KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP)
Sitting on a dirty straw mat on the parched ground of southern Afghanistan, Masooma sank deeper inside a giant black shawl. Hidden from view, her words burst forth as she told her side of what happened to her family sometime before dawn on March 11, 2012.
According to Masooma, an American soldier wearing a helmet equipped with a flashlight burst into her two-room mud home while everyone slept. He killed her husband, Dawood, punched her 7-year-old son and shoved a pistol into the mouth of his baby brother.
"We were asleep. He came in and he was shouting, saying something about Taliban, Taliban, and then he pulled my husband up. I screamed and screamed and said, `We are not Taliban, we are not government. We are no one. Please don't hurt us,'" she said.
The soldier wasn't listening. He pointed his pistol at Masooma to quiet her and pushed her husband into the living room.
"My husband just looked back at me and said, `I will be back.'" Seconds later she heard gunshots, she recalled, her voice cracking as she was momentarily unable to speak. Her husband was dead.
Masooma, who like many Afghans uses only one name, defied tribal traditions that prohibit women from speaking to strangers to talk to The Associated Press while - half a world away - the military prepares to court-martial a U.S. serviceman in the killing of her husband and 15 other Afghan civilians, mainly women and children.
The AP also interviewed other villagers about the case, all of whom are identified by the U.S. Army as witnesses or relatives of witnesses. They included a sister and brother who were wounded and two men who were away during the killings and returned to find wives and children slain. The sister and brother told AP how they tried to run away and hide from a soldier with a gun, only to be shot - and see their neighbors and grandmother killed.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales of Lake Tapps, Washington, is accused of the killings. Prosecutors say Bales slipped away from his remote outpost to attack two nearby villages, returning in the middle of the rampage and then for a final time soaked in blood. During a hearing last fall, other soldiers testified that Bales spent the evening before the massacre watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whiskey from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost one of their comrades his leg.
Bales has not entered a plea, but his lawyers have not disputed his involvement in the killings. They have said his mental health may be part of his defense; he was on his fourth combat deployment and had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a concussive head injury while serving in Iraq. The Army is seeking the death penalty.
The killings took place in Kandahar's Panjwai district, deep in the ethnic Pashtun heartland that spawned the Taliban movement, an area where women are hidden inside all-enveloping burqas and rarely leave their homes.
Masooma's account of the night has been reported variously over the past year, differing over details such as whether there was one or more than one U.S. soldier involved. However, the four hours she recently spent with the AP was her first face-to-face interview with a news organization. She spoke as her burly brother-in-law Baraan loomed nearby.
The interview took place outside Baraan's single-story mud home in Kandahar city, because Alokzai and Najiban villages, where the killings occurred, are too hostile for foreigners to visit. Even in Kandahar, some 150 kilometers (90 miles) away, the AP journalists sought to avoid being seen by Baraan's neighbors, who he feared would react negatively to their presence.
Masooma said that the soldier returned to the family's bedroom after killing her husband. She stood in terror. Her children hid under their blankets. The soldier moved slowly and seemed angry. Gesturing to show how he hit her in the arms and shoved her to the ground, Masooma said he then moved toward her son Hikmatullah, then 7.
Her son said he remembers the sight of the attacker in full military uniform. "I was so afraid. I pretended I was asleep," he said.
Masooma said the soldier found Hikmatullah and punched him repeatedly in the head.
She said the soldier then found her 2-year-old daughter, Shahara. He grabbed her pigtails and violently shook her head back and forth.
He then went to the crying baby Hazratullah and shoved the muzzle of his black pistol into the infant's mouth, she said.
"He just held it there in his mouth. I screamed and screamed, `He is just a baby. Don't kill him. Don't kill him.' But he just kept the gun in his mouth. He didn't say anything. He just stared at him," she recalled. As she recounted the attack, Hazratullah fussed and squirmed beneath the giant shawl that enveloped her.
After some time, she said, the soldier took the gun from the baby's mouth and walked back into the living room. Masooma dug her bare foot into the dirt to demonstrate how the soldier slipped his foot beneath her husband's head to lift it from the floor, as if to be sure he was really dead. The soldier looked down at her husband, shrugged his shoulders and returned to searching her home. After he finished rifling through their belongings, he left.
Investigators say Bales was armed with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle outfitted with a grenade launcher when he walked off his base and went on a nighttime killing spree in five homes, including Masooma's. He faces 16 counts of premeditated murder; six counts of attempted murder; seven counts of assault; and one count each of possessing steroids, using steroids, destroying a laptop, burning bodies, and using alcohol. He is being held in a military prison at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle in Washington state.