The villagers of Karam did not know what had hit them one terrible night last week as they lay sleeping with their cows and goats. Until then, America's furious quarrel with the Taliban regime in Kabul was but a distant rumble to the 450 inhabitants of this ramshackle collection of homes built of mud and rock in the gulley of a remote mountain range.
But yesterday, as a party of Western reporters wended its way through the pulverised homes and splattered animal pens, what was apparent was that dozens, and possibly as many as 200, civilians had been killed in what may turn out to be one of the West's greatest blunders in the war.
This was, to be sure, a guided tour, the first halting attempt by the normally secretive and xenophobic Taliban regime to use the despised medium of Western television to convey the reality of America's war to a largely unsympathetic world.
The Taliban escorted the journalists from Pakistan to the remote village, 38 miles from Jalalabad. But there was nothing staged about the stench of bodies from the rubble, the flies that buzzed round the carcasses of animals strewn in fields, or the sight of an arm sticking out from a pile of bricks. And there was nothing scripted about the fury and the wails of the villagers, stunned by the storm that broke over their heads on Wednesday night. "They are coming to kill us! They are coming for information, to tell the planes where to bomb!" the terrified villagers shouted at us as our escorts held them back.
But then they came forward to tell their stories and remonstrate, not so much in anger as in bewilderment. "I ask America not to kill us," Hussain Khan begged. He said he had lost four children in the raid and had only survived by racing out of the house when he first heard a warplane.
"We are poor people, don't hit us," another old man dressed in a traditional turban pleaded. "We have nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. We are innocent people."
A farmer who was out of his house when the bombs struck said: "I lost my four daughters, my son and my wife in this attack." He was clutching a piece of shrapnel with the words "fin guided bomb" stencilled on it.
The Taliban officials claimed the village numbered about 50 houses before the air raid, in which about 450 people lived. They said at least 80 per cent of the houses were destroyed and that about 200 people died.
To verify those figures was impossible yesterday. Only about 30 newly dug graves could be seen, marked with jagged pieces of gray slate. Two were tiny – freshly dug for what residents said were children. Beside one, a man was weeping copiously. He threw stones when we approached.
Muslims generally strictly observe the requirements of the Koran that the dead must be buried before the next sunset. It was hard to imagine the burial sites in the village containing as many as 200 bodies, although the local officials said some had been buried in villages elsewhere by their relatives. Villagers in Karam said more bodies were buried in the mountains, taken there by residents as they fled the now mostly deserted community.
Inevitably, the attack raises questions over whether the village ever functioned as a cog in Mr bin Laden's war machine. Many training bases operated by his al-Qa'ida network were known to have been around Jalalabad.
But the villagers were adamant that their remote home had never been a training camp for terrorists. When one of the journalists suggested that its very remoteness served to make it an attractive base, he merely brandished some simple field tools and said: "Is this what Osama bin Laden is fighting with?"
His neighbours agreed. "There are no military bases in this village," said one, Gul Mohammad. "Where is Osama? He is not here, so why we are being bombed?"
Certainly, everything that could be seen in the village pointed to a simple pastoral lifestyle, rather than a role as a military encampment.
The dead goats on the mountain beside an unexploded bomb, the dead cattle in the village and the dead chickens outside the ruined huts conveyed the atmosphere of a rural community.
Comparisons may well be drawn between Karam and Nato's spectacular errors in the 1999 air war with Serb forces in Kosovo, when a stray missile killed dozens of refuges fleeing the province. Their column of vehicles was mistaken for a military convoy.
There, too, the West was slow to admit any fault. Last night, Washington was not commenting on the reports from Karam. Pentagon officials have admitted at least one of the US bombs missed its target last week, but say that was near Kabul on Friday night. An officer aboard the USS Carl Vinson, from where many of the planes have been launched, said the 2,000lb bomb that went astray would be "a significant emotional event for anyone within a square mile".
In Karam, the recrimination and the blame, if it comes, will be no consolation. One man who said he lost his five children and wife when the warplanes struck scratched his beard when asked what the future held. "What do I have left?" he asked. "Nothing." He pointed towards a hilltop. "Our elders are over there. This is done by America. We have been ruined. Go talk to them."
Nic Robertson is a correspondent for the international news network CNN.Reuse content