PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Displaced by the war, Abdul Samad finally moved his large family back home to this volatile district of southern Afghanistan last year. He feared the Taliban, but his new house was nestled near an American military base, where he considered himself safe.
But when Mr. Samad, 60, walked into his mud-walled dwelling here on Sunday morning and found his wife, eight of his young children and two other relatives sprawled in all directions, shot in the head, stabbed and burned, he learned the culprit was not a Taliban insurgent. The suspected gunman was a 38-year-old United States staff sergeant who had slipped out of the base to kill.
The American soldier is accused of killing 16 people in all in a bloody rampage that has further tarnished Afghan-American relations and devastated Mr. Samad, a respected village elder whose tired eyes poured forth tears one minute and glared ahead in anger the next. Once a believer in the American offensive against the Taliban, he is now insistent that the Americans get out.
“I don’t know why they killed them,” said Mr. Samad, a short feeble man with a white beard and white turban, as he struggled in an interview to come to terms with the loss of his wife, four daughters between the ages of 2 and 6, four sons between 8 and 12, and two other relatives also leveled by the gunman.
“Our government told us to come back to the village, and then they let the Americans kill us,” Mr. Samad said, as he gathered outside the military base, known as Camp Belambay, with outraged villagers who came to support him. They transported the bodies of Mr. Samad’s family members, as well as the other victims, and the burned blankets that had covered them as proof of the awful crime that had occurred.
After years of war, Mr. Samad, a poor farmer, had been reluctant to return to his home in Panjwai, which was known in good times for its grapes and mulberries.
But unlike other displaced villagers who stayed in the city of Kandahar, about 15 miles away, and other places around the troubled province, Mr. Samad listened to the urgings of the provincial governor and the Afghan Army. They had encouraged residents to return and reassured them that American forces would protect them.
Back in his village, a collection of a few houses known as Najibian, Mr. Samad and his family had moved into a neighbor’s house because his own had been destroyed by NATO bombardments in the years of fierce battles.
His home in Panjwai and the other districts around Kandahar city — which had long been the Taliban’s heartland — had been a main hub of mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation. The districts became ground zero for the surge of force ordered at the end of 2009 by the Obama administration.
There had been little to no coalition presence in the area in the decade since the war began, and American soldiers fought hard over the past two years to clear Taliban fighters from the mud villages like Mr. Samad’s that dot the area.
At the same time, they struggled to win the trust of the Afghans who live in the district, many of whom have proven wary of foreigners and fearful that the Taliban — which was pushed to the margins in many areas but still remained a forceful presence — would eventually return and extract a heavy toll from those who cooperated with the Americans. Some American actions in the area also alienated villagers, like the wholesale destruction of villages that commanders decided were too riddled with booby traps to safely control.
While the Taliban were pushed back for a while, villagers like Mr. Samad say they are still active and describe what has become an intolerable life caught between the coalition forces and the Taliban while their meager vineyards and wheat fields are consumed.
“Taliban are attacking the bases, planting mines, and the bases are firing mortars and shooting indiscriminately toward the villages when they come under attack,” said Malak Muhammad Mama, 50, a villager who now lives in Kandahar. He said that a month ago, a mortar fired from the base killed a local woman, and that last week a roadside bomb hit an American armored vehicle.