A School Bombing Left Them Burying Their Daughters Over the Weekend

Tragedy struck the impoverished, predominantly Hazara neighbourhood as violence escalates across Afghanistan while U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.
RH
Kabul, AF
May 10, 2021, 1:39pm
Afghanistan bombing
Minutes after the bombing, families ran to the school in Dasht-e-Barchi, Kabul, on May 8, 2021. Photo: Matt Reichel 

Before she left for school, 12-year-old Zahra Sultani took her family’s laundry to a nearby hill where there was water – a rare resource in her impoverished Kabul neighbourhood.

After completing the errand, Zahra went to class. But she never returned. Zahra’s mother, and dozens like her, spent the weekend burying their daughters after three bombs at a school in Afghanistan’s capital killed at least 60 people.

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Most of the victims were teenage girls leaving their school in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi area, a largely informal settlement, with close to 1.5 million people, most of them ethnic Hazara.

Hazara families bury their daughters in Dasht-e-Barchi

Hazara families bury their daughters killed in the school bombing in Dasht-e-Barchi, Kabul, Afghanistan on May 9, 2021. Photo: Zakarya Hassani

The Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs confirmed that the first explosion was from a suicide car bomber, followed by two IEDs planted near the school’s front gate. The car bomb detonated right in front of the school, and when the students started to run in panic, the other two devices exploded.

Many of the victims were buried in a mass funeral overlooking their school on Sunday, on a hilltop known as the Education Martyrs Cemetery, which is dedicated to people who lost their lives in pursuit of an education. Many tombstones there have girls’ names on them, testifying to the long struggle for more inclusive schooling in the country.

Zahra’s mother Fatima Sultani is devastated. Out of five children, Zahra was her only daughter. Tears fell down her face as she spoke quietly and thoughtfully about Zahra’s personality, hopes and dreams. She said that Zahra would often ask her for her opinion about what to pursue in her studies.

“Don’t forget to go to school on time, those were my last words to her,” Sultani, dressed in black, told VICE World News from her home.

Zahra Sultani's parents

The Sultanis’ only daughter Zahra was killed in the school bombing in Kabul on May 8, 2021. Photo: Matt Reichel

The bombing comes as violence escalates across Afghanistan following U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement of American troop withdrawals this September.

No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts so far. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mojahid denied involvement in a message to the media.

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Zahra’s mother Sultani said it’s not the first time Hazara people have been killed in attacks in the country, and they are constantly on edge.

“We want peace and stability in this country,” she said. “I fear going to the store, thinking whether I will come back alive or not.”

 Dasht-e-Barchi

Upon hearing an explosion, families ran to the school in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 8, 2021. Photo: Matt Reichel

Ethnic Hazaras are among the most historically oppressed minority groups in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban and other extremist Sunni groups have launched attacks in Sultani’s neighbourhood Dasht-e-Barchi several times in recent years, including at educational centres. There have been over 50 attacks on Hazaras in Afghanistan since 2016, with most of them along the Hazara-populated suburbs of Kabul.

Immediately after the bombings, cries began to fill the streets. Families watched from a distance, clutching each other.

Hazara family Dasht-e-Barchi

Distressed families in Dasht-e-Barchi wait for their daughters to return home safely on May 8, 2021. Photo: Matt Reichel

The streets had been crowded with shoppers preparing for the upcoming Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of Ramadan.

Soon, police and ambulances were rushing towards the school, as plumes of smoke engulfing the area could be seen miles away. Images of tattered backpacks and remnants of books filled social media throughout the weekend. Some of the victims were on the cusp of attending university.

According to her parents, Zahra was a role model to her four brothers. She was the second child, but at times, acted like the eldest because of her quiet sense of responsibility and work ethic. The family had moved from Bamyan province to Kabul only five months ago. In Bamyan, Zahra worked on a farm to support the family for half of the day while attending school. She had only attended her new school for a month.

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After first hearing about the bombing, Najib, Zahra’s father, ran to the school. He found her outside and badly injured. He rushed her to the hospital but she died after arriving.

Experts say gatherings in Hazara communities have become a potential target for the Taliban. Educational centres, sports clubs, mosques, political gatherings and wedding halls have all been earmarked for potential attacks. 

Sultani believes the government is partially to blame for Saturday’s tragedy because of the lack of services and resources in the area.

After the explosions, ambulance and local hospitals could barely sustain the volume of injured, one witness said.

But amid the darkness, there were stories of hope. Courageous teachers worked quickly to get students safely out of school.

Yalda Yusufi, a ninth-grade student and survivor, provided a dramatic account.

“During the bombings, we were just getting out of school. When we heard the explosions, we were asked to go to the back of the school,” she said. “The teachers guided us to a safe area in the hillside until the explosions stopped.”

Yusufi called her mother immediately when she got to a safe place.

“I felt very nervous and stressed after witnessing many of my classmates getting injured or killed,” she said.

Laila Rezaie, a mother of one of the students, heard the first explosion and then received countless calls from relatives asking about her daughter. She ran to the school immediately but was pushed back by security sealing up the area. After two hours, they were finally reunited.

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“After finding my daughter, I felt like I could breathe again,” Rezaie said.

Despite the attack and continued mourning, students and teachers are determined to move forward.

“I feel strongly about going to school. The Taliban and Daesh [ISIS] want us to stop studying, to become backwards, illiterate, but I will never accept that,” said ninth-grade student Taiyeba Nabizada.

She dreams of studying overseas and eventually becoming an English teacher. Nabizada was rescued from the bombing by male schoolmates who rushed to the school and pulled girls out of windows. 

Taiyeba Nabizada

Ninth-grader Taiyeba Nabizada was rescued by male students who rushed to the school after they heard the bombing to pull girls out of windows. Photo: Matt Reichel

Sediqa Rezaie has taught at the school for 12 years. Her mother, Maryam Rezaie, now worries about her keeping the job after this attack, but she refuses to quit. The area has a teacher shortage as it is.

“It’s not our choice. It’s our destiny,” Maryam said.  

Last month, students protested the shortage of teachers and resources in Dasht-e-Barchi. University students and graduates from the Hazara community started a Facebook campaign to gather volunteer teachers for the bombed high school. Despite the inherent dangers of teaching at Hazara schools, several dozen volunteer teachers joined the campaign within its first 24 hours. 

Maryam Rezaie

Maryam Rezaie's daughter Sediqa Rezaie is a teacher at the school that was bombed. She survived but her mother worries about her safety every day. Photo: Matt Reichel

Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, called on the international community to help.

“It was not the first time, and horrific as it is, it might not be the last time unless we all act now,” she tweeted. “We need ceasefires, investigations and accountability.”  

Sultani is still hopeful for her other children. She does not want to continue sending her boys to this school, but it is the only larger school in the immediate area. She stares into the distance as she reflects on the killings and the future of her community.

“Nobody should ever fear sending their children to school, but Hazaras are not safe.”

Follow Robyn Huang on Twitter.