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Afghan massacre: Truth of events remains elusive

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 12:56 AM EDT, Fri March 30, 2012
  • Reporter Yalda Hakim of Australia's SBS first western journalist to visit crime scene
  • She says witnesses were conflicting, but most spoke of more than one U.S. soldier
  • The U.S. military has maintained the massacre was the work of a lone gunman
  • U.S. military has yet to gain access to the scene of the massacre in which 17 people died

(CNN) -- Getting to the truth of the events that led to one of the worst massacres of the war in Afghanistan may be as long and tortuous as the conflict itself.

Reporter Yalda Hakim of Australia's SBS, one of the first western journalists to visit the villages where a U.S. soldier allegedly shot 17 people dead, told CNN that while she felt the villagers were telling the truth, some of their accounts were conflicting.

"I did sense that they were upfront and their stories were heartfelt," Hakim said. "(But) there were some disparities between the stories.

"I spoke to mainly children and it is always difficult to assess whether a child is actually aware of what they saw," she said. "Some of the children I spoke to told me that they only saw one American in their house. The eight-year-old girl that I spoke to said she saw several Americans in her house."

Hakim said she also spoke to a woman whose husband had been shot in the head, who gave a horrific account of having dragged his body into the house and how his brains fell out into her hands.

Afghan massacre: What we know so far

"She told me she saw 15 to 20 Americans in her house," Hakim said.

Afghan massacre victims share their grief
Officials: Bales went to base mid-attack

One element she found surprising in covering the story was that there have not been the same protests over the massacre as Afghanistan saw over issues such as the recent burning by U.S. soldiers of copies of the Koran.

While the U.S. has apologized over the incident, it has done nothing to quell anger.

"It seems that a religious attack on their religion and their Koran ... affected them more." Hakim said. "They are grieving at the moment but that doesn't mean there won't be revenge attacks."

After the massacre, she says she was told that villagers loaded up a truck with the dead and attempted to drive them to the American base but were turned back by locals and elders who told them there would be a trial and that justice would be served.

"There's a lot of outrage that the American soldier was actually taken out of Afghanistan 48 hours after the attack," Hakim said.

"They told me that if an Afghan soldier had done something similar in the United States would that soldier have been taken out of the United States and brought back to America and put on trial here (Afghanistan)?

I did sense that they were upfront and their stories were heartfelt
Yalda Hakim

"This is something that has outraged the people here to a large extent," she said.

One of the difficulties for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, she says, is that he is effectively playing to several audiences: the first his allies in the U.S. military and the international community, the second the Afghan people and his opponents in the Taliban.

The shooting has severely strained the rapport between the U.S. and Karzai who, after the shooting, said that relations between the two countries were at the "end of the rope." Two Afghan provincial council members said the United States has paid the victims' families a total of $860,000 -- $10,000 for each of the six wounded survivors, and $50,000 apiece for the 16 dead. While the suspect has been charged with 17 counts of murder, Afghan authorities have said there were 16 people killed in the massacre.

"It's a difficult juggling act for him (Karzai) and it's certainly a thankless job but at this stage he really is pushing for freedom of the press when it comes to this particular story," Hakim said.

The U.S. military has maintained that the shooting with work of a single soldier, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who walked away from a U.S. military base and was acting alone.

U.S. military officials have yet to gain access to the sites where the Afghans were killed in Kandahar, an obstacle that could make it more difficult to prosecute the soldier accused of the multiple homicides.

Bales' attorney, John Henry Browne, told CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" on Wednesday that it was "not a traditional crime scene," making it tough for prosecutors to make a case.

"There is no crime scene. The military has not even been back to the villages where this allegation stems from. They haven't been back there. So there's no crime scene, there's no DNA, there's no fingerprints, there's no confession," he said.

"You know, the Afghan people traditionally, I understand, and understandably, bury their dead very quickly. So it's going to be a tough case for the prosecutors."

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