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.”
Taliban fighters stand guard in front of an education center that was attacked in Kabul on Friday. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Between 300 and 400 students had arrived around 6:30 a.m. Friday to take the practice college entrance exam, something the Kaaj Center specialized in. The girls were divided from the boys in a large hall, as required by the Taliban. While the Taliban has barred girls above sixth grade from attending school, it has allowed them to continue attending private educational centers. The courses are roughly $40 a semester, an enormous sum for most Afghan families.
“Girls were not allowed to go to school after grade six, so they would try to improve their English here,” said a senior community leader who didn’t want his name used because the Taliban had warned him not to speak to the media. About 7 a.m., gunmen stormed into the center and killed the guards. Then, the suicide bomber detonated his explosives in the hall, apparently near the girls’ section.
“I saw bodies being taken out and put in cars to be taken to hospitals,” said a man who lived 50 feet from the Kaaj Center and ran to it when he heard the explosion. “Most of the students had blood on their bodies. Most of the victims were girls.” As he spoke near a side street leading to the school, a group of heavily armed Taliban fighters in camouflage arrived. The man jumped on his bicycle and fled in fear. The fighters went door to door, entering homes in an apparent search for collaborators.
But few Hazaras expect the Taliban to find the perpetrators, or to stop more attacks. “They are torturing us in a cage,” said one Hazara man, staring at the Taliban fighters as they barged into homes. “I wish I was not Muslim.”
“This is like pouring salt on our wounds,” said another Hazara man, as he stood near Taliban fighters who had sealed off the road to the Kaaj Center.
At Mohammad Ali Jinnah Hospital, women were wailing. Mothers walked with the help of relatives as they followed their children’s bodies, some zipped up in plastic bags, into ambulances. A crowd stared at a list of the dead and injured attached to a wall, searching for loved ones. Others mourned not just the dead — but the loss to Afghanistan’s future.
After watching the body of her friend Hosniya, 19, being placed in an ambulance, Magul Rafi, 26, recalled the girl’s courage. Hosniya had decided to leave her village in Ghazni province to seek an education in Kabul, even after the Taliban took over.
She studied mathematics and history at the Kaaj Center in the hope that a college education — which the Taliban, at least for now, has not banned for women — would offer her a new life. She was full of optimism.
“We are all not alive,” Rafi said about living as a woman under the Taliban. “It’s like being in prison.” Ragia Rasuli, 18, was lucky. On Friday, she decided to attend another seminar and skip the practice exam. But her close friend Amollbanin Asqheri, 17, was at the center. After the explosion, Rasuli tried to reach her, but couldn’t get through. Later in the morning, she went on Facebook. Asqheri’s brothers had posted that she was among the dead.
“I went silent for a few minutes,” recalled Rasuli. “I was so sad. She was a great girl.”
“She wanted to be a journalist in Afghanistan,” she continued. “She wanted to spread the voices of Afghan people to the world.”
Rasuli does, too. She also dreams of becoming a journalist. If the Kaaj Center doesn’t reopen soon, she plans to study at another center.
“Explosions can never close the centers for us,” she continued. “I will be an example for all the girls in Afghanistan. This is my dream.”
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Paul Schemm in London contributed to this report.
(c) The Washington Post 2022