KABUL, Afghanistan -- Most came from rubble-strewn corners of this city -- bowed women hidden under veils, whose shoulders shook as they told their stories; vacant-faced men who pressed their pleading letters into the hands of whoever happened by.
The gathering of civilian victims from the American bombing campaign also drew Afghans from distant villages, including a father and 8-year-old daughter who alone survived in an extended family of 18 when their two houses were struck in November.
About two dozen such survivors were brought together by the U.S.-based advocacy group Global Exchange in Kabul last week for psychological counseling sessions at a city hospital. On Sunday, 60 survivors held a rally at the gates of the U.S. Embassy.
"Those who suffered are all angry and sad. They're saying, 'We weren't in a military area, or near a checkpoint. Why did the Americans bomb us?"' said Baz Mohammad, one of 10 Afghans who surveyed areas of Afghanistan for Global Exchange in search of civilian victims of the bombing campaign, which began last October as the United States waged war to bring down the Taliban government.
The limited survey, in eight of Afghanistan's 29 provinces, has produced about 450 claims for compensation. About half of them involve loss of life, and the rest involve solely property loss, said Marla Ruzicka, the Global Exchange representative in Kabul.
No official count has been made, but some estimates of the number of civilians killed by American bombing range in the low thousands. A review by The Associated Press early this year suggested a toll in the mid-hundreds. Ruzicka said her organization believes the U.S. government should conduct a thorough study of the toll.
Pentagon officials said repeatedly during the bombing that any civilian deaths were the result of unavoidable "collateral damage" from attacks on military targets, or were people killed by bombs that went astray. Only two bombing mishaps investigated by the Pentagon involved civilian deaths, according to a March 29 Pentagon report.
As for compensation, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Maj. Brad Lowell, said last month he was unaware of any process for Afghans to make claims against the U.S. military.
The U.S. Embassy has told the Global Exchange activists to submit such claims to the embassy, "but they never let us know the status of the claims," complained Ruzicka.
The advocacy group suggests the United States should pay $10,000 per family to rebuild homes and compensate for the loss of breadwinners' and others' lives.
Such compensation programs fall under no regular legal structure.