Popal became more deeply absorbed in the case as the months passed. At some point, he lost his sense of perspective and his doubts, which ultimately made him vulnerable.
When asked about the number of casualties, Popal refers to his list and insists that it's the only one that is accurate. But any such list, no matter who compiled it, can be little more than an attempt to reach an approximation of the truth under the conditions in Afghanistan. When Popal is asked how many Taliban fighters were among the victims of the air strike, he says that there were five -- as if this figure could in fact be ascertained. And when he is asked today to assess his chances in a trial, he says "80 percent."
"At first my motivations were humanitarian," he says. "And I still have them, of course. But now it's also about showing that I can win this case."
For the German Defense Ministry and its burly lead negotiator, the situation in January must have been a godsend. The Defense Ministry expected to have an easy job of it, given that it was up against a quarreling, disintegrating legal team headed by Popal, a man who was fighting for his reputation.
The negotiations continued until March. No one had experience with a compensation case of this magnitude. Popal and his new partner, Docke, proposed projects that could provide a livelihood for the survivors, most of them women and children. The costs of the projects, the locations and Afghan customs were discussed.
At the end of a meeting on March 19, the two sides agreed to characterize their interactions as "constructive talks" and scheduled another meeting. On March 30, Docke received a fax from the Defense Ministry informing him that the negotiations were being discontinued. At the same time, the Defense Ministry began feeding stories to selected journalists. Suddenly various media outlets were reporting that Docke and Popal had demanded a fee of €200,000 during the talks.
"I was completely surprised," says Docke. "There was absolutely no indication that the negotiations would be discontinued. And we never asked for a fee of €200,000."
At the Defense Ministry in Berlin, the burly man sadly shakes his head. Two hundred thousand euros, he says -- now that's an unusual and inappropriate demand. Then he pours coffee and takes a few cookies from a plate. "The situation with their clients was unclear," says the burly man, eating a cookie. "Suddenly 30 victims' families turned up and demanded direct compensation talks with the Bundeswehr. That was when we realized whose interests the attorneys were in fact promoting."
Docke says that he immediately informed the ministry that none of the clients had backed out. "I have to ask myself," he says, "who these victims' families were that suddenly turned up after half a year."
Time passed. Summer came to Kunduz, and the war continued. In Germany, the case seemed to be running out of steam.
But hadn't the German government intended to provide quick assistance with as little red tape as possible?
"How can you help people quickly and without red tape if the victims' families hire attorneys and the attorneys set the pace?" the burly man asks, leaning back in his chair.