‘I am both your father and your mother’, Afghan husbands mourn wives killed in maternity clinic attack

Families devastated by the sudden loss tell Stefanie Glinski about life in the aftermath of the brutal attack that killed 24, including newborns and mothers who had just given birth

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It was mid-morning when Ahmed Reza’s phone rang, his wife’s voice on the other end shaky, fearful.

“The hospital was attacked,” Rokaia, 34, whispered from the clinic where she had given birth; her words broken, the sound of gunfire in the background.

Mr Reza’s stomach turned, as, trying to keep his calm, he uttered a few encouraging words. “Find a place to hide, I’m coming there.” She reassured him she’d try and hung up. It was the last time he would ever hear from his wife.

On May 12, gunmen dressed in police uniforms stormed a maternity clinic in western Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood, killing 24 people – including newborn babies and 16 mothers who had just given birth – and injuring a further 20.

While no militant group has claimed the attack, the US’s special representative Zalmay Khalilzad blamed ISIS; and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani ordered his defence forces to take up an “active defensive” position against all militants - including the Taliban.

Less than two weeks after the attack, ahead of the Islamic holiday of Eid Al Fitr, Mr Reza, 34 and now a father of six, says there is nothing to celebrate this year. He sits in the family’s small compound, a single room adjunct to a garden, cradling Abbas, who had been born in the clinic just a few days before the attack.

“He wasn’t strong enough to go home right away, so the doctors kept him and Rokaia at the hospital for several days. At the day of the attack, as soon as I got to the clinic, I tried to push my way in, hoping I could somehow save my family,” Mr Reza admitted quietly.

He brought his wife home that night around iftar time, her lifeless body wrapped in bags and blankets, put to rest on a green hillside overlooking Kabul the next morning.

“At the morgue, they told me that I could take the body home if I could recognise it. It was my first time seeing dead bodies and the image will stay with me forever. They were all mutilated,” he remembered. While he told his older children, who are between seven and 14 years old, what had happened, he wasn’t quite sure how to explain the attack to his two-year-old daughter Fereshta.

“At night, she screams and cries, calling for her mother,” Mr Reza admitted, his voice dropping. “I don’t know what to do. We tell her mum is still at the hospital, and I even make pretend phone calls to my wife to calm Fereshta down. I don’t know how long we can keep it up, but how do you tell a toddler that her mother has been brutally shot?”

Ahmed Reza, 34, holds his son Abbas at his home in the western outskirts of Kabul, a place of relative calm and safety. His wife Rokaia has been brutally killed in the attack on the maternity ward in Dasht-e-Barchi.
Ahmed Reza, 34, holds his son Abbas at his home in Kabul. His wife Rokaia was killed in the attack on the maternity ward in Dasht-e-Barchi. Stefanie Glinski for The National

Living in a Kabul suburb, the family had enjoyed relative peace. "My wife," Mr Reza said, "has never seen the war before and neither had my children. We've lived a quiet life."
Throughout Afghanistan, violence has picked up over recent weeks, casting doubts on the US-Taliban agreement towards peace, signed in February, and raising concerns about plans for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The Taliban’s leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, said the group remained committed to the deal, urging the US "not to waste" the opportunity to end America’s longest war. Yet attacks throughout the country have peaked, and civilian casualties have risen since the deal was signed.

United Nations figures indicate a trend towards escalating civilian casualties in April from operations conducted by both the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANDSF). “There is also grave concern about levels of violence in the first half of May, including recent attacks claimed by Islamic State-Khorasan Province,” their statement said.

Civilian casualties attributed to the Taliban were up by 25 per cent in April compared to last year; while ANDSF civilian casualties were up 38 per cent in the same timeframe.

Agha Gul, a 35-year-old father of five, sits in the living room of his Dasht-e-Barchi home, a photo of his murdered wife already put up on the shelf, the shiny frame squeezed in between the family’s belongings, as if it had been sitting there for a long while. But it is recent and new, just as the pain written on the family’s faces. In the photo, taken a few years ago, Soraya’s head is covered with a black scarf, her expression relaxed and kind.

Agha Gul, a 35-year-old father holds his newborn daughter Zahra. Now I am both your father and your mother," he told her.
Agha Gul, a 35-year-old father holds his newborn daughter Zahra at their home in the Dasht-e-Barchi home. Stefanie Glinski for The National

But it is a more recent image of the 30-year-old mother that had involuntarily made it into the family’s minds; one that Mr Gul had even taken a photo of with his mobile phone, as a sort of proof, a sort of documentation, he said: Soraya riddled with bullets to the head and stomach, severely disfiguring her appearance.

She had been brutally killed in the hospital attack, just hours after giving birth to her daughter Zahra. The newborn survived, evacuated from the hospital by armed uniformed soldiers, carefully carrying the new life.

“I found Soraya at the morgue after searching every possible hospital in the city,” Mr Gul said. “I brought her home so the children could see their mother. The body stayed with us that night and we buried her in the morning. My children have been quiet and in shock; I don’t know what the image did to them.”

Soraya, who gave birth the night before the attack, had been the family’s breadwinner, working in the army’s logistical department. She had gone to her office until just a few weeks before giving birth. “She was independent and strong,” Mr Gul said. “She worked to protect her country and family from terrorists. Now she was killed by them.”

The family’s savings, allocated for Eid Al Fitr celebrations, have been spent on Soraya’s funeral, but anyway, Mr Gul said, there was nothing much to celebrate this year. In recent weeks, there hasn’t been a quiet day in the capital Kabul, with targeted killings and countless smaller explosions interrupting daily life.

Mr Gul’s family sits together quietly in their living room, a small carpeted room with thick cushions, the sound of busy traffic nearby.

Holding his newborn in his arms, Mr Gul sits by the window where warm rays of sunlight enter the room.

“Zahra, my daughter,” he said, kissing her gently. “Now I am both your father and your mother.”