KABUL, Afghanistan — Zemari Ahmadi was coming home Sunday evening, having dropped off colleagues from the local office of an American aid group where he worked, relatives and colleagues said in interviews Monday.
As he pulled into the narrow street where he lived with his three brothers and their families, many of their children, seeing his white Toyota Corolla, rushed out to greet him, family members said. Some clambered onto the car in the street, one jumped in while others gathered in the narrow courtyard of the compound as he pulled in.
It was then, friends and family say, that the vehicle was hit with a missile which they believe was fired by a U.S. drone, blowing out doors and windows in the courtyard, spraying shrapnel, and killing 10 people, seven of them children.
Ahmadi’s daughter, Samia, 21, was in a room adjoining the courtyard when she was struck by the blast wave. “At first I thought it was the Taliban,” she said.
The New York Times could not independently verify whether a U.S. missile strike killed Zemari Ahmadi and the others. Nor was it clear whether Ahmadi’s car was the Americans’ actual target.
The Pentagon acknowledged the possibility that Afghan civilians had been killed in the drone strike, but suggested that any civilian deaths had resulted from the detonation of explosives in the vehicle that was targeted.
“We’re not in a position to dispute it,” John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesperson, said Monday about reports of civilian casualties. He repeated earlier Pentagon statements that the military was investigating a strike on a vehicle 2 miles from Hamid Karzai International Airport. But it was unclear whether this was the same as the incident involving Ahmadi’s vehicle.
In a news conference Monday in Washington, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, did not address the circumstances surrounding the drone strike except to say that it dealt the group known as Islamic State Khorasan a crushing blow when the group was hoping to deliver one last attack before the U.S. withdrawal.
The giant American airlift that carried tens of thousands of Afghans to safety came to an end Monday, the Pentagon announced, but left tens of thousands more behind. And as the last planes departed, taking the last U.S. troops with them, the American military presence in Afghanistan vanished after 20 harrowing years.
Sunday’s attack was carried out in a tense atmosphere, following the suicide bombing at the airport that killed at least 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members.
With the Biden administration coming under withering criticism for its planning and execution of the evacuation of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghans, the pressure to avoid a second attack was intense. The U.S. military said Saturday that it had killed the planner of that bombing in a different drone strike Friday night.
Family members who witnessed Sunday’s explosion said Zemari Ahmadi and several of the children were killed inside his car; others were fatally wounded in rooms alongside the courtyard. The family’s SUV, parked next to the Corolla in the tight confines of the courtyard, was set on fire, while smoke filled the house.
Samia Ahmadi, the driver’s daughter, staggered outside, choking, and saw the dismembered bodies of her siblings and relatives. “I saw the whole scene,” she said.
An Afghan health official confirmed that local hospitals received several bodies transferred by ambulance from the house, including those of three children. Later Monday afternoon, a funeral was held in Kabul with the victims’ 10 coffins, several of them closed because the bodies were so disfigured.
Among the victims was Samia Ahmadi’s cousin and fiance, Ahmad Naser, 30, a former army officer and contractor with the U.S. military who had come from Herat, in western Afghanistan, in hopes of being evacuated from Kabul.
“His name was Naser,” she cried. “May I die in the name of Naser, may I become ashes in the name of Naser.”
On Monday morning, a crowd had gathered in the narrow lane outside Zemari Ahmadi’s house, located in a dense residential area over a mile west of the airport. As a C-17 cargo jet roared overhead, local residents gaped at the twisted remnants of his car and the impact crater from the blast. Dried blood was smeared on the charred hood.
During the course of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military was frequently accused by Afghans of carrying out drone strikes based on faulty intelligence, killing scores of civilians. Although the circumstances were often murky, the incidents strained ties with the Afghan government and helped build support for the Taliban.
Neighbors, colleagues and relatives of Zemari Ahmadi, a technical engineer with Nutrition and Education International, a charity based in Pasadena, California, insisted angrily that the same injustice had just been visited on their relatives.
“How was he ISIS? Look at this,” said Najib, a cousin of Ahmadi’s who would give only his first name for fear of retribution, angrily dismissing the U.S. military’s account of the attack. “They lied about us in the media.
)Neither Ahmadi nor any of his family members were connected to the Islamic State group or any other terrorist group, they said, adding that many in the family had worked for the Afghan security forces.
The president of the charity group, Steven Kwon, said Ahmadi was a compassionate man and “well respected by his colleagues,” adding, “Just yesterday, he prepared and delivered soy-based meals to hungry women and children at local refugee camps in Kabul.”
Family members provided documents showing Ahmadi’s long employment with Nutrition and Education International, and the application of his nephew Naser for a Special Immigrant Visa, based on his service as a guard at the U.S. military’s Camp Lawton, in Herat.
“The grave danger that he and his family faced was directly linked to his commitment to American and NATO forces,” Timothy Williams, Naser’s U.S. supervisor, wrote Aug. 14 in support of the application. “To the best of my knowledge, Ahmad Naser does not pose any type of threat to the safety or security of the United States and its citizens.”
Family members also said there was no evidence of more powerful explosions within the small courtyard. Although the doors and windows of the house had been blown out, they said, it remained structurally intact. The mud and brick wall next to Ahmadi’s vehicle was still standing.
“Zemari was my brother, but he was like my father,” said Emal Ahmadi, whose 2-year-old daughter, Malika, was killed in the strike. He said Ahmadi was the breadwinner for the families of all four brothers. “I’m jobless, but he supported me.”
At a house nearby, a group of female relatives of the victims had gathered, some standing in bewilderment, others wailing aloud. Anissa Ahmadi, Zemari Ahmadi’s wife, who lost four of her children in the explosion in addition to her husband, sat in a state of shock, unable to speak above a whisper. Her daughter Samia, beside her, gave voice to the grief and anger many felt.
“America used us to defend itself, and now they’ve destroyed Afghanistan,” she said. “Whoever dropped this bomb on our family, may God punish you.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.