For days, he was nameless. Staff Sargent X.
Without a name, he was an abstraction: A rogue U.S. soldier who walked out of his base in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, March 11 and, it is alleged, systematically gunned down 16 Afghan civilians, the majority of them women and small children. Then he returned to base and turned himself in.
As he was shuttled from Kandahar to Kuwait and then back to America, as we collectively decided out misadventures in Afghanistan were over (and were just as quickly overruled), little details of this man's life began to leak out. He was a husband and father. He was based out of the problem-child Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Washington state. Served three tours in Iraq. He may have suffered a traumatic brain injury. The consensus of unnamed sources was that he simply "snapped," perhaps after a night of drinking.
Then, Friday, after he had arrived at the prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, his name appeared: Staff Sargent Robert Bales.
A happy warrior who enlisted within weeks of 9/11. A man with a "sunny" disposition. A great father and husband, with a wife who kept a blog about their "family adventures." A minor history of brushes with the law. Money problems. Angry at being passed over for promotion. Really angry at being sent to Afghanistan rather than, say, Germany or Hawaii. An incomplete picture that doesn't explain why he would do what he is alleged to have done, but a picture nonetheless.
His alleged victims, meanwhile, haven't even had the dignity of names. They were just "the 16 civilians," an amorphous group of dead Afghans.
Even in Afghanistan, they have been less important as victims of a horrific mass slaughter than as a political tool in the ongoing internal and external battles for control of the war-torn nation.
But these were people -- children, for the most part -- and they did have names.
Masooma, Farida, Palwasha, Nabia, Esmatullah -- the daughters of Mohamed Wazir. Faizullah, his son. Mohamed Dawood, son of Abdullah. Khudayad, son of Mohamed Juma. Nazar Mohamed. Payendo. Robeena. Shatarina, the daughter of Sultan Mohamed. Zahra, the daughter of Abdul Hamid. Nazia, the daughter of Dost Mohamed. Essa Mohamed, the son of Mohamed Hussain. Akhtar Mohamed, the son of Murrad Ali. Nine of them under the age of 12. All dead.
Wounded, but alive: Haji Mohamed Naim, son of Haji Sakhawat. Mohamed Sediq, the son of Mohamed Naim. Parween. Rafiullah. Zardana. Zulheja.
The children lived out their entire lives under the shadow of war. So, for that matter, did most of the adults. Their villages, Alkozai, Najeeban and a little settlement called "Ibrahim Khan Houses" by locals, were in Panjawi district of Kandahar Province. Families there mostly grow grapes and try not to get in between the running battles between the Taliban and ISAF. At least one of the families caught up in the tragedy had just returned to the area because the presence of the base seemed to offer some safety.
They met their end, it would seem, at the hand of a man "we sent to protect them," writes Marine Benjamin Busch. "This man, an American, was able to seek them in their sleep, shoot and stab them, and burn them in their blankets. Children the age of his own."
Justice for Robert Bales will take whatever form it will take. This event won't be the end of the war and these civilians won't be the last to die. But beyond the personal tragedy of one American family, beyond the possible geopolitical ramifications of this one event, we need to remember there were 16 human beings with faces and memories and hobbies, and even hopes and dreams. People with names. They should not be forgotten.
My profund thanks to Al Jazeera reporter Mujib Mashal, who compiled this list and was kind enough to share it with us. He first published it today on the Al Jazeera web site. Please follow Mujib on Twitter.