - also killed the family's only breadwinner, Zamarai Ahmadi.

"We didn't have money to bury our relatives," said his 32-year-old brother Emal on Saturday, steps away from the mangled carcass of a white Toyota sedan. "We had to borrow the funds."

Without doubt, the Pentagon's mea culpa Friday - that a series of miscalculations led to the wrongful targeting of Zamarai Ahmadi, an aid worker with a U.S.-based group - has lifted a heavy weight off the family.

"The Americans kept emphasizing they killed an ISIS-K terrorist," said Emal, referring to the Islamic State's Afghanistan branch. "Now we are happy they have acknowledged their mistake and confirmed that they killed innocent people."

The remnants of a white Toyota sedan destroyed by a U.S. Hellfire missile, which also killed 10 people, are seen in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 18, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post

What the family seeks now is to exit their American-made hell.

Family members in interviews on Saturday expressed no visible animosity toward the U.S. government for killing their loved ones. But forgiveness may be too strong a word.

Rather, the Ahmadis grasp onto a sense of pragmatism. They want compensation from the U.S. government and help in leaving Afghanistan and getting resettled in the United States or another safe country, family members said.

"You can see the situation in Afghanistan is not good," said Samim Ahmadi, 24, the step son of Zamarai. "Whether in America or another country, we want peace and comfort for our remaining years. Everyone makes mistakes. The Americans cannot bring back our loved ones, but they can take us out of here."

On Saturday came further worrisome signs from Afghanistan. A series of blasts rocked the eastern city of Jalalabad, potentially targeting Taliban vehicles, killing at least three people and wounding 20. There was no initial claims of responsibility, but the province is a bastion of the Islamic State.

Before last month's drone strike, both Emal and Zamarai had applications in process to acquire special visas to enter the United States because of their work with American companies, said family members.

The drone strike has heightened the urgency to leave, they added.

"We are worried," said Ajmal Ahmadi, another brother. "We feel under threat because we are so exposed to the public by the media. Everyone got to know that we have worked for foreigners, served in the Afghan army as well as the Afghan intelligence agency."

They also want justice. Those responsible for their tragedy, such as the commander who oversaw the strike, the drone operator or anyone else who had visuals on the ground, need to be held accountable in a U.S. court, family members said.

"The U.S. government must punish those who launched the drone strike," said Emal Ahmadi, slim and bearded, his firm voice at times softening with emotion. "They knew and saw there were children on the ground. Can anyone bring them back?"

Yet so far, family members said, they have had no contact with U.S. officials from any branch of the government, not even to offer their apology personally.

"They should have contacted us and at least asked us about our situation," said Emal, shaking his head.

Until Friday, the Pentagon had defended last month's operation as a "righteous strike." Defense officials said they had tracked a white Toyota sedan for hours after it left a suspected Islamic State safe house and destroyed it to prevent an imminent suicide attack.

In reality, the car's driver, Zamarai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee of Nutrition and Education International, a charity based in California. He was carrying large water canisters that were apparently mistaken for bombs, officials acknowledged, echoing earlier investigations by The Washington Post and other media outlets that raised questions about the attack.

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Just before the drone strike, Ahmadi had pulled into his gated family compound, where he and his three brothers grew up in a working-class enclave west of Kabul's airport. Now, they were all living there with their own families. Their kids played with each other every day in the courtyard.

On this evening, several jumped into Ahmadi's car. That's when the missile struck, a pinpoint attack that eviscerated the sedan and sprayed shrapnel into doors and walls, shattering windows.

Zamarai and three of his sons - Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 11 - were killed. The three children of another brother - Arween, 7, Binyamin, 6 and Ayat, 2 - also died, along with Emal's 3-year-old daughter, Malika, and his nephew Nasser, 30. A cousin's infant daughter, Sumaiya, was also among those killed.

The entire family depended on Zamarai's $500 monthly salary, said Emal. With their house destroyed, the remaining 15 family members moved to his sister's small, four-room home, an hour's drive away.

"Every night we sleep on the roof because there is not enough space in the house," said Ajmal Ahmadi. "For the first 15 days, I could not sleep. I kept having flashbacks of my brother, my nieces and nephews."

The wives of Emal and another relative, Romal, are more traumatized, said family members. Both women witnessed the deaths of their children. "They have constant nightmares, often waking up screaming at night," said Emal.

His 7-year-old daughter, Ada, still asks when her sister, Malika, will return home.

"I can't bear to tell her that her sister is dead," said Emal. "I've told her Malika is at the hospital and one day she will come back."

Imran, 8, Ajmal's son, recalled how he would ride bikes and play soccer with his cousins. They would pluck fresh grapes from vines for snacks.

"Now," he said, "they are in the next world."

The family tries to avoid their destroyed house as much as possible.

"Whenever our relatives come here, they remember everything about the explosion," said Ajmal. "It is just too hard. We can no longer live in this house."

Meanwhile, the family's financial woes are growing. The brothers have lived off the savings of her sister for the past three weeks. Those savings are gone, and the family is forced to borrow money again, said Emal. They owe nearly $2,000, a princely sum in Afghanistan.

And they still have unfinished family business.

At a cemetery, a half-hour drive away, 10 graves are scattered on a rocky hill side. Each has a stone painted in red to mark its location and a white cloth with the name of the family member. The family cannot afford to buy the gravestones.

But they say that one day they will.