A dark shadow follows the hundreds of thousands of residents who call the West Kabul neighbourhood of Dasht-e Barchi home.
Last Friday, on 30 September, Barchi made international headlines after a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a university testing centre, killing at least 53 students – mostly young women – and wounding over 100 more.
It was only the latest devastation to hit the predominantly Shia neighbourhood, which has seen a string of brazen attacks in recent years, targeting everything from a wrestling gym, to an ID card distribution centre, to mosques, a maternity ward, and a girls’ school.
Most of these attacks have been claimed by forces with allegiance to the so-called Islamic State group, which often cites the area’s Shia population as a justification for striking entirely civilian targets. The majority of residents here are also from the Hazara ethnicity, a group who in the 1990s were subject to massacres and abuses by former warlords and the Taliban.
The victims were young women like Anisa Mohammad Jawad. The 21-year-old, who had won several prizes for her academic and religious pursuits, hoped to study medicine.
“She wanted to be a doctor, but now she’s under the dirt. My brilliant daughter was torn to pieces,” her still-shocked mother said between wails and tears.
In the days after the attack, neighbours of two victims hung a banner near their homes that read: “Dear classmates of Marzia and Khojar! Please finish the unfinished dreams of Marzia and Khojar.”
Bastan Ali told The New Humanitarian that Marzia, his 19-year-old daughter – who hoped to study engineering – knew well of the dangers when she enrolled at Kaj a year ago, but she accepted them. “She always said, ‘Even if I am killed, let it be in the name of education.’”
Given Afghanistan’s long history of dispossession and discrimination against Hazaras, activists have framed the last half decade of attacks – and the inadequate response by both the former Western-backed Islamic Republic and the now-back-in-power Taliban government – as a genocide against a minority that also face abuses in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
Led by women academics, protests have spread across Afghanistan in recent days, calling for an end to attacks on Hazaras as well as the return of education for teenage girls, who are currently unable to attend high school in the majority of the nation. In the eastern province of Nangarhar, women expressed solidarity with the Hazara people and called for “revenge for the blood of their countrymen” killed on 30 September.
On social media, the hashtag #stophazaragenocide has once again gone viral.
In spite of promises by the Taliban government to return the country to stability, activists and Barchi residents say the latest attacks show that just like the Republic it ousted, the Islamic Emirate is failing to protect vulnerable minorities.
On Saturday, the day after the attack, the Taliban’s security forces were deployed in several parts of Barchi, just as those of the Republic had been after previous blasts. But residents say day-after searches represent little more than security theatre. “Other than God, who will hear our prayers, our cries,” said Gholam Sakhi, whose brother-in-law died in the latest attack.
‘Poverty is also a plague that you can’t outrun’
Anisa’s father, Mohammad Jawad, earns his income by selling fruit and vegetables on one of Barchi’s many unpaved, craggy sideroads. He has used this money to scrounge together the 800 afghani ($9) monthly fee to put each of his three older children through university entrance exam preparation courses. “I sold whatever I could from a cart so my daughter could reach her dreams,” he said.
Like many of their neighbours, Jawad and his wife are Hazaras. Most of the older generation here moved to Kabul from some of the least-developed provinces of the country, including Maidan Wardak, Ghor, Daikondi, Uruzgan, and Zabul. Robbed of the chance of a formal education by decades of war, poverty, and discrimination, these parents hoped to give their children better opportunities.
Now, instead of reaching her dream, Anisa is buried on a hillside that has become the final resting spot for hundreds of victims of similarly heinous attacks. Many more sit behind closed doors across the neighbourhood, recovering from mental trauma and physical injuries.
By 10am on Friday, Jawad and his older son, Abdul Raouf, had visited half a dozen hospitals searching for Anisa. At the final hospital, Jawad said he came face-to-face with the bitter reality of life in Barchi in recent years.
“I stood there searching through 20 dead bodies and 27 injured youths looking desperately for my daughter, who I didn’t even allow to do housework so she could focus on her studies,” he said.
“This country has seen so much violence, but we want to fight with the pen.”
Standing on the dirt road leading to their home, Abdul told The New Humanitarian that, if nothing else, he wants his sister’s death to be remembered as proof of his people’s drive for education.
“This country has seen so much violence, but we want to fight with the pen,” the 26-year-old pharmacy student said. “We challenge anyone, but through education, not another gun. If you want to face us, come at us with words and knowledge not bombs and bullets.”
As the family mourns the loss of Anisa, her father said the death was emblematic of the dual tragedies of violence and poverty that have affected all Afghans over the last 40 years of war.
“A death like that, it’s an affliction. But poverty is also a plague that you can’t outrun,” said Jawad. “I wanted better for my daughter. That’s why I worked so hard.”
Since the Taliban took over in August 2021, the country has faced spiralling economic and humanitarian crises. Some three quarters of the government budget was previously funded by international donors, and the loss of aid money – coupled with billions of dollars in assets frozen by foreign powers – has contributed to skyrocketing food and fuel prices, as well as widespread hunger.
Such poverty was what led Mohammad Taher to accept the job as a guard at the Kaj institute that cost him his life, when he knew that attacks on similar centres had led to more than 80 deaths already over the previous two years.
Gholam Sakhi, Taher’s brother-in-law, confirmed that it was the economic downturn that had forced Taher to accept the risky work: “Of course he was frightened, but he needed the 8,000 afghani [$90] salary to feed his grandchildren.”
And even though the residents of Barchi fear for their lives, explained Sakhi, they can’t afford to move: “Every morning, when we leave our homes, we say our prayers, because we don’t know if we’ll make it back home alive.”
A long-marginalised minority
In the 1990s, when they first ruled Afghanistan for five years, the Taliban was accused of massacres against Hazara populations – in the Yakawlang district of Bamiyan province and in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
This time around, the Taliban have tried to project a more tolerant image. Shortly after returning to power, Taliban officials attended Ashura commemorations in Shia places of worship. They also made an effort by stationing hundreds of their security forces in various parts of the city, including Barchi, during the two Ashura commemorations that have taken place since they took back power last August.
However, a year ago they were once again accused of killing Hazara members of the former Afghan National Security Forces and of seizing the lands of Hazara residents in the central province of Daikondi.
Whereas the Taliban has tried to cultivate an image of acceptance of all Afghan people, forces pledging allegiance to IS, which has been responsible for the vast majority of the attacks in Barchi, have been very clear in their targeting of the Shia population. Because the majority of Hazaras are Shia, they have become a prime target for the group, which has been engaged in a bitter and violent rivalry with the Taliban since 2014.
On Saturday morning, outside the entrance to the Italian-run Emergency Hospital in the Shahr-e Naw neighbourhood, Khair Mohammad was waiting on word of his sister Fatema and his niece Nazdana, both of whom he had not seen since the attack. He said one of the girls suffered an injury to her lung. Mohammad himself escaped a similar fate last year, when his own testing centre was attacked on a day he left early.
“Something inside me said to delay for another day,” Mohammad said. “Had I not convinced my instructor, I could have been like my sister and my niece. Or worse.”
Mohammad, whose family moved to Kabul from Daikondi, one of the least-developed provinces in Afghanistan, said the danger of life in Barchi is not lost on the residents.
“Where does it end? They attack our mosques, but they cannot keep us from praying,” he said of a string of attacks over the last year on Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, and Sikh places of worship in Kabul, Kandahar, Kunduz, and Herat. “They attack our schools and institutes, but we must study. They attack us on the roads, but still we go about our lives.”
Sakhi, the brother-in-law of the slain guard, said the Taliban government is not alone in having ignored the unique threats faced by Afghanistan’s minorities. He noted that the leaders of the former Western-backed Islamic Republic, including those who came to power with the Hazara vote, also failed to address the worsening situation in Barchi.
“Whoever was in power, no one has come to ask us what our life is like,” he said. “Not the parliamentarians [of the previous government], not the old leaders.”
‘Nothing will stop us’
The fact that most of the victims of the Kaj attack were young women speaks to the challenges of pursuing an education in Taliban-led Afghanistan. Since the takeover, men and women across the country have been calling on officials to re-open secondary schools for teenage girls in 32 of the nation’s 34 provinces.
Kaj was not the first such institute in the capital to come under attack. In 2020, at least 43 people were killed at the Kawsar-e Danesh tutoring centre. Last year, another 40 people were killed in the Mawoud Academy.
In spite of the violence, some survivors remain undeterred. In the wards of the Mohammad Ali Jinnah Hospital in Barchi and the Emergency Hospital in Shahr-e Naw, where most of those who survived Friday’s blast are being treated, wounded young women insisted they would not let the attacks stop them from pursuing an education.
Sharifa, 21, is one such survivor. On Saturday, she was lying in a bed in the Jinnah Hospital, still recovering from the physical pain and mental anguish. In the bed across from her lay Fatima, another victim who was too distraught to speak.
Relatives of both girls pushed them to talk to volunteers from Aseel, an e-commerce platform turned aid organisation that is distributing financial assistance packages to the families of the victims.
Finally, at her family’s behest, Sharifa managed to utter a few pained words.
“Nothing will stop us,” she began to say, before breaking down. Trying to calm her down, Fatima’s mother turned to Sharifa and said: “Now is the time to be brave, you aren’t the only one who has gone through this. You have to speak up.”
Collecting herself, Sharifa delivered her full message to all the teenage girls of Afghanistan who feel their chance at higher education might be denied by violence and government policies: “Nothing can keep us from our education, not the violence and not the enemies.”
Edited by Abby Seiff.