In the village of Shadal Bazar in Afghanistan’s eastern district of Achin, dozens of people had gathered at the home of Haji Raees, a prominent elder, to celebrate his return from the hajj pilgrimage.
At around half past three on Wednesday morning, a US airstrike hit the guesthouse where the male guests were asleep, killing at least 15 people and injuring another 13.
That much seems uncontested. What remains a matter of dispute is the identity of those who died: according to the United Nations, , but local authorities said the only victims were militants of the Islamic State militant group.
A statement from the provincial governor of Nangarhar said 18 Isis members were killed, and that no women or children were among the casualties.
Suspected US drone strike targeting Isis killed civilians in Afghanistan, UN says
However, when the Guardian visited Jalalabad provincial hospital on Friday, the nine casualties still receiving treatment included a 12-year-old boy and two elderly men.
Dozens of men gathered to visit the injured said all victims were civilian, and produced a list with names of 14 casualties.
“If we were Daesh, do you think we would get together here?” said Obaidullah, a university student, using the Afghan term for Isis.
One man, Zarghun Shah, recalled the incident from his hospital bed where he was recovering from leg wounds, alongside his 12-year-old nephew Bilal. After a night of conversation and feasting on grilled sheep, both had been woken up around 3.30am by the explosion, and were caught in a rain of shrapnel. Bilal was injured in his shoulder and legs. His father was killed.
The has yet to admit any wrongdoing. In a statement on Thursday, the US forces in Afghanistan said the incident was under investigation, but added that Isis puts civilians at risk by “deliberately surrounding themselves with civilians and dressing in female attire”.
. Still, locals from Shadal Bazar insisted the militants never operated less than a mile from the village, and there were police checkpoints nearby the house.
“There is no Daesh in the village and every night the police go on patrols,” said another recovering victim, Mohabad Khan, whose lower body was paralyzed when shrapnel hit his spine.
While Nato’s combat mission in is over, the US has a mandate to kill or capture identified Isis or al-Qaida terrorists. While US airstrikes have put Isis on the defensive in Nangarhar, the military releases little information about drone strikes. Almost all are conducted in remote rural areas.
The provincial governor claimed that Haji Raees, the man whose house was targeted, was an Isis “facilitator”. However, villagers disagreed vehemently.
“If the authorities can prove that even one of these men were Daesh, they can imprison us. We will accept that,” said Herat Khan, the village chief.
Haji Raees himself survived with minor injuries but was unavailable for interview as he was attending a funeral in the village for his son Hekmatullah, a school principal who was killed in the strike.
Another of Haji Raees’ sons, Zabiullah, said he didn’t know why anyone would target his family’s house. “Everyone knew people were coming to congratulate my father,” he said.
At least one other person working with the government security forces was killed, and a driver who had worked for the Red Cross for over a decade was gravely injured, according to villagers.
Moallem Mashoq, district governor of Achin, said the US military had not coordinated with local security forces before the strike.
The US military has refused to comment on the UN’s allegations. A spokesman, Brig Gen Charles Cleveland, told the Guardian: “I want to emphasize that United States Forces Afghanistan takes all allegations of civilian casualties very seriously and we take every possible measure to avoid civilian casualties in all of our operations.”