School Bombing Latest Tragedy for Afghanistan’s Hazaras

Recent Features

Features | Security | Society | South Asia

School Bombing Latest Tragedy for Afghanistan’s Hazaras

Afghanistan’s Hazaras have long been persecuted and over the last 20 years targeted in attacks of increasingly cruelty.

School Bombing Latest Tragedy for Afghanistan’s Hazaras

People put flowers outside a school after a deadly attack on Saturday, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 9, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib

Before the sun rises over Kabul, the first group of people arrives to visit their beloved teenagers buried on a western hill. The visitors arrive weeping, recite the Quran and prayers weeping, and they leave their children deep in the ground, weeping. The buried teenagers are on a hill across from the school where they were slaughtered on May 8.

Then the woman who waters the flowers on the graves arrives with her bucket. 

“This one, 17-year old Amin, is headless; this one, 14-year old Arefa, does not have legs and hands. The other one, Aqela, was buried, and her parents did not know that she was killed and buried,” said the woman, who did not want to share her name. She leaves them as well, cursing the perpetrators who often go without facing justice.

The graveyard, named “Gulistan of Education Martyrs,” is the third gravesite on the hill dedicated to the victims of multiple extremist attacks in one neighborhood: Dasht-e-Barchi. Dasht-e-Barchi is home to Hazaras, an ethnic group long persecuted by the rulers and militants of Afghanistan alike. The pattern of attacks designed to create mass civilian causalities of one particular ethnic group signals ethnic cleanings and a genocide to come, say victims and human rights defenders.

Families of the school bombing victims — around 80 teenage girls and dozens of others including young men and women — said in a statement that the May 8 bombing should be recognized as a genocide of Hazaras. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the families called on the United Nations to launch a thorough investigation into the unclaimed bombing.

“Newborn babies, newly-wed brides, pregnant women, high school students, worshipers, girl students and passengers of Hazaras have deliberately been targeted by militants over the last 20 years,” said Habibullah Amiri, a Hazara activist who is part of a team that helps families of the victims and survivors of the attacks. “This trend has been going on for a long time.” 

For much of the last 20 years, the Taliban sporadically kidnapped and beheaded civilian members of the Hazara ethnic group on highways. But with the emergence of the Islamic State in the country in 2015, attacks against the ethnic group took on a systematic shape. Islamist militants blew up two protests, one wedding hall, two educational centers, multiple mosques, multiple political gatherings, one wrestling club, one maternity hospital, and now one school — all in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood.

Most public places, such as shopping malls, educational centers, private schools, and mosques have hired armed guards and added layers of security for protection, turning even public sites into military areas. Each new attack has nevertheless evolved in brutality. On May 8, around 4:30 p.m. local time, a vehicle packed with explosive devices parked near the entrance of  Sayed ul Shuhada High School. When the female students of the school were leaving on their way home, the vehicle exploded. The first blast was followed by two roadside bombs placed to catch students who were fleeing.

“I was frozen in the first two minutes,” said Mohammad Amiri, 22, who owns a grocery store near the school, and was in his store when the bombs exploded. “I heard girls screaming. Many of them were burning, on fire. Others were completely burned…  I saw their brains out on the street. Legs and hands were spread around. One leg was thrown into a nearby yard.” 

It was the third time that Amiri has witnessed the carnage of bombs destroying bodies in the neighborhood.

Najibullah Sultani, 37, had just arrived to his house when the first bomb went off. Sultani rushed out looking for his daughter, Zahra Sultani. He was on his way to the school when the second and third bombs went off. As soon as Sultani arrived on the scene, he saw his daughter bloody in the street. One of her arms was smashed. He grabbed her body and took her to a nearby hospital. He hoped his daughter was still alive. Then the doctor told him his daughter was already dead. A piece of the bomb had hit the back of her head.

“Only God and my heart knows how much I loved her,” said Sultani, sobbing. Sultani, a day laborer, has four sons but had only one daughter. Just three months ago, he had left his village in Bamyan’s Waras district to settle in Kabul to provide a better education for his daughter, whom he characterized as a talented, committed, and patient seventh grader.    

She was 12 when she was killed.

Every street in the surrounding residential area, the poorest in the already poor Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, became a mourning place. For Hazaras, education has been the primary means of survival and escaping extreme poverty caused by oppression by Afghanistan’s rulers through time. Now Islamist militants are pushing them back into poverty and oppression, this time by trying to hold them back from receiving education. 

The bombs left the students and teachers of the school in shock and despair. Gul Nasrin Niazi, 16 and in the 10th grade, was just stepping out of the school when the bombs exploded. She saw a schoolmate fall to the ground; she ran for her life. Weeks after the bombing, Niazi is scared of sudden noises. She suffers from chronic headaches and fears being left alone in a room. 

“I hate my school uniform,” said Niazi, whose parents are too poor to afford care for her mental health. “My headache gets worse when I pass by my school. I am afraid of my school.”

Aqila Tawakoli, the principal of Sayed ul Shuhada High School, was in her office when the bombs detonated. The blasts broke the windows. She saw many of the school’s 4,500 female grade 7-12 students that were in the afternoon shift running back to their classrooms. Terrified, Tawakoli found herself helpless and on her own to try and help her students. Eventually, students left the school through a different door and a hole opened up through the wall of the school. 

“That night, I kept crying,” said Tawakoli, who aims to resume school on May 29. “My responsibility for the surviving students weighs heavier than my emotional breakdown. Otherwise, I won’t be able to face my students.”

Sakina Khawari, an 11th grade biology teacher, is one of the 44 teachers who educate the school’s 14,000 total students — both girls and boys. The bombing resulted in heavy casualties particularly among 11th grade female students and Khawari breaks down at the thought of going back to classes, of facing her students.

“How I can greet them? How can I teach them again? How can I stand in front of the class again?” said Khawari, sobbing. “What if one student asks me what happened to her classmate? What can I tell her?”

The three bombs claimed the lives of students from many grades, as well as adults, with the latest death toll soaring over 100. The bombs injured more than 240 female students and other civilians per an aid group’s estimation. Because the bombs caused such heavy casualties, many of Kabul’s hospitals were overwhelmed. 

As the days passed, many of the injured students eventually changed lists, moving from the ranks of the injured to the cold accounting of the dead. One was Mahdia. She lost her life days after the bombing, succumbing only after fighting to live in a hospital bed.

When asked, “Do you want to bury Mahdia next to her classmates up on the hill?” Mahdia’s father, old Mohammd Ali, replied: “No, I can’t climb the hill. Here [on the hillside], I can visit her.”