The U.S. Investigates Possible Civilian Deaths During Baghdadi Raid In Syria
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The U.S. military has opened a formal investigation into claims that it killed civilians during its raid last year on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The military's probe was prompted by an NPR report, and now NPR's Daniel Estrin has this update.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: In December, we broadcast the story of a Syrian farmer who says he and his friends happened to be driving through the village where al-Baghdadi was hiding when U.S. helicopter fire hit their van. They stumbled out of the van and came under fire a second time. His arm was blown off, and his two friends were killed. Here's what he told us back then.
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BARAKAT BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I'm just a civilian. I didn't have any weapons. We're farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I'm handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.
ESTRIN: Photos of shrapnel and their damaged van supported the account. And several relatives said the men were not part of any armed group. We took this to the U.S. military. Officials said initial reports were that the van had fired on U.S. helicopters. But the military agreed to review the case. Three months later, in February, Captain Bill Urban told us they were doing a credibility assessment. That's a formal investigation. Priyanka Motaparthy of Columbia Law School explains how it works.
PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: They could look at things like surveillance video of the operation. They could also speak with military personnel who were involved in that operation to get a sense of what happened. This is kind of an intermediate step where they determine, is it more credible than not?
ESTRIN: We reached out again to the Syrian wounded in the strike, Barakat Barakat. He didn't know the U.S. was investigating his case.
BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I thought the issue had been forgotten. I did not expect it. I wondered, is it possible the American people would forget this issue? Now I feel there is someone caring about my life. There is humanity in the American people.
ESTRIN: He's struggled to get used to his new life. His right arm is gone. His left arm was hit with shrapnel, and he can only use his pinky finger. His friend held up the cellphone for him while we spoke. He can't do much by himself.
BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) When I want to wash my face, my wife washes it. When I want to eat, my wife rolls up the piece of bread and feeds me.
ESTRIN: He has the bad luck of living Idlib. For one thing, there are no U.S. troops there for him to appeal to. And it's a rebel-held area under attack by the Syrian regime for months. He's afraid to go to the hospital because hospitals have been bombed. Displaced people in tents surround his house. He's ashamed he can no longer work to support his young children.
BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I lost my hand. God determined my destiny. But what is the sin my kids committed that their future isn't guaranteed?
ESTRIN: He asked if there were any chances the U.S. could help him provide for his children.
BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I am asking now, is there any hope for - any help for me? If there is no hope, please tell me. I'd like things to be clear.
ESTRIN: The U.S. has taken responsibility for past civilian casualties in Syria, but experts say very few families have received money. In Barakat's case, a formal investigation could take weeks or months.
Daniel Estrin, NPR News.
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