The Afghan villager was afraid the American soldiers might come. And one cool night in fall, as his children lay asleep, helicopters roared overhead.
At the first sound of gunshots, he yelled for his wife and 10 children to take cover. His young daughter grabbed her sleeping infant sister off the bed. Their mud compound exploded, and a blast sent a huge shock through the home.
“My small sister fell away from my arms,” the girl, now a teenager, whispered, so quietly she could barely be heard above the breeze. “The wind blew her out of my hands.”
Today, what exactly happened that night is at the center of a bitter international custody dispute over an orphaned baby found amid the rubble. The high-profile legal battle pits an Afghan family against an American one, and has drawn responses from the White House and the Taliban.
The Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross determined that the baby belonged to this Afghan villager. Friends and family say he was a farmer, not a militant. The Red Cross found surviving relatives, and united her with them.
However, a U.S. Marine attorney, Maj. Joshua Mast, believed he should get the girl instead. He insists that the child is the stateless orphan of foreign fighters who were living in an al-Qaida compound, and convinced a rural Virginia judge to grant him an adoption from 7,000 miles away.
Were it not for this little girl, now 4 years old, the events that began on the night of September 5, 2019, in this remote, impoverished region might have remained locked away among clandestine stories of the thousands of raids the American and Afghan militaries carried out during the long war. But once-secret documents, now filed in court records, reveal details that thrust this raid into an ongoing controversy over who the military killed when they blew down walls in the middle of the night in Afghanistan, if those people were fighters or civilians, and whether the military ever tried to find out.
The Mast family has submitted a summary of the raid in a federal court case, an account Joshua Mast helped create after he said he “personally read every page of the 150+ classified documents” on the operation. The summary describes how as many as six enemy fighters were killed and possibly one civilian. The only child the document mentions is the injured baby.
But survivors and villagers who pulled bodies from the rubble told The Associated Press that more than 20 people were killed that night. Among them were this local farmer, his wife and five of their children, ages 4 to 15. The villagers said that after the raid, they also found four more of the farmer’s children — three girls and a boy — covered in dirt, crying amid flames and ruins.
Attorneys for the federal government said the summary the Mast family submitted in court was written on “purported” military letterhead and “does not appear to have been created or endorsed by the Department of Defense.” Nonetheless, they asked the court to seal it because they claim it contains government information the public should not see.
“The ‘mission summary’ document was created by Major Mast in 2019 for use in his efforts to adopt the Afghan child, using his access to United States government information that he obtained through his Department of Defense employment, but does not necessarily reflect accurate or complete information,” a Defense Department official told the AP.
The military refuses to talk about its own account of the raid, and asked the AP to instead use a redacted version that blacks out certain details, including any reference to civilian deaths. Several soldiers involved in the raid, who have testified in locked-door state court hearings about what happened there, declined to comment, and what they said on the witness stand remains sealed.
The total cost of the war in civilian lives is impossible to pin down. The Defense Department estimates 48,000 Afghan civilians were killed and at least 75,000 injured between 2001 and 2021, though the agency acknowledges the true toll is likely significantly higher.
Night raids have long been a particularly controversial tactic, said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Military investigations into who was killed in night raids were rare, and even more rarely made public. Gossman said a representative of the U.S. military told her American soldiers hardly ever returned to the scene of a raid to see if civilians were killed.
“They said to us, ‘We can’t, we can’t go back there because we’d be a target,’” Gossman recalled. “But then how do you ever know?”
The AP spoke with 12 villagers who described what happened on the night of Sept. 5, 2019, including four who said they were the orphan’s siblings and uncles. The AP has agreed not to name the village or the family out of fear of tribal conflict and retaliation from the Taliban, who now rule the country. But neighbors said they never saw anyone return to account for the dead and injured, including the children, or to verify if they were militants.
The farmer’s brother-in-law wept as he walked around the site of the raid, pointing out where he had found his surviving nephews and nieces and the mutilated corpses of his loved ones. He showed the AP where they lived, where they made fires, where they sat, where they ate. The farmer was around 55 or 60, grew mung beans, corn and wheat, and was poor but generous enough to share any money he had, the brother-in-law said.
“Now that I come here and look at these places, they do not leave my eyes,” he said. “My heart is very sad.”
The foreigners next door
Here in this rugged desert, families live among the ruins of a 20-year war — rusted tanks, bombed-out houses, bullet-riddled buildings.
Dust kicks up from the wheels of motorcycles on dirt paths, where squat mud homes blend into mountains that stretch for miles in every direction. It is a hard life: There are no paved roads, no running water or electricity, no bathrooms or cell service.
While locals said their tiny village was not targeted by the American military before September 2019, they feared the air strikes, night raids and fierce fighting decimating communities around them. Many raids happened in places like this — hard-to-reach outposts, far from city-based media outlets and human rights organizations that might look into civilian deaths.
