Afghan families left to grieve alone after horror attacks

'Why have you abandoned us?' Relatives of the victims of violence in Afghanistan tell 'The National' they have lost hope for the future

Narges, 12, is one of Agha Gul's daughters. Her mother Soraya was killed in the maternity ward attack in Kabul's Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood in May 12, 2020. Narges has started to write poetry to deal with her loss.
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On the western outskirts of Kabul, a beaten-up metal gate divides the neighbourhood’s unpaved main road from a small graveyard.

Each morning at sunrise, Wahida Shirzad, 38, comes here, often accompanied by relatives. She brings with her a bottle of water tucked under her arm to sprinkle over the raised dry soil, and has a screenshot of a prayer on her phone.

Each morning, she recites the words through tears with her hands either raised towards the sky or touching the raw earth.

“No matter what happens in Afghanistan – whether there is war or peace – no one will be able to bring back my son,” she said, her voice frail.

Ms Shirzad is one of millions of Afghans left behind after their loved ones were killed in the violence that has gripped the country for decades.

The faces of these victims are shared online and in the media. But the pain of their families continues to burn long after the headlines and news stories fade away.

Ms Shirzad's son, Mohammad Rahid Amin, was killed with 21 others when terrorists stormed Kabul University and opened fire on students and teachers on November 2, 2020. He had been studying public administration and policy.

An activist who never gave up hope for a brighter future for Afghans, he taught English at the same time as working to support his single mother, who divorced her husband a long time ago.

Opening a library for students unable to afford the books they needed was one of his life ambitions, one that his mother realised only after his death.

Sitting at her desk in the library in central Kabul, in front of shelves full of books, she said: “I struggled to accept his death for a long time.”

Ms Shirzad said she spent the night after the attack at home with her son's body, unable to comprehend what had happened.

At one point she became convinced that he was breathing again and, unable to give up hope that he might be alive , convinced her relatives to take her to hospital with him.

She recalled a kind doctor inspecting her son’s body carefully, taking his time before addressing her. “Dear mother, accept that he has passed,” he told her.

At least 8,800 civilians were killed or injured in conflict in Afghanistan last year, according to the UN.

An injured man is moved by wheelchair at hospital after a suicide attack in front of Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, March 21, 2018. The suicide bomber struck on the road to a Shiite shrine in Afghanistan's capital, killing at least 26 people as Afghans celebrated the Persian new year, an official said. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
An injured man at a hospital after the attack on Kabul University. AP

A sharp increase in the number of attacks on government employees, activists and the news media sent waves of fear through a nation in mourning.

Most of the families of the victims are left to cope alone.

"There is no real support structure for people who are left behind, especially in terms of psychosocial support," said Shaharzad Akbar, chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“Investigations are often slow, if they happen at all. This means that people are left without access to justice, without mental health support,” she said.

Narges Gul, 12, developed her own coping mechanism after her mother Soraya was murdered when ISIS militants attacked a Kabul maternity clinic last year.

Soraya had just given birth, like many of the women  among the 24 people killed in the attack on May 12, 2020. Other victims included a midwife, children and babies.

“I started writing poetry after my mum’s death,” she said, sitting on the floor in her house. “I write when feelings overcome me.”

Post normal delivery room. Frederic Bonnot / Médecins Sans Frontières
Gunmen killed 24 women, children and babies in Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, Kabul, on May 12, 2020. Frederic Bonnot / Medecins Sans Frontieres

In nearly a year of trying to come to terms with her mother’s death, Narges has almost filled a red notebook with unanswered questions and poetry about grief.

Her father, Agha Gul, still in shock after the attack, brought home Soraya’s body to show it to the family’s children.

“Why did you darken our home? Why did you abandon us?”, Narges wrote in one poem, the lines in the original Farsi forming rhyme and melody. “You are the hope of my life; you are the light of my life … You are gone. I am waiting for you while I write this with tears of blood.”

Narges, sitting with her father and siblings – including her youngest sister Zahra, born shortly before the attack – remained quiet after the last words echoed through the sun-flooded room. Outside, cars passed by, people chatted loudly, but the family barely noticed.

Narges, 12, is one of Agha Gul's daughters. Her mother Soraya was killed in the maternity ward attack in Kabul's Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood in May 12, 2020. Narges has started to write poetry to deal with her loss.
Narges Gul, 12, writes poetry to deal with the loss of her mother Soraya, killed in the maternity ward attack in Dasht-e-Barchi hospital. Stefanie Glinski for The National

Almost a year on, the pain is still raw.

Mr Gul, 36, breathes heavily, tears in his eyes. He loved Soraya fiercely.

Their match had not been arranged as is so common in Afghanistan; they chose each other.

An ambitious mother who kept a full-time job in the country’s defence ministry, Soraya helped support her family financially.

Mr Gul said he had now dedicated his life to their children's futures, as his wife had done. He said he had no intention of remarrying.

“Wherever I go, her image keeps coming up in my mind,” he said, recalling her shiny black hair.

“Soraya was all I ever wanted and needed.”

Rafiullah Sharifi, 35, whose wife was also among the victims of the assault on the maternity clinic, said he had similarly dedicated his life to his daughter Amina, who was shot in the leg several times during the attack.

Amina was born hours before the gunmen stormed the clinic.

"I begged the doctors not to amputate," he said. After several operations, Amina has begun to recover from her injuries. Her leg is now strapped into a brace and she has one more operation to endure.

Now almost a year old, Amina is lively and seemingly content, although she smiles little.

She is sometimes haunted by moments of panic, Mr Sharifi said, as if chased by the trauma she experienced so early in her life.

“She starts screaming when she sees someone in a white coat. Of course the doctors want the best for her, but she’s suffered so much.”

The father of three, who works as a police officer, said he does not see a future for his family in Afghanistan.

“I used to come home full of happiness and anticipation,” he said. “Now, life is heavy and filled with sorrow.”

Thousands of Afghans gathered in a Kabul football stadium last week, to protest against attacks like those on the university and hospital.

The demonstrators called for an end to the recent escalation of violence and showed their support for the upcoming UN-led peace conference in Turkey.

With attacks continuing in towns and cities around the country, peace has never been needed more desperately.

While the families The National spoke to do not know each other, their lives are intertwined by a shared suffering known to many in Afghanistan.

“The majority of us – and I include myself in this as I have also lost friends in this conflict – have a really difficult time coping,” said Ms Akbar of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“Healing is difficult. Every time a new incident happens, it reminds us of the time we lost our loved ones. We are reliving the trauma because the bloodshed continues.”

Reflecting on four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, Ms Akbar drew a long, deep breath, followed only by silence.