war and conflict multimedia reporting

The story behind the missing Quran burning

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Let me tell you a story. It’s long but it’s worth the read. This story was never reported. I am a freelance journalist, and not one single American media outlet seemed interested in the story. The story involved American soldiers and local Afghans.

The incident I’m describing led to violent demonstrations around Afghanistan. I’m not getting paid to report this. But I want to let you know what happened. It’s not a traditional article. But it’s a journalistic piece with several sources – both local and ISAF.

I was embedded with American soldiers from 10th Mountain Division in the provinces of Maidan Wardag (Wardak) and Logar, October and November 2009. I was also the only journalist in the area at the time. I’m not American. I’m not Muslim. But I am a journalist, and I report what I see, what I hear, and I analyze what others tell me to verify what they say. Propaganda is part of war and both sides use the propaganda tool. It’s a known fact. Therefore it’s a journalist’s job to ask all parties involved or explain why a source doesn’t appear in the story.

Let me also stress, that I am not a political journalist, and I do not have any political motives for reporting from Afghanistan. Just as the soldiers are there to do their job, I do my job. The American politics behind the war I’m not knowledgeable enough to report on. I’m there to report on what’s going on, not to voice my opinion of the war. Others with more knowledge of politics may report on the politics behind the war.

The incident
Very early on the morning of Thursday October 15
th 2009, a group of American soldiers en route from FOB Airborne to COP Conlon in Wardak province hit an IED just outside a small village in Wardak (Maidan Wardag) Province. No soldiers were hurt during the blast.
The 10
th Mountain soldiers searched the nearby qalat – (Afghan house), and then went on a search patrol in the village as is standard procedure. The American soldiers were looking for the trigger man, or anything that could lead them to find more information about the IED. Nothing and no one was found and they returned to base.

It’s this patrol that is in question. What happened during that patrol?

At 9AM the same day I went out on a patrol with another platoon from 4-25 10th Mountain Division, Afghan National Army (ANA), National Directory of Security officers (the Afghan intelligence agency) and a few Marines mentoring the ANA in the area.

The group of ISAF and ANA security troops was there to examine the blast from the IED and to teach ANA about the demographics of an IED. The blast itself and the bomb components had already been examined and removed by the Explosive Ordinance Team (EOD) after the blast.

The shura meeting
When the security troops were done with the examination, we all went to the nearby school in the village of Chahargala for a shura with the local elders. A shura is an Arabic word for consultation. It is a local meeting with the elderly from a village, or the local tribe. It’s a form of local government – or a local democracy. The shura elders know what’s going on in the area and they make the decisions for the remaining village people, or bring the news or issues to the village mosque for the Friday prayers. It’s an important part of the American counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy to interact with locals.

“We have experienced a lot of IED’s-interactive explosive devices-in this area, and we have told the locals to stop it or report it. This morning we hit another IED, so basically we are now going to tell them it’s got to stop,” Ltd. Col. Gabel of 10th Mountain told me before the shura began.

Sitting in the front yard of the village school, locals from Chahargala as well as the Afghan security forces and Ltd. Col. Gabel listened to a short prayer from a man, who seemed to be the oldest person in town, and then the meeting began. There were only men at the meeting. And a female reporter of course.

The ANA commander begins the meeting by telling the villagers, that they have two choices. To either help secure the village or do nothing.

Then the NDS commander takes over. He explains that because it’s only a few bad guys that destroy things, the villagers have to help ANA and ANP (Afghan National Police) stop to the violence.

“This is not jihad (holy war against non-Muslims). Those bad guys are not here to help Afghanistan. They might not even be from Afghanistan, but are foreigners fighting in our land. If this was jihad, I would join you and fight ISAF. But this is not jihad. ISAF are here to help us, but the bad guys aren’t,” he emphasizes.

Their names are left out because I am referring to what they said at the shura and not to me. The names of the elders are also left out due to their security.

“But there is no enemies here,” one elderly man says. “What should we do? We don’t go out at night, because we are scared about both sides. So tell us what to do,” he says.

Another man adds:
“We don’t know when they come to plant the explosives. They are not from here. We also don’t have the power to stand up and say “don’t plant IED’s”. No one can. We are scared of them and of ANA and the government too and the Americans. If you want to shoot us, just shoot us. You have soldiers here with weapons so you can do what you want. But show us the solution,” he says.

Suddenly a younger man raises his voice.

“No one wants their son blown up, so if I saw someone plant a bomb, I would call the government,” the man shouts. “We want a future for our sons”. He is standing up and is clearly upset.

“But if you hide the crime, you do the crime,” the NDS commander reminds him.
“It’s in our constitution, the punishment law. You know very well who plants the IED’s. You need to report it”.

The younger man and another man in the shura have a loud argument. They are shouting at each other. One of them wants security, not new schools or new roads.

“That motherfucker who plants the IED, let’s get him. The Americans searched my house when only my wife was at home, and I don’t want that to happen again. Let’s get the motherfucker who did this,” he shouts angrily. People around him nod.

The meeting is at almost finished and the NDS commander has the last word.

“Aren’t you tired of war and conflicts?,” he says. “Let’s start a new life”.

The elders decide to have a village shura in the mosque the day after, to talk about what to do and the meeting is adjourned.

I went back to the outpost with the American soldiers. On the way back we were told there was a small gathering of people outside a government building in a nearby village but the American commanders didn’t want a confrontation with an angry mob and we returned to base.

The next day, I asked one of the platoon leaders about the incident.

“It was a spark and now it’s a fire. It’s been reported that US troops from Golf Company (10th Mountain) came into a house after they hit an IED on Montana (the asphalt road running up to Kabul). They cleared the house and supposedly burned a Quran,” said Lt. John Gillette, 3rd platoon, 4-25 10th Mountain Division.

“The head ANA mullah has already broadcasted on the radio that it was false. A group of people from Kowt’e Ashraw gathered around the school (where we held the shura) and had a demonstration”.

Some people planted rocks on the street trying to disable the American vehicles driving through.

Two days later the gathering had turned into a riot. 2-500 people protested around the village of Maydan Shar–the provincial capital-against the Afghan government. All American soldiers stayed on base to avoid confrontation. They knew the protesters were civilians and they wanted to remain passive aggressive.

“We are taking a defensive role defending ourselves and staying out of the picture,” Ltd. Gillette said.

“We investigated and found out that no one burned anything. ANP and ANA tried to speak to the people of the village, but they distrust anyone who works with us, so now it’s a religious thing. No one saw the Quran or the leftover of it and there is no proof that anybody burned anything,” he explained.

When asked why he would let Afghans handle the situation, the answer came promptly.

“We wanna make sure that everybody understands what’s been happening. We try to get the Afghan troops to handle it and stay out of clearing houses and going into towns. They are the ones that should be doing this because they are Muslims and we are not. We’ve build and improved mosques but all that goes out the window with this,” he said sadly.

I later spoke to the ANA living on the outpost as well as the interpreters working for the Americans in the same outpost. None of them had seen any proof of the burning. The soldiers said the same. Nothing was burned.

When thinking back to the shura where every man of the village was present, I came to wonder. If there had been a burning of a Quran – wouldn’t the shura have known about it? They certainly didn’t seem shy to let the American commander Gabel know what they thought about ISAF forces, or what they thought about a group entering a man’s house when he wasn’t at home.

So where did this come from?

According to Huffington Post on February 1, this appeared in a Shahamat – a Pasto paper:

The latest sad news is that the Christian Crusaders (Americans) have burned a copy of the Holy Quran in Wardak province and have thus shown their enmity with Islam and the Muslims… The saddest aspect of this incident is that the American invaders have committed this heinous crime in a province (Wardak) that has been known for long as home to mujahedeen (the holy warriors). The people of this province have taken active part in past and current jihadi movements. The people of this province have always defended their country bravely and heroically. The people of this province had played a historical role in the war against British occupiers…”

The media
During the next few weeks the riots spread as far as Kandahar and Jalabad and the American media reported that American troops had supposedly burned a Quran. But no one phoned 10
th Mountain. I know because I asked the commander in FOB Airborne.

During all this I asked several mainstream media outlets if they were interested in the story. The reports on riots were spreading across the globe and I wanted to let people know what happened in the days leading to the riots. No one was interested. No one bothered to even answer except two networks. That happens often in the freelance world so it cannot be used as a reference point. I’m just pointing out why this particular story hasn’t been out.

LA Times wrote back. They declined saying there had been enough of the story already. CNN wrote back but I never heard anything concrete. But the networks correspondent in Afghanistan thought it was an interesting story.

On October 25th in an article in Global Post, a local villager from Khwajagan is quoted as saying he saw the burned Korans. The paper also reports that according to villagers an American convoy hit an IED, searched the nearby compound and burned no less than six Korans. The same quote appears in other articles. It appears it has been written by a trainee working for Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He is quoting a local villager from Khwajagan of saying the above.

The village name appears to be different than reported by US forces. But the villages are very small and often appears right next to each other in this rural area, so it’s hard to find out the exact name from this. The Maydan Shar district has 59 villages. But the trainee is Afghan from Wardak. Shouldn’t he know? After all he went to speak to the man that saw the six burned Qurans. The only man that has ever seen proof of the Quran burning.

So what’s the story. The American troops deny the incident, the ANA says it didn’t happen, local Afghans says it didn’t happen, the Charhagala people in which the IED attack happened didn’t know anything as mentioned at the shura, the Wardak governor’s office says it’s “junkies from out of province, that has already fled Wardak” as described by IWPR.

Only the Taliban paper Shahamat and a villager from Kwajagan allegedly know.

But everyone reports that it did happen. And no one bothered finding out IF it happened. It didn’t matter. The damage was already done.

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3 responses

  1. Thanks for a solid piece of reporting.

    February 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm

  2. Hi, Camilla!

    This is a great piece of reporting.

    Regarding Western Media and the flaws you mention on your article, I would say that the loss of accuracy has everything to do with the decreasing importance of international news reporting in newsrooms. It’s easy for journalists sitting on their desks to reproduce a story, without even questioning it. I would recommend you a great article on this same topic: http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/publications/risj-challenges/are-foreign-correspondents-redundant.html

    Please, let’s keep in touch! And, of course, feel free to visit my blog: http://afghancountdown.wordpress.com


    April 7, 2011 at 6:22 pm

  3. Pingback: links for 2011-04-07 « Afghan Countdown

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