NAJEEBAN, AFGHANISTAN // Najeeban in southern Afghanistan is a ghost village, deserted by the surviving inhabitants after a murderous rampage, allegedly carried out by a US soldier this year.
The accused, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, was in court for the first time yesterday for a military hearing at Fort Lewis-McChord in Washington state on charges of killing 16 villagers - mostly women and children.
Sgt Bales allegedly walked off his base in Kandahar province under cover of darkness on March 11 and killed the villagers in three homes before returning to his base and surrendering.
The killings took place in the villages of Balandi, Najeeban and Alkozai.
Before that horrific night, at least seven large families lived in Najeeban, a small rural village in Panjwayi district of Kandahar, a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency.
Now a deep silence hangs over the area, disturbed only by the sound of buzzing flies and the occasional roar of US helicopters flying over from a nearby base.
Asleep in one of the homes that night was nine-year-old Hikmatullah, who awoke to a living nightmare.
"We were asleep when a person stepped on me," Hikmatullah said. "I opened my eyes and I saw he was a soldier who had a gun.
"First he woke my father and pulled him out from bed. I was really scared and I hid myself under the blanket.
"I heard only one thing from my father: 'Ya Allah have mercy.' After that I heard a gunshot. When I peeked out from my blanket I saw my father was lying dead on the ground."
Nearby was a compound housing Mohammed Wazir's family, where 11 people died as Sgt Bales allegedly walked through the house and killed them one after another.
Mr Wazir was away in Kandahar city that night, but returned to find among the dead his mother, Shatarina, his wife, Zahra, and six children - daughters Masooma, 9; Fareeda, 7; Nabiyah, 5; Palwasha, an infant; and sons Ismatullah, 15; and Faisalullah, 11.
Also killed were Mr Wazir's younger brother, Akhtar Mohammed, his wife, Nazia, and their, son Essa Mohammed, 14.
All the dead were dragged into one room and set on fire, Mr Wazir said.
In the deserted house trails of blood and bullet holes in flame-blackened walls are still visible.
The 11 members of Mr Wazir's family have been buried next to each other in a row in a small cemetery nearby.
Residents call it the "Shrine of Martyrs", believing it to be a special place where their prayers will be answered.
"I pray God to give me the same position as these martyrs," a woman sitting nearby said. "The Americans are here to kill us, they killed my sons."
She lost two of her sons in a US air raid about two months ago, she said.
Her sentiments are echoed by Samiullah, 29, who said his mother was killed by Sgt Bales in Alkozai, along with three others.
"In the beginning, Isaf [Nato's International Security Assistance Force] claimed they started fighting against terrorism in Afghanistan, but now it seems they are fighting against Afghans," he said.
"That village, that house, always reminds me of how the American soldier attacked my family and murdered my mother."
Samiullah has left his village to live in Kandahar city, where he said he does not have to worry about soldiers or the Taliban raiding his home at night.
The massacre outraged Afghans, and the parliament demanded a public trial before the Afghan people for the "brutal and inhuman" killings. The president, Hamid Karzai, described the incident as "unforgiveable".
It came amid growing public anger after Americans burnt Qurans at a military base in February and the online airing of a video that allegedly showed US marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban militants.
Sgt Bales, 39, a married father of two, served three tours of duty in Iraq and was on his first deployment to Afghanistan.
Calls for him to be tried in Afghanistan were rebuffed and he was flown out of the country. Relatives of the victims and witnesses are expected to testify via videolink from southern Afghanistan, his lawyer has said.
Provincial officials say cash compensation of US$46,000 (Dh169,000) was paid to the families for each person killed, but this has not been officially confirmed.
The case could complicate negotiations between Washington and Kabul over the status of any forces remaining in the country after combat troops pull out as scheduled at the end of 2014.
The US-led Nato force still has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban insurgency, but it has suggested that a smaller force could remain to train, advise and assist Afghan troops.
In Iraq, however, similar plans were dropped after Baghdad refused to grant immunity to US military personnel.