Kabul reels in grief after wedding hall attack

People crowded Afghanistan's hospitals, waiting for news on their loved ones

epa07180753 A view of the destruction at the scene of the suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, 21 November 2018. A suicide bombing on 20 November at a hall in Kabul where hundreds of religious scholars had gathered to commemorate the Prophet Muhammad's birthday left at least 50 people dead and more than 70 others wounded.  EPA/HEDAYATULLAH AMID
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The Uranus Wedding Hall in Kabul, a large structure with bright neon lights, sits amidst a line of equally colourful and vibrant buildings, facing the highway that leads to Kabul airport.

The buildings' bright and flashy exteriors, often accentuated by neon artwork and replicated of the Eiffel Tower or the Burj Khalifa among others, are a symbolic reminder of Afghan celebrations — grand and lavish. Built on 6,000 square meters of land, its halls can hold up to 1,300 guests.

The government has in the past made attempts, with little success, to bring under control the show of splendour associated with Afghan weddings, including such halls.

On Tuesday, however, the staff at Uranus were hosting a birthday, not a wedding.

A large congregation of religious leaders, scholars and worshippers of the Sufi sect of Islam in Afghanistan had gathered to mark the anniversary of the birth of Prophet Mohammad.

Among them was 11-year-old Mohammad Idrees, a young student with a keen interest in the faith of his forefathers, who had accompanied his father Qari Nek Mohammad for an evening of prayers and Quran recitals.

Young Idrees and his fellow worshippers joined in the recitation of the Quran, filling the crowded hall with ongoing prayer symphonies - until a large explosion ripped through the congregation, followed by chaos and fearful screams.

A suicide bomber detonated his vest resulting in at least 52 deaths and 83 injured.

"Around 6.30 we heard about the explosion which Idrees and his uncle were attending. Our friends who were closer rushed to the site of the attack. They brought several bodies and injured including my nephew, to the hospitals," Idrees' uncle, Hekmatullah, 25, told The National. He hadn't left the hospital premise in nearly 24 hours, waiting for news on his brother and nephew fighting for their lives in the ICU ward.

It is estimated that close to 1,000 people were attending the religious event at the time of the attack.

While no one has claimed the responsibility of this attack, the Taliban did condemn it on Tuesday evening. However, the Taliban have in past targeted religious scholars who have criticised their violent methods. A similar attack on religious scholars in Kabul in June killed eight people, and injured several others.

Afghan security officials, however, say the attack was planned and executed by the relatively new ISIS insurgency in Afghanistan, that has over the past year conducted several attacks with high civilian casualties.

It is also speculated that the gathering was targeted owing to the large number of Sufi followers in attendance, including Maulavi Rehan, a prominent religious scholar who has in the past received threats from various groups. The families of survivors are certain that the attack was conducted by ISIS - known for targeting religious groups that do not comply with their strict interpretation of Sharia.

“[Idrees] was there to participate in the prayers for Milad-ul-Nabi, but certain Wahhabi groups like Daesh are against our practices and can’t tolerate our celebrations, which is why they target a holy gathering,” he said, adding that the entire belief system of ISIS is against the Islamic sharia. “This is not the first time they have attacked innocent people,” he said.

ISIS has increased its attack in Afghanistan in the past year, resulting in over 1,300 deaths and injuries—25 per cent of the total civilian casualties, specifically targeting minority groups such as repeated attacks on Shia Hazaras and Hindu Sikhs in July.

But not everyone attending the gathering was a Sufi follower.

Thirty-six year old Abdul Jamil's brother, engineer Shafiq, attended the event with the intention of praying and celebrating alongside the many religious scholars. "We are not Sufis, but that does not matter anymore. These are the enemies of Afghanistan who want to divide us," he told The National. "So many families lost their loved ones yesterday. I am also so afraid for my brother; he is very dear to me," Mr Jamil said choking back tears. Shafiq was hit by pieces of flying shrapnel in his stomach and liver and sustained heavy internal bleeding. "He hasn't gained consciousness yet, but we are praying and hopeful," he added.

Mr Jamil criticised the government for not ensuring proper security for the event, despite past experiences. “We are an Islamic nation and if they can’t secure religious gatherings of Islamic scholars and worshippers, perhaps they should hand over the government to someone who can,” he said.

Both Idrees and Shafiq are still in the ICU ward of the Emergency War and Trauma Hospital, recovering slowly.

“The doctors are hopeful that his condition will improve,” Hekmatullah informