Official truth, unofficial consequences

Halifax Daily News March 19, 2006

By Stephen Kimber

Why did a 16-year-old boy really attack Canadian army Capt. Trevor Greene with an axe in the Afghan village of Shinkay two weeks ago?

And what actually happened in that Kandahar City roundabout last Tuesday night when a Canadian soldier shot and killed an unarmed, middle-aged Afghani man.

Truth is a slippery beast, especially in the fear-filled middle of a surreal, kill-or-be-killed war zone, where it’s virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe but where a soldier must — in an instant — decide who is which, or risk his own death and the deaths of his comrades.

This is not a column about a soldier’s instantaneous, moment-of-decision truth.

This is a column about Official Truth. And its unofficial consequences.

Within hours of the attack on Trevor Greene, Canada’s military brass had its official version of events firmly in place.

Even though, as a Canadian Press report put it, the army “rarely reveals much of the intelligence it gathers,” Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the head of Canada’s Task Force Afghanistan, eagerly “confirmed” to reporters that “this individual was a Taliban.”

The story did not reveal how the general knew this. The circumstantial evidence — children being shuffled away from where Greene was meeting with elders, a brief firefight following the incident in which unseen attackers fired at the Canadians from inside and outside the village, and the fact that all the village’s able-bodied men seemed to disappear in the aftermath of the attack — might suggest a carefully orchestrated ambush.

Or it could simply indicate that local mothers weren’t too keen on having their children playing around the menacing, gun-toting Canadian soldiers who were watching over the meeting. And that local men, some of whom were, in fact, chased after the attack by Canadian troops, decided it was wiser to melt into the mountains than risk the wrath of soldiers who might choose to blame them for what happened to their comrade.

There is, in fact, a different image of the boy who attacked Greene. Village elders, who traveled to the Canadian base two days after to apologize for what had happened, said the boy who attacked the captain was mentally ill and had, in fact, previously murdered his own sister.

“What happened was an accident,” one elder told Canadian soldiers. “The guy was crazy.”

A deranged teenager, of course, is a less compelling villain than a Taliban insurgent, so “this individual was a Taliban.”

In the case of the man killed in Kandahar City, the official version — issued equally swiftly after the incident — is that a Canadian patrol was parked at the side of a road when a rickshaw taxi, which had already “blown past” an Afghan military checkpoint, barreled toward the Canadian vehicle. Soldiers used shouts, hand gestures and even pointed a spotlight at the taxi to order the driver to stop, but he ignored them. Finally, with the vehicle within a metre of the Canadians, a soldier opened fire, wounding passenger Nasrat Ali Hassan. A Canadian medic examined the man at the scene, did not think his injuries life threatening and left him to his own devices. Afghan police eventually took the man to the hospital where he died a few hours later.

Hassan’s widow, who was also in the rickshaw, says that’s not how it happened. Semen Gui told a Toronto Star reporter, “I know all about police checkpoints. We were not stopped by the Aghans. And there was no warning shot from the Canadians, no shouting, no shots fired in the air, no light shining on us. There was only this sudden gunfire — three shots — and my husband falling out of the rickshaw into the street.”

It turns out that her husband, a poor Shiite who supported his family by making tin pots and pans, was engaged in nothing more threatening than trying to get back home with six members of his family in a noisy, overburdened rickshaw taxi after having enjoyed a pleasant dinner with a relative. No guns or explosives were found in the vehicle.

Although there will now be an official investigation, the Canadian military didn’t wait for its results to begin putting its own propaganda gloss on what happened that night.

Though all of this spin-doctoring might serve to drum up support at home for Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan, the army’s unseemly eagerness to pin blame on Taliban insurgents or reckless Afghanis as the authors of their own misfortunes will do little to win the hearts and minds of the people there, who may come to fear their Canadian liberators as much as their Taliban oppressors.

Listen to Semen Gui, who lived for many years in Iran before returning home with her family after the American-led invasion, hopeful, ironically, of a better future: “If there had been a warning,” she told the Star, “we would have stopped, of course… You think we are all Taliban or Al Qaeda… I don’t hate Canadians. But I can’t forgive them… They do not have the right to shoot at Afghans… You cannot come to our country and kill us… Let them shoot at people in their own country, not here.”

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