French victims' families react to reports of Italy bribing Taliban
A little more than a year after an ambush cost the lives of 10 French soldiers in Afghanistan, the victims’ families read news reports on Thursday that said the tragedy might have been avoided. As some of the grieving relatives call for an investigat
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“I heard the news this afternoon, while returning from work,” said Sylvie, the mother of Corporal Nicolas Grégoire, who was killed in Afghanistan on August 18, 2008. “It was like a bludgeon blow,” she told FRANCE 24. “I had not had any news for a year.”
Sylvie does not hide the emotion she has been feeling since learning of a report published in Britain’s Times on Thursday that alleges the Italian military failed to inform its French allies that it had been paying off the Taliban to keep the peace in the area. According to the Times, this led the French soldiers to make a “catastrophically incorrect threat assessment” during their mission in the Sarobi area east of Kabul.
The latest information reopens the year-old wound suffered by the family of Corporal Grégoire. “This reaffirms my belief that the truth was hidden from us, that the circumstances under which my brother died were hidden from us,” says Julien, the corporal’s brother.
Fathia has “done nothing but cry this morning”. Her companion, Rodolphe Penon, also fell victim to Taliban fire that fateful day. He had removed his bullet-proof jacket to bring help to three comrades and was shot in the back. For Fathia, who has been under a doctor’s supervision and taken a host of drugs over the past year, “this distressing news is like turning the knife in the wound”.
“I have not done my grieving yet, and that makes it even more difficult,” she says.
‘Errors in command’
Jean-François Buil, father of Senior Corporal Damien Buil, who was also killed in the ambush, had been apprised of the Times report for the past 48 hours. “The Times journalist, Adam Sage, called me on Tuesday to verify his information with me,” he told FRANCE 24. “I was shocked, and now I am sickened.”
Buil was already convinced that the authorities had not revealed the whole truth of the tragedy. “But this – this report on paying off the Taliban – is the icing on the cake,” he says.
Corporal Grégoire's younger brother Julien refuses to believe that his sibling, who had served in the armed forces for eight years, did not have the experience required for this kind of mission. He remains convinced there were “errors in command”.
But are those errors a result of the Italian army failing to inform the French military of the tens of thousands of dollars doled out to Taliban commanders?
“I am waiting to know more,” Julien says. “But if Italy did do this, that money could have been used to buy the very weapons and prepare the ambush that killed those soldiers. If the reports of Italy’s role are accurate, I do not know why the French were not informed.”
But his mother adds: “Even if Italy is responsible, that does not excuse the French authorities.”
An investigation, at last?
For the moment, the Grégoire family is awaiting some explanation from the French government. “They should state clearly whether they knew [about the bribes] or not, and President Sarkozy or [Defence Minister] Hervé Morin should say something on the subject,” the corporal’s mother says. But she remains resigned. Even if this happens, “unfortunately, that will not bring back the victims,” she says.
Buil plans to take action. He says the authorities previously promised the victims’ families an investigation. “We met Hervé Morin seven times and have never seen the results, because there has never actually been an investigation,” he says. But after the Times’ revelations, can an investigation be avoided any longer? “This story has wronged me deeply, so one will demand a new investigation – and believe me, it will not stop there!” he vows.
Julien once wished, like his brother, to join the army. But the events of August 2008 have persuaded him against it. So he gave up his plans, initially for his mother but also because the entire Grégoire family has been disappointed by the army, as well as the press.
The media “did not take up our story for a year and a half, and suddenly they ask us about it”, says Sylvie. Embittered, she recounted an avalanche of disappointments over the past year: from Prime Minister François Fillon, “who did not have the slightest regard for us” during the repatriation of bodies, to the receipt of a letter from the armed forces that referred to her dead son as any “service casualty”.
“As for me, I am still waiting for psychological counselling,” she says.
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