It was by complete chance that Amira entered the exam hall on Friday the 30th of September, and sat down in one of the last remaining seats close to the door.
It was an unconscious decision that ended up saving her life.
Amira, 17, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had arrived at the Kaaj Education Centre at 6.30AM. The centre is in an area of Kabul home to a large Hazara community, a persecuted Shia ethnic minority group in Afghanistan.
Amira was excited and nervous to be sitting a practice paper for her university entrance exam. This was the moment she, and the hundreds of other girls and boys in the hall with her, had been waiting for their entire educational careers.
But as she was getting through the maths section, she heard a loud gunshot.
Amira quickly ran out and hid in a smaller classroom before hearing another loud explosion. Other students didn’t make it out. Over 50 of them, both girls and boys, died in the attack. Nobody has claimed responsibility for it.
“Everywhere was dark and black. The windows of the classroom shattered. I passed out and fainted,” Amira told VICE World News over a secure video call.
“When I woke up, I saw the classroom with a collapsed roof and ruined walls. I saw my classmates' flesh lying around. I saw their books and notebooks soaked in blood.”
Amira said it will be impossible for her to forget that moment. She remembers parents and relatives running barefoot towards the centre, frantically looking for their children and siblings.
“I saw girls soaked in blood running outside of the classroom with the hope that God may give them the chance to live. But they couldn't make it and they were falling down on the road.”
Like many of the people targeted in the blast, Amira is Hazara. For generations, Hazaras have faced discrimination and violence. Although no group claimed responsibility for the attack, local affiliates of ISIS have often targeted the Hazara minority. The attack on the schoolgirls reignited protests across Afghanistan to bring an end to their persecution.
The largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, have long dominated Afghan public and political life, with Tajik and Hazara minorities often suffering discrimination and violence. The Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun group, and has carried out acts of appalling violence against Hazara and Tajik people across Afghanistan.
Amira believes that this “discrimination” and “division” are some of the reasons stopping those from the Hazara community being able to pursue their goals. In the past, the ethnic discrimination they’ve faced has lead to their community being socially and economically marginalised.
She said her friends who died in the blast, many of whom were also Hazara, were “hard-working” and had “bright futures” but were killed before they could fulfil their dreams.
“I had many friends inside of that classroom. I lost Umul-Banin, a very hard working friend,” she said. “I lost Shekiba, she was one of my best friends.
“I am unable to forget them and forget those scenes. I can't believe that they are gone. I can't stop my tears when they cross my mind.”
Amira has been allowed to be educated for her entire life – something denied to all girls and women under the Taliban’s first period of rule, which ended with the US invasion of 2001. There was an active push to get girls into classrooms after the Taliban was toppled, and girls made up one-third of school pupils in the years leading up to 2021.
The Taliban said it would continue to allow girls to go to school when it seized power once again in August 2021, but still girls aged nine and up have been barred from returning to school in many parts of the country.
Women’s rights, which flourished in many parts of the country in recent years, have also been curtailed by the Taliban, who have placed restrictions on women’s access to jobs, justice, health services, and humanitarian aid.
Now, girls and women face violence for daring to want to be educated, especially those from the Hazara community. In April this year, a series of bomb blasts targeted schools in the same Dasht-e-Barchi area as the Kaaj Education Centre, killing at least six people. In May 2021, a bomb exploded near a girls’ school in that area, killing at least 85 people, majority of them students.
“Before [the Taliban took over], female students were attending colleges with enthusiasm, desire, and hope. But now, female students have been restricted and don't have that enthusiasm anymore,” Amira said.
The attack on Kaaj education centre has only made things worse. Amira said families of girls and women who are studying can’t have “peace of mind” and now there are many who aren’t even able to graduate from school to go on to further education.
Amira’s brother, Mohammed, whose name has also been changed, was at home nearby when he got a phone call from a friend of his sister saying there had been a bomb and she was caught up in the blast.
He ran to the centre, terrified Amira wouldn’t be found alive. He said he was “fortunate” to have been reunited with her.
As a survivor, Amira wants to make sure her friends' legacies live on by “making their wishes come true.”
“I will not forgive a single drop of their blood. If I don’t continue their path, my friends’ souls will not rest in peace,” she said.
Her dream is to become a politician and end discrimination against Hazara girls and women. She wants to “set them free”.
“I would like to be a great leader for Afghan women,” she said, “for the women who are deprived of their rights, for those girls who aren't allowed to attend schools.”