To westerners, the rampage by a US soldier may seem an aberration; to many Afghans, it was an all-too-familiar outrage
His victims were all asleep as the 38-year-old US staff sergeant began trying, door by door, to force himself into the mud-walled homes of Afghan farmers.
Eventually, a lock gave way, and the gunshots that killed the first of 16 civilians meant the others, mostly women and children, were awake when he arrived to murder them, said Agha Lalai Dastgiri, a senior official charged with investigating the shooting spree in the early hours of Sunday morning.
“The house where four people were killed was the first one he entered, and they were all sleeping,” Dastagiri said. “When people in the other houses heard the sound of the shooting they also woke up and were making noises or sitting on their beds when the American entered.”
The Taliban on Monday vowed to exact revenge on the “sick-minded American savages” for the shootings in their heartland, southern Kandahar province, as relatives and neighbours of the victims held memorial services, and details of the murderous rampage began to emerge.
The villages where the gunman stalked his victims were just a few dozen kilometres from where a group of US soldiers in 2010 formed a “kill team” that secretly murdered three Afghan civilians for sport.
But Sunday’s killer made no attempt to hide his rampage through two neighbouring hamlets, returning to the base to turn himself in after a few hours sowing terror and death among the people he had been sent to protect.
One survivor recounted how the US soldier, reportedly a father himself, had hunted down an Afghan family like military targets through their modest home, set among vineyards and pomegranate orchards just south of the US base.
“He was walking around taking up positions in the house in two or three places like he was searching,” said 26-year-old Muhammad Zahir, who from a hiding place in another room recognised the man’s Nato uniform but was unable to see his face.
“He was on his knees when he shot my father,” Zahir said. His father had been carrying only a cup of tea when he came out of his room to meet the shooter; he was wounded in the thigh, but survived.
After the gunman left, Zahir said he heard gunshots near the house again. He stayed in hiding for a few minutes to make sure the killer was gone.
Some of the bodies had single, execution-style bullet wounds in their heads, and those from a home where he killed 11 people were charred and wrapped in burned coverings, although Dastagiri and villagers were unsure whether they had been set deliberately on fire or a blaze had been started by munitions.
Although the area is a Taliban stronghold, just miles from the movement’s birthplace, the shooting spree seems to have lasted until the killer chose to wander back to base, where he handed himself in.
In other parts of Afghanistan, families keep guns to ward off bandits and enemies from family or tribal feuds, but the people of Panjwai are so poor that most do not have guns, said Dastagiri, who is a member of the Kandahar provincial council and part of a government team sent to investigate the shooting.
“Of course, the Taliban are very strong there,” he said, “but the civilians living there – they have nothing.”
They may also, after years of bitter fighting across their land, have become accustomed to gunmen from both sides of the conflict appearing in their homes even in the middle of the night; the safest path then is usually that of least resistance.
The gunman had over 10 years of service, including tours in Iraq, but this was his first deployment in Afghanistan, said US military sources, who also confirmed his age, job and family details.
He was assigned to provide security to a special forces base used for a village stability operation, an elite project aimed at building links with village elders in order to strengthen rural areas against Taliban pressure and infiltration.
His job may explain why he was able to leave the base alone in the middle of the night, in violation of military rules.
The scale of the rampage has shocked the west, because although there have been far larger death tolls from air strikes in Afghanistan, they have been accepted in foreign troops’ home countries as tragic mistakes rather than deliberate massacres.
But to many Afghans, the shootings are just the latest in a pattern of intentional killings by foreign forces who have long outlived their welcome.
The streets of Afghanistan on Monday were quiet, despite fears of a repeat of the violence that broke out in February after US forces were found to have burned copies of the Qur’an. But protests could erupt later. Snow in Kabul may have kept some people at home, and news can take days to spread in a country where electricity is limited outside urban centres and internet access is a luxury.
Others were resigned. “This is not the first time they have committed such crimes,” 33-year-old Waheed Tanha, a medical student at Kabul university, said. “If you look around the country, maybe every month or every week such a crime happens in the countryside, but most of the time we don’t hear about that.
“This is not the work of a soldier; this is not the work of madman: it is the work of their government. And we don’t need the Americans in our country any more.”