Afghan Viewpoint Of U.S. Army Trial Of Robert Bales

A group of Afghan victims and witnesses were flown to the U.S. for the sentencing hearing of Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. Bales gunned down 16 people last year just outside his outpost in Kandahar province. Ahmad Shafi was asked to translate the proceedings to the group of Afghans, and he talks about the experience with Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

In Afghanistan, the massacre of 16 villagers last year by an American soldier offered a vision of the unthinkable.

WERTHEIMER: Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales pleaded guilty to a rampage that began when he donned night goggles, got his guns, and walked off his command outpost in Kandahar Province. Bales has said he still doesn't know why he entered the mud houses and slaughtered mostly women and children, some in their beds, some who fought back. He then sent the bodies on fire with the kerosene from a lamp.

GREENE: Nine survivors were flown to Washington State to testify in the sentencing trial last week of Sergeant Bales, at his military base in Washington State. The villagers and farmers, men and boys, arrived in their turbans and skullcaps, and the traditional loose shirts and pants known as salwar kameez.

WERTHEIMER: And as it happened, the man whose job it was to translate both the language and the culture foreign to them, is a former interpreter and producer for NPR's Kabul bureau. Our colleague Renee Montagne asked Ahmad Shafi for a behind-the-scenes account of their experience here in America.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Obviously the justice system would have been new to them because it is so different. Give me an example how - one, say, tricky part of the American justice system that you had to really work at explaining.

AHMAD SHAFI: I mean there are so many differences. The system here is favored more towards the defense. And then, you know, in Afghanistan - especially the area they have come from - it's very swift and speedy justice. The victim holds all the cards. When a murder is committed, the family could do two things: either forgive, you know, the murderer - and then there's usually some blood money involved; or basically ask for eye for an eye.

And this is what they were asking for, because there were so many families involved, so many victims. None of them would have forgiven Sergeant Bales.

MONTAGNE: But the group came in wanting the death penalty, which exists in America. So, you know, it's not unreasonable. But it must have been very confusing to them that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales confessed as part of a deal that spared him the death penalty. That must've been something they didn't make much sense out of.

SHAFI: Absolutely. In fact, before Sergeant Bales pleaded guilty, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse - the leading prosecutor - traveled to Kandahar, met with them and explained that this was what was going to happen; that he, Sergeant Bales, would plead guilty. And in fact some of them were saying they would not come for the sentencing because then it wouldn't make sense, if he's not getting the death penalty.

So it took a lot of convincing, a lot of effort to get them to come for the sentencing, because we explained this would be a moment for them to tell their story and also to face Sergeant Bales. But what happened next was they thought that they would see Sergeant Bales in shackles in a prison uniform. But when some of them went in the first time, they came out and they were like: We didn't see Bales there.

And then when we explained he was in military uniform and, you know, he's like: I looked at him - oh, we thought he's a general.

MONTAGNE: Because he didn't look like a miserable person pulled out of a prison. He looked like somebody in uniform and very turned out, really.

SHAFI: They were very, very offended by that.

MONTAGNE: So what did they do?

SHAFI: Well, they want to curse him. They wanted to attack him. The prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel Morse, pleaded with him and took a lot of effort to convince him not to break the rules, not to curse, not to attack him. And in the end it worked in a way because the prosecutor had met with him so many times and had worked so hard that they had developed a lot of respect for him.

MONTAGNE: Yes. Just a side note on this. Thanks to this military prosecutor and just their experience being around soldiers, I gather they came around to people in uniform that previously they were very suspicious of and felt bad feelings towards.

SHAFI: Yeah. There was a lot of suspicion but towards the end of the trial they had developed sort of personal connections. You know, as they got to know more about the soldiers and especially, there was one who would come in and sort of handout their per diem and he would have a moment to chat with them. And, of course, you know, they were curious, they would ask him questions about what does he do, how is his personal life, his family life. And one time he just made a joke about how, you know, he had to rush home because his wife would be mad and put them in the doghouse. When I translated that for them they were just in shock. Whoa, so your wife is putting you in the doghouse?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAFI: And it was just for them it became a joke because every time they would see they would look at him and like oh, you better go home before your wife beat you up.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAFI: So they had a very good sense of humor too and they got to know him pretty well.

MONTAGNE: Now when Sergeant Bales was sentenced...

SHAFI: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: He's sent to prison for the rest of his life. What was their first response to that? Was it relief? I know at least some were like it's still not good enough. We still want the death penalty.

SHAFI: Well, the questions they would ask right after the sentencing was: would he be able to see his family again? Would he be able to support his kids, pay for his kids?

MONTAGNE: These are people who have lost their families.

SHAFI: Yes.

MONTAGNE: He's going to prison but he still had his family. He still could see his kids. He still could in a way have a life.

SHAFI: There was this feeling, you know, when I explained to them that he would be in for a very long time. He would be only allowed one hour in 24 hours to see the daylight. And that he's basically does not have the freedom of choosing what to eat or who to visit or who to call or what to see anymore; that's been taken away. There was still a little bit of suspicion that he would be let out.

MONTAGNE: I know you have some tape of a conversation that you had on the last evening before they left to head back to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Could you play us a little bit of that conversation?

SHAFI: I had a moment to talk to Mullah Boran. He's the one who is the educated one in the group and also the most curious. He lost his brother in the incident and now he is the one taking care of the seven children, his brother's orphans. And he's responsible for taking care of the kids and paying, basically, for everything. And he also brought them to Kandahar city to enroll them in school. So here he is, I asked him whether he feels there was some justice done, that he feels better after his sentence.

MULLAH BORAN: (Foreign Language Spoken)

SHAFI: He tells me that he achieved a level of peace in his heart, a little. And then he quotes a verse from the Quran: God is with those who are patient. He said what was done to him and his family, there's no way to pay him back. But, at least now he knows that in the afterworld, the flames of hell are 70 times hotter than the fire on earth. And that Sergeant Bales would be burning in that flame and that kids him a little measure of peace in his heart.

MONTAGNE: Ahmad Shafi, thank you again for joining us.

SHAFI: Oh, thank you very much Renee, for having me.

GREENE: Speaking to Renee Montagne, that's our former NPR Kabul bureau colleague, Ahmad Shafi , who went on to serve as a translator for the Afghan witnesses in the sentencing trial of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales.

Earlier this week, the nine Afghans were flown back to their villages in Kandahar province.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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