About 200 people scratch out a living raising animals and farming on the green fertile patch of land alongside the river. The farmer and his family tended to their goats and sheep in the courtyard of their home, villagers said.
The home was a windowless one-story compound of mud and straw. Like many in this conservative region, women stayed within the walls for most of their lives.
Years and ages can be difficult to calculate in Afghanistan, which uses different calendars than much of the world, but neighbors said the farmer and his family had lived there for a long time.
Neighbor Abdul Khaliq said he had known the farmer for more than 20 years, and described him as kind and amiable. “He was a very good person,” Khaliq said.
The farmer’s wife was younger, around 40, and they’d been married for about 25 years. She was the daughter of an imam at a local mosque, and remained close to her family. She had a sense of humor — her brother said she would laugh as she teased him for not visiting often enough.
There is no way the AP could independently verify who the baby’s parents were. Identification documents such as birth certificates aren’t issued in this remote region — especially for women and girls — and few have cell phones or cameras. The AP has located no records of the birth of the farmer’s baby or photographs of her with the family before the raid.
The Afghan government claimed the child, and the U.S. government agreed that the girl, who is referred to in court records as “Baby Doe,” belonged to an Afghan family: “Baby Doe is a citizen of Afghanistan with biological family in Afghanistan,” attorneys for the federal government wrote in court filings.
But the Masts strongly disagree. Several foreign families arrived in the village around 2017 and settled into a home next to the Afghan farmer and his family, neighbors said. These men, women and children shared a wall, but kept to themselves and spoke an unfamiliar language, villagers told the AP.
The light-skinned, bearded foreigners were a source of gossip. Some neighbors speculated they were from another, faraway Afghan province, or Turkey, or “the West.”
Local mechanic Abdul Rahim, 25, said the foreigners often brought their cars, trucks and motorcycles to be fixed at his shop. No matter where they came from, one thing was clear to Rahim: They liked their weapons. They’d clean their guns while he fixed their cars.
“I tried very hard to talk to them, but I couldn’t understand the language,” Rahim said. “There was never a fight or quarrel with them.”
In Afghanistan, hospitality is of foremost importance, and nobody confronted the visiting foreigners. The locals said they were friendly, but cautious.
The farmer told his brother-in-law he was considering moving his family to another relative’s house nearby. He was frightened that the military might come for the foreigners so close to his home.
“There were red fires”
The day of the raid unfolded like any other; the family fed corn and grass to the animals in the morning and cooked potatoes for lunch. They had no idea that U.S. and Afghan forces were loading up in helicopters to head toward their village.
The soldiers were targeting three men in two compounds believed to be al-Qaida-affiliated fighters from neighboring Turkmenistan, according to the summary the Masts submitted in court. As soldiers approached, they called out, offering the people inside a chance to surrender, according to the summary. One man was detained.
Rahim, the local mechanic, said he had just fallen asleep under a tree outside a friend’s home when he heard someone shouting in Pashto, “stop, don’t run.” Awakening beside him, Mohammad Zaman remembers door-to-door knocks with orders “not to move” and “not to run.” The friends lay still, even as wind from a helicopter shook the branches and leaves above them, Zaman said.
Then gunfire erupted. A barricaded shooter opened fire on the attacking troops, according to the summary. He was killed, but there were multiple shooters firing: a barrage of gunshots and grenades continued to pour out of the building. Attorneys representing Mast family members say the Americans suffered numerous injuries.
Joshua Mast was not at the raid. In emails filed in federal court, he said the baby was in the room with the fighters shooting at soldiers. He wrote that her biological father blew himself up with a suicide vest, just a few feet away from her.
U.S. troops blasted a hole in a wall and tossed in grenades, according to the summary. Next door to the foreigners’ home, the farmer’s family was woken up by the noise, the surviving children said. The son said his father shouted at the children to get to another room, but he didn’t know where he should run. His sister grabbed the baby.
The blast that blew apart the walls of their home was so powerful that to this day, villagers believe the military dropped a bomb.
“Get out of this place,” the sister heard her father shout. Then came gunshots, she said. His shouting stopped. She dropped the baby.
The mangled bodies of her father and siblings lay on the floor, the girl said. Their father’s motorcycle exploded into flames that spread and engulfed them.
“There were soldiers, there were bombs….there were red fires,” said the sister, her eyes darting, her voice shaking.
She burned her shoulder, hand and head. She ran and hid among the animals until the shooting stopped.
Neighbors said the assault lasted until early the next morning. Green smoke lingered in the air, along with the smell of gunpowder and burned bodies.
Soldiers found an injured woman and tried to save her life, but couldn’t, Mast’s summary says. They spotted a wounded baby nearby and assumed the dead woman was her mother.
The American soldiers took the baby.
A missing baby girl
After the helicopters flew away and it grew quiet, neighbors say they ventured out of their homes and walked toward the flames. They called out, doubting anyone had survived.
That’s when they said they heard the cries.
Four of the farmer’s children had survived, so covered with dust and dirt they were almost unrecognizable, said neighbor Rahim. They staggered out of what once was their home, reduced to flames and ashes littered with charred corpses and limbs. It was difficult to tell who was alive and who was dead, Rahim said.
A little boy had been hit in his belly by a metal fragment, and wailed that his family was killed, his uncle remembers.
The stench from the bodies was overwhelming, so villagers scooped up the children and drove the injured to a government hospital. The boy would remain there for a month.
“It was a very bad scene. There was nothing left,” Rahim said. “The houses were blown away, and every dead body was under the soil.”
As neighbors wept and pulled bodies from the rubble, people poured in from neighboring towns to help, villagers recalled. Soon everyone from the home was accounted for, either living or dead — except for one. They could not find the baby girl.
They dug through the dirt floor of the home with shovels and their hands. They moved furniture and soil. They were worried that surely the baby — only 40 days old — was stuck under the earth or the debris and just too small to find.
But she was gone.
A child’s fate in limbo
The farmer, his wife and their five children were buried in a row in the family graveyard, where generations of kin had been laid to rest. Villagers said more than 100 people came to help dig their graves in the hard ground.
They buried the foreigners — more than a dozen men, women and children — in two other cemeteries.
The farmer’s family says they were not fighters. If true, the American military might never have known that — during raids, they believed they were going in on hostile operations, and often assumed everyone there was a threat, said Erica Gaston, a human rights researcher who worked for years in Afghanistan with several advocacy groups.
“Often that creates a bias where there’s just a presumption that the people that were hit were, you know, quote unquote, all bad guys,” said Gaston. “And civilians very often tell a different story….that they hit the wrong house.”
In the village, survivors continued to search for the farmer’s missing baby, visiting a U.S. military base, going to government offices and talking to the International Committee of the Red Cross. They heard a baby had been taken by the Americans to a military hospital.
For months, as the girl was treated for a skull fracture, burns and a broken leg, the Afghan government and the Red Cross worked to confirm who she belonged to. In the end, they decided she was the farmer’s daughter.
The U.S. State Department wrote in an email to AP earlier this month that it trusted the finding of the Red Cross— “through a family trace and verification process, that the child was Afghan, not ‘stateless.’” So when the government of Afghanistan requested the child be transferred to its custody to be returned to her family, the U.S. complied.
“We understood at the time that all appropriate procedures had been followed under Afghan law, and that remains our understanding,” the State Department wrote.
The Masts argue the Afghan government wrongly linked the child to the family without DNA testing, pictures of her with this family or any documentation connecting her to them.
Joshua Mast’s brother, lawyer Richard Mast, is now named in a federal lawsuit filed by the Afghan family that alleges the Masts fraudulently claimed the child was “stateless” in their quest to adopt her. Richard Mast’s lawyer, David Yerushalmi, questioned why an innocent farmer would be “living in the same compound as heavily armed foreign fighters.” He said there is no proof the orphan belonged to the farmer in the first place.
But the Masts’ efforts to stop the U.S. government from turning her over failed, and the child was taken to the farmer’s brother. Since he couldn’t afford to take care of her, he gave her to his son and daughter-in-law, who were better off, educated newlyweds living in the city. They gladly agreed to raise her as their own.
“They are her parents,” the uncle told AP.
Over the next 18 months, as she grew to be a toddler in Afghanistan, Joshua Mast did not give up. He convinced a Virginia state court to grant him an adoption. All he needed was to get her on U.S. soil.
Less than two years after the raid, Mast helped the Afghan couple and the toddler flee as the country collapsed and the Taliban took over. Days after they arrived in the U.S., the Masts worked with federal employees at a refugee resettlement camp to take custody of the child. The Afghan couple are suing to get her back, but she remains in limbo.
Joshua Mast, his lawyer and attorneys representing the Afghan couple did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, in remote Afghanistan, the farmer’s surviving family is haunted by all they saw, and all they lost. When his brother-in-law sees his nephew smile, he thinks of how his sister, now dead, would laugh when he teased her.
“God will make him grow,” he said, “he will bring life to this house.”
The boy continues to struggle and finds it hard to be around other families. When asked if he remembered his parents, he began to cry. He bit his lip and looked away.
The girl who dropped her baby sister is tormented by ghosts. When she speaks to strangers covered in a shawl, she is so small and frail that it seems to swallow her. She fidgets nervously with the hem.
She could speak perfectly before the soldiers came that night, but now she stutters.
“My life is sad, my heart is sad, and I miss my parents,” she said. “I see this attack every night….it comes to me in my dreams.”