Nearly two years after the U.S. killed 10 members of an Afghan family, including seven children, in a drone strike that prompted a rare apology from the Pentagon, the U.S. government has yet to make good on a pledge to compensate surviving relatives.
Weeks after the attack, which targeted an aid worker whom intelligence officials had mistaken for someone else, the U.S. made a public commitment to condolence payments and pledged to help survivors relocate. With the help of U.S. officials, some of those survivors made it to California last year, including two of the aid worker’s brothers, Emal and Romal Ahmadi, and their families.
As they struggle to adapt to life in a new country, however, they feel abandoned by the U.S. government, according to volunteers and community groups that have assisted them. One volunteer recently started a fundraiser to help cover some family members’ living costs while they wait for the U.S. government to deliver on its promise.
“They are living day to day in a very stressful environment of bills, and making sure they have their rent, and do they have enough food, and why did the utility bill go up this month?” Melissa Walton, who regularly visits members of the family, told The Intercept. “It’s stressful, and they didn’t ask for any of this, to have to leave their country and come to a different country and start over.”
The Pentagon declined to comment, citing the family’s privacy. John Gurley, Sylvia Costelloe, and Joanna Naples-Mitchell, attorneys representing the Ahmadi brothers, said they are having ongoing discussions with the U.S. government but declined to further discuss the case.
“Now that Emal and Romal Ahmadi’s families have been resettled in the United States, we look forward to productive discussions with the Department of Defense regarding the compensation promised to them,” the lawyers wrote in a statement. “Our clients arrived in the United States penniless, after suffering unimaginable losses. For that reason, a community volunteer has launched a fundraiser to help them meet their basic needs while our confidential discussions with the U.S. government continue.”
Zuhal Bahaduri, executive director of the 5ive Pillars Organization, an Afghan American-led group that was established following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to support the thousands of refugees resettling in the U.S., said the Ahmadi family’s trauma compounds the many challenges facing the 76,000 Afghans who have arrived in the U.S. over the last two years.
“There’s a lot of hurt and a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. The country that is responsible for the death of their children has helped them out by getting them here, but they do not feel fully supported,” Bahaduri told The Intercept.
“I don’t understand why it’s taking this long,” she added, referring to the condolence payments “Do they think that all they had to do was relocate the family and that’s it? That that’s where their responsibility ends?”
Photos: Courtesy of the Ahmadi family
A “Horrible Mistake”
When she offered to drive Romal and his wife Arezo to pick up donated clothes and household items for their temporary, unfurnished apartment, Walton was warned not to gush too much over their newborn baby boy.
Hadis, now 8 months old, was not the couple’s first child, Walton was told: Their three older children, 7-year-old Arwin, 6-year-old Benyamin, and 2-year-old Aayat, were all killed in the Kabul drone strike.
The strike was the U.S. government’s final act before withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan after losing its two-decade war there. The announced withdrawal precipitated the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban’s takeover of the capital, which led to days of chaos as tens of thousands of Afghans rushed to flee the country. Three days before the drone strike, the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, had carried out a suicide bombing that killed more than 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops outside the Kabul airport.
Zemari Ahmadi, an electrical engineer working for a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization and the primary breadwinner for his extended family, had been driving colleagues to work and unloading water canisters from his white Toyota Corolla all day, on August 29, 2021, as U.S. intelligence officials, believing that a second attack near the airport was imminent, tracked his movements for hours. The officials flagged his “erratic route” and concluded that the car contained explosives, according to an internal review obtained by the New York Times earlier this year. An American MQ-9 Reaper drone shot a Hellfire missile at his car just as Zemari arrived home and as a group of children from his family rushed outside to greet him. The California-based Nutrition & Education International, Zemari’s employer, did not respond to a request for comment.
Within hours of the drone strike, U.S. officials announced that they had successfully thwarted an attack but made no mention of civilian casualties, even as it later emerged that intelligence analysts had observed children on the scene moments beforehand. In the following days, as family members, journalists, and Zemari’s employer shared evidence that the drone strike had targeted the wrong person, U.S. officials defended the action, which a Pentagon official called “a righteous strike.”
The Defense Department did not admit to its mistake until more than two weeks later, after video reconstruction of the strike raised serious questions about its version of events. In a rare acknowledgment of responsibility, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conceded that Zemari had no connection to ISIS-K and that he and his family were all innocent victims of a “horrible mistake.” Later, then-commander of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, took personal responsibility for the error. “As the combatant commander, I am fully responsible for this strike and its tragic outcome,” he said.
By October, the Pentagon promised to compensate the survivors — but only after family members told reporters that they had not been contacted by U.S. officials yet.
Romal and Arezo were the first to arrive in the U.S. last summer, followed a few months later by another brother, Emal, his wife, Royeena, and their 8-year old daughter Ada. (Emal and Royeena’s other daughter, 3-year-old Malika, was killed in the strike.) Other relatives have since joined them in California, although some remain in Afghanistan or in refugee camps in Kosovo and Qatar.
“They had a lot of faith that once they got to the U.S. they would be safe and secure and stable. And that’s not where they are at.”
But life in the country responsible for their family’s tragedy has been difficult for the Ahmadis. “They have put a lot of trust in America and the U.S. government,” said Walton. “They had a lot of faith that once they got to the U.S. they would be safe and secure and stable. And that’s not where they are at.”
U.S. officials have not publicly committed to a specific timeline or amount to compensate the Ahmadis, but in the past, condolence payments for families of Afghan victims ranged between $131 and $35,000, with most around a few thousand dollars. Walton noted that the family left Afghanistan in part because the public announcement of the condolence payments put their safety at risk in a country that was plunged into a deep economic crisis after the Taliban takeover — even as the payments had not materialized.
Photos: Courtesy of the Ahmadi family
Like tens of thousands of Afghans who have resettled in the U.S. since 2021, the Ahmadis found that the 90 days of refugee support services they received upon arrival fell short of addressing many of their immediate needs, let alone helping them land on their feet. A federal refugee cash assistance program covers $325 per adult and $200 per child monthly for eight months, hardly making a dent in the exorbitant Bay Area rents and cost of living they are now facing.
Most of the Ahmadis don’t speak English. Walton, who communicates with them with the help of an interpreter, described their experiences to The Intercept. One of them was robbed in broad daylight outside his Oakland apartment and lost all his documents. There was no space for Ada, the 8-year-old, in the school closest to the family, so she walks to a school further away, as her family has no car. A host of resources — including counseling and mental health support services — exists in theory but is largely inaccessible in practice because of overwhelmed agencies, an intricate bureaucracy made even more intractable by language barriers, and because it’s difficult for family members to get around on their own.
Meanwhile, the trauma from the drone strike lingers. Romal’s barebones apartment is decorated only with a photo of the 10 relatives killed in the strike — a reminder of the tragedy that forced his family to leave home.
“He keeps saying, ‘I lost all my kids,’” said Bahaduri, of the 5ive Pillars Organization. “He hasn’t had a chance to deal with that, but on top of that, he has to find a way to make ends meet now, so it’s trauma after trauma, one crisis after another crisis.”
Correction: May 18, 2023
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Aayat’s name. A photo caption has also been updated to clarify that Malika was 3 years old.