A group of journalists, including TOLOnews Karim Amini, on Wednesday were escorted by the Taliban to the Dasht-e-Archi madrassa that was targeted in an airstrike by the Afghan Air Force on Monday.
The visit, initiated and arranged by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, enabled journalists to get a first hand view of the scene of Monday’s airstrike.
After many phone calls between the group and the Taliban, journalists drove themselves to a point about 20km outside Kunduz city early Wednesday morning.
After turning off the main road, a Taliban media representative, with four armed men, met the group of journalists and escorted them to Daftani village in Dasht-e-Archi. This drive took about 50 minutes, Amini reported.
He said that houses on the outskirts of Daftani were clearly deserted, and many of them were badly damaged.
Amini said the journalists were taken by the media representative, Haroon, to the Taliban’s deputy shadow governor Mullah Shakir in Daftani village.
After a short meeting with Shakir, a group of Taliban members then escorted the journalists to the scene of Monday’s airstrike.
Amini said it was clear Daftani is in Taliban control – and the group’s flags fly over the village center.
The villagers meanwhile said that contrary to government’s claims, no Taliban gathering was being held at the time of the airstrike.
Government claimed early this week that a large group of Taliban members, including leaders, had gathered at the madrassa to plan an attack on local security forces.
However, residents and the Taliban both rejected this and said a graduation ceremony was being held at the local madrassa – Darul Uloom Hashemiya Omaria - at the time.
Amini reports that according to residents over 2,000 people had been at the graduation ceremony at the time of the airstrike – this included Ulema members from various provinces, such as Baghlan, Samangan and Kabul.
Residents stated guests at the ceremony had been civilians but that the Taliban had been responsible for the security at the time of the gathering.
These locals said at least four missiles were dropped by two air force helicopters. One missile reportedly hit people sitting at the back of the gathering - including children.
Another missile meanwhile reportedly hit the wall of a school, a third hit a civilian’s house and a fourth hit the roof of a house.
One house was about 100 meters from the gathering.
Residents told Amini almost 100 civilians were killed and over 150 others were wounded. However, it was difficult to verify the figures within the limited period of time Amini was in the village.
Amini was also told that the two helicopters involved opened fire on the village after dropping their missiles. They reportedly carried on shooting for about 10 minutes.
Residents said the people were wounded in both the airstrike and in the gunfire.
An eyewitness said: “The helicopters directly targeted the gathering. They did not even circle overhead.”
Another resident, who had been preparing food for guests at the ceremony, said: “My job was to take care of the food while it was cooking. (After the airstrike happened) lots of people were lying dead on the ground.”
Visiting the madrassa, Amini saw piles of blood-soaked turbans, prayer caps and shoes that residents said had belonged to the victims.
A fair-sized crater in the ground was also visible, as was large sheets of black plastic covering the ground adjacent to the madrassa.
According to residents, guests attending the ceremony had been sitting on the sheets of plastic at the time of the airstrike – while an Ulema member had been delivering a speech.
One resident acknowledged the village was under Taliban control but said the victims had all been civilians.
“This is a Taliban area. We cannot reject this but our ceremony was only for civilians,” the resident said.
While in the village center, Amini noticed at least half of the shops on Wednesday were closed. Three Taliban flags were flying over the village center.
Amini also found that there was little access to doctors or health care facilities in the village and said that Daftani and its surrounds, of about a 30km radius, was under Taliban control.
This unexpected visit comes after conflicting reports emerged this week in the wake of Monday’s airstrike.
Government claimed on Monday and Tuesday the operation targeted a Taliban gathering.
However, residents and the Taliban immediately rejected the claims and said civilians had been killed.
Sources claim Dasht-e-Archi is a key stronghold for the Taliban and that most of the district is under the group’s control.
Security sources also said Daftani village has been in Taliban control for the past seven years.
On Tuesday, the ministry of defense released surveillance footage of the gathering ahead of the airstrike. During a press conference, the MoD’s deputy spokesman Mohammad Radmanish said the helicopters involved had not shot at people in the area but had instead been fired on by the Taliban.
However, as more reports emerged of civilian casualties, President Ashraf Ghani ordered an inquiry into the incident this week. He appointed senior officials to lead a task team and to report back to him.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) also announced it had a team on the ground to assess the incident.
According to government 50 Taliban insurgents had been killed and 150 wounded.