After forty years of instability, Afghanistan is no stranger to war. But a disturbing video showing child survivors of a terrorist attack crying over the lifeless body of their mother has shocked the public.
The now-viral clip, recorded at the site of a bombing in Kabul, shows bloodied and dust-covered children calling out to their mother and nudging her to wake up. It has come to epitomise the suffering of Afghans, who have seen a big increase in violence across the country.
According to local media agency, Tolo News, 340 people have been killed or wounded in security incidents in Afghanistan in February alone.
The violence has notably increased since the US signed an agreement with the Taliban. The deal not only promised the insurgent group a hasty withdrawal of foreign troops, but also pressured the Afghan government to release more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill.
However, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have moved very slowly, and violence has increased in the meantime.
Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, said that 2020 could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan.
"Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished due to the conflict,” Ms Lyons said, urging all parties to consider a ceasefire.
“Parties refusing to consider a ceasefire must recognise the devastating consequences of such a posture on the lives of Afghan civilians,” she said.
A large number of these attacks are in the form of targeted killings and assassinations, shifting away from the Taliban’s usual modus operandi of large-scale suicide attacks.
"There has been a big increase in violence, particularly against educated people, in the past year. We have seen the terror spread wide and touch our lives," said Wali Yasini, son of Qadria Yasini, one of the two female judges killed by gunmen in January.
Five other members of the judiciary were killed that month.
Ms Yasini was among 51 Afghans who were killed in targeted attacks in January in Kabul alone.
Meanwhile, in 2020 there were 2,250 civilian assassinations – an increase of 169 per cent on 2019, according to data collected by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
According to the UN, an estimated 3,000 civilians were killed in security incidents last year, making Afghanistan "among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian".
Afghan security agencies have been criticised for being incapable of stopping the majority of these attacks, but the magnitude of violence has been overwhelming.
Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who has survived attempts on his life, blames Taliban insurgents for conducting the recent Kabul attack, with support from Pakistan.
He had claimed in December that nearly 20,000 tons of ammonium nitrate – a key component in the terrorists' bombs – had been smuggled from Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the ensuing chaos has prompted an exodus of the skilled Afghan population.
"I am a professor, a civil activist and also a former senior government official," said Mohammad, who did not wish to use his full name, following threats against him and his family.
"In each of these roles, I campaigned for accountability and transparency from all sides, which has now brought me and my family to the attention of terrorists.”
Mohammad says he has been labelled a “spy and a slave to the West” for speaking out against the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan.
Speaking to The National from an undisclosed location, Mohammad made the difficult decision to leave the country after many of his government official colleagues were killed by insurgents.
"They were killed in explosions or shot. These were my colleagues and friends from university, from the ministry and the ICT sector where I worked.
"I have heard the footsteps of my would-be killers when they missed me by moments," he said, recalling memories of taking cover during an attack on his building.
“It has not been easy living in the shadow of my own death. And this is why I considered becoming an Afghan scholar in exile.”
Mohammad isn't alone in his decision. Many Afghans in academia, media, civil society and those working with the government have received threats and warnings of impending attacks.
Lists compiled by security sources have been distributed among academic and civil society circles, listing prominent and vocal Afghans as potential targets, and urging them to take precautions.
Mr Yasini, however, says his mother, who had worked as a judge for decades and also as a doctor , had never received any threats.
“My mother always said that since she’s never hurt or harmed anyone, why would anyone want to harm her?
"She did not have fears and we never thought anything like this would happen to her. It was so unexpected and unbelievable," he said.
Mr Yasini speculates that his mother's strong personality may have made her a target of groups like the Taliban, which has a history of suppressing vocal women.
"She was a deeply profound person and very passionate about education. That was so unique for a woman in Afghanistan, and I believe that is why she was targeted, for being different," Mr Yasini said.
"My mother left a career in law to become a medical doctor and served in remote provinces for nearly 10 years, before coming back to Kabul to resume her position as a judge in the Supreme Court in 2010.
"In her free time, she would write books to help the masses understand the law of the land. Her books were so enjoyable.”
After one too many close calls, Mohammad decided that Afghanistan was no longer a safe place for a vocal academic calling for change.
“It is not easy for a well-established technocrat to leave everything behind and seek asylum.
“After two decades, once again, I am without an identity. I have lost everything. My family and I are homeless, seeking security,” he said.
"I very much hope that the situation in Afghanistan improves and we are allowed to live in peace, with our values and according to our own principles and without being threatened or mistreated," he said.
But he did not sound hopeful.
As well as the harrowing video of the distraught children, another picture from the same attack did the rounds on social media on Sunday.
It showed a fruit vendor close to the aftermath of the attack, watching the scene in front of him with his hands in his pockets, seemingly unaffected by the carnage.
For many Afghans, it was an embodiment of how normal the daily violence has become – where it fails to provoke a response from a tired public.
“We are exhausted from reacting to violence,” one comment on the photo read.