‘She wanted to be a teacher’: Kabul attack kills girls with big dreams

The family of a 19-year-old girl who was victim of a suicide bomber mourns in Kabul on Friday, after a blast at a learning center in the Dasht-i-Barchi area of Afghanistan's capital. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

KABUL — There were mostly girls in the educational center, many because they were barred from attending school by the Taliban. They wanted to become doctors, journalists and engineers.

They arrived on a weekend morning to take a practice college entrance exam in a crowded hall, determined to overcome the massive barriers now facing Afghan women. That’s when the suicide bomber struck.

At least 19 students were killed and 27 injured in the Friday morning blast in Kabul’s Dasht-i-Barchi neighborhood, according to Taliban authorities. Most of the victims were teenage girls and women in their early 20s. Interviews with community leaders, hospital workers and witnesses suggest the toll is likely higher. “They want to stall progress and knowledge,” said Abdul, referring to the attackers. He spoke minutes before leaving for the cemetery to bury his 21-year-old daughter, Fatima. An hour earlier, employees at a hospital near the attack site had wheeled her body on a gurney into an ambulance heading to the morgue. She was still wearing her maroon traditional garb, her arms falling lifelessly from the white sheet that barely covered her. Her mother wailed as she stepped into the ambulance and gently caressed her daughter’s head. Abdul followed her inside, his eyes red with tears.

“She wanted to be a teacher,” said Abdul, who like many Afghans uses one name. “She worked and studied hard. She was a good person.” While violence has dropped dramatically around the country since the Taliban takeover and the withdrawal of the U.S.-led coalition in August 2021, the country’s new rulers have been unable to thwart numerous bombings, including a deadly one at a mosque in Kabul last week. No group has asserted responsibility for the attack on the Kaaj Higher Educational Center, but it bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the Afghanistan and Pakistan arm of the Islamic State. Most of those killed and injured Friday were ethnic Hazaras, a Shiite Muslim minority that has been targeted repeatedly by Sunni militants over the years.

In April, a pair of blasts struck outside a high school in Dasht-i-Barchi, killing six people, mostly teenage boys. An attack on a nearby school in May 2021 killed at least 85 people, also mostly students. In May 2020, a maternity hospital in the same neighborhood was the scene of a horrific assault that left 16 dead, including newborn babies. ISIS-K has asserted responsibility for 13 attacks against Hazaras and is linked to three more since the Taliban takeover, for a total of at least 700 killed and injured, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.

“The Taliban authorities have done little to protect these communities from suicide bombings and other unlawful attacks or to provide medical care and other assistance to victims and their families,” the watchdog group said.

On Friday morning, Taliban officials were swift to condemn the bombing. Government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid described the attack as a “barbaric act” and extended his condolences to the bereaved families, assuring them that “strict action will be taken against the perpetrators.”