This week, the southern city of Kandahar in Afghanistan witnessed scenes of unimaginable horror as multiple bombs ripped through Imam Bargah-e-Fatima, a Shia mosque, during the Friday prayers.
“I buried three of my neighbours with my own hands,” a 32-year-old fruit seller told VICE World News. “This will never stop. We can only pray that the Taliban lives up to its promise of protecting us, but deep down we know it’s wishful thinking on our part.”
The bombing in one of Afghanistan’s biggest mosques comes on the heels of a similar attack on another Shia mosque in the northern city of Kunduz, also during the Friday prayers, that killed as many as 100 people last week.
Through a late social media post on Friday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in Kandahar that killed 47 people and injured more than double that number. Hajji Farhad, a community elder, told the Associated Press that the death toll might grow higher, as he fears many more victims at hospitals may succumb to their injuries.
The Islamic State group’s website, Amaq, named the attackers as Anas al-Khurasani and Abu Ali al-Baluchi, both Afghan nationals.
The successive bombings were the first attacks of this scale on the minority Shia community to take place in Afghanistan since U.S. troops left in August after occupying the country for two decades. Across Kandahar, mass funerals are being held, where mourning families can be seen frantically digging graves on open grounds.
In the wake of these attacks, the Taliban, the militant group that now governs Afghanistan, has pledged to step up security arrangements for Shiite mosques across the country. The group said it has been attempting to build bridges with the country’s Shia community since before they came to power in mid-August. On April 22, the Taliban released an outreach video, featuring a rare Taliban member from the Shia community – the northern district Governor Mawlawi Mahdi Mujahid – encouraging Shiite Afghans with dramatic gestures to join the Taliban to put up a “united front against the invaders (Americans).”
Despite this, members of the Shia community in Afghanistan say that they never really believed much would change on the ground. Having been targets of discrimination and violence in the first Taliban regime, Shiite Afghans worry that the recent attacks were only the beginning of what looks to be a future fraught with bullets, bombs, and burials.
Shiite Muslims, who practice Shia Islam, are a minority in Afghanistan, where the majority of the population practices Sunni Islam. The Hazara, an ethnic minority, are predominantly Shia, and they have faced discrimination from the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic community, and Sunni Muslims. The persecution of Hazaras in Afghanistan dates back many centuries. They were only granted equal constitutional rights in 2004 in what has been described as Afghanistan’s “failed constitution.”
Sayed Hussainizada, a Human Rights Lawyer, echoes a similar sentiment. “There is a systematic attack on Shias in Afghanistan. This violence against vulnerable and minority groups are a testament that Hazara and Shias are not safe in Afghanistan.”
The fruit seller, who asked to be kept anonymous for his safety, had missed the Friday prayers owing to a recent injury. In the first week of August, during the Taliban blitzkrieg, he lost his son who was caught in crossfire in the southwestern city of Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
“One can never understand why a mosque can be attacked,” he said. “But what is sinister is how the holy day of Friday was chosen in both the bombings. Perhaps, that says something about how we were never considered human beings in the first place, let alone Muslims.”
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