EXCLUSIVE: Last week SBS Dateline presenter Yalda Hakim broke an international story following the massacre of 17 Afghans by a rogue US soldier.
Hakim became the first western journalist to interview witnesses, including children, who spoke about other Americans who were present during the slaughter. It contradicted the official US Army version that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, troubled by marriage woes, admitted he acted alone one night when he was drunk.
The Dateline report has been played in full on international media including CNN, CBS, NBC, FOX News and Al Jazeera. The Pentagon has denied any other soldiers were involved.
Despite the magnitude of the her investigation, SBS says no other Australian media have reported the news.
TV Tonight is the only Australian media to speak to Hakim in Kabul, about how she was able to access the witnesses, the attention from the US media, how her life was at risk and how the US Military tried to block her investigation.
Hakim, together with Cameraman Ryan Sheridan, travelled to a district an hour’s drive from Kandahar. But they were turned back from the Red Zone, an area considered Taliban country with constant fighting.
“The Taliban were using it as a battlefield, laying out mines and IEDs and turning houses into booby traps because they know investigators, journalists and the military were trying to gather evidence from the crime scene,” Hakim explains.
“So it was a security question. How do we actually get in there without either coming under attack by the Taliban or stepping on a mine?”
Afghan-born Hakim had the trust of locals and was using local fixers for her story, but the US Army were in damage-control from the international scandal.
“We were blocked for a couple of days by the US Military. They were saying we couldn’t access the wounded because they were in American care. They said a lot of the witnesses were children so therefore my questions could further traumatise them,” she says.
“So on the one hand we were being blocked from people who had actually seen what happened and on the other hand the Afghan National Army were saying to me ‘There is no way we could ensure your security so we do not advise that you go in. We definitely don’t advise you to go in alone and we’re not prepared to send our guys in.’”
After SBS made a personal plea to the Afghan President, Hakim succeeded in gaining access to his chief investigator and survivors in the village of Alkozai, but she had to avoid mines to reach eye-witnesses.
“My Director (of News) at SBS contacted President Hamid Karzai directly and sent him a letter talking about the censorship that was happening on the ground, the importance of the story and how we needed to access the wounded and the village, and could he facilitate that for us?” she says.
“It was the Afghan people and the government who were so desperate for this story to come out and see justice served. President Karzai’s personal intervention got us access with a military escort from the Afghan Military.”
Hakim interviewed children who had witnessed Bales’ rampage.
One boy told her, “When my father came out, he shot my father. Then he entered our room. We ran from that room to the other room. He came and shot us in that room and then he left.”
An 8 year old girl named Noorbinak, who was shot by Bales herself, said, “My mother was screaming and he held a gun to her. And my father said ‘Leave her alone’ and then he shot him right here.”
But it was her words about others at the scene that has changed the face of the story and ignited US interest.
“One entered the room and the others were standing in the yard, holding lights,” Noorbinak said.
Another man recounted how he saw between 15 – 20 American soldiers with lights on their heads.
“And they had lights on the end of their guns as well,” he said.
One farmer told Dateline 11 members of his family were killed and their bodies were taken into a yard -all contravening the US Military line that Bales acted alone.
Since the story aired on SBS last week, it has been given profile status in US media, with Hakim giving interviews to broadcasters including CNN.
“It’s very rare for a 24 hour broadcaster like CNN to be running a 15 minute stories 8 or 9 times on the hour, every hour for 3 or 4 days. That’s the impact that it had,” she explains.
“Not only that but CBS, NBC, FOX News, Al Jazeera have all picked it up and run it in in some way, shape or form. They’ve all had to run it in full the first time -that was a request we had because we didn’t want anything to be taken out of context.
“CNN has run it in full for 3 days on the hour in most of their bulletins as well as live crosses I’ve been doing.
“So it’s had a huge impact in the United States.”
But Hakim says a week after its airing on SBS it has gone unnoticed here, with no Australian media reporting the find or contacting her about the report.
“Surprisingly not. AP, Reuters, FOX, Al Jazeera, ABC, CBS, CNN both international and domestic, have all been running the story. They’ve all expressed an interest and wanted to know more and yet Australian media hasn’t really responded or reacted to it. It’s odd.”
Hakim has previously won the United Nations Media Peace Prize for Best Australian Television News Coverage and been a finalist for the Young Australian Journalist of the Year Award. She’s covered hot spots in Cairo, Iran and was in Libya when it fell to the rebels. But the danger of hysterical young men with guns differed markedly from the unseen dangers outside Kandahar.
“That was a different sort of danger. There were a lot of young men who had never handled weapons and never been at war, with happy fire in the air with their lack of understanding of how to use AK47s. That was a different concern I had because you had a lot of people who just had no idea what they were doing with weapons,” she says.
“But this was walking into the frontline of a war, but we can’t see the enemy, we don’t know where they are, we don’t know what kind of booby traps they’ve laid out for us, so we could potentially be walking into a trap.”
Hakim acknowledges her access to witnesses was assisted by her background, and an ability to speak the language. This was no more profound when she spoke to one widow -culturally the kind of witness who would normally never be allowed to speak to the media.
The mother of 6 children told Hakim, “As I was dragging him to the house, his brain fell into my hand. I put it in a clean handkerchief. There was so much blood, as if three sheep had been slaughtered.”
Whether Hakim’s scoop changes the outcome of a long US investigation and trial remains to be seen. There is little doubt it has added to the doubts about what took place on the night of March 11.
But as a journalist, she has played a pivotal role in asking questions, even if the media at home haven’t shown much interest.
“It’s one of those things where you go after a story and you give a voice to the victims. That’s the most important thing.”
Dateline airs 9:30pm Tuesdays on SBS ONE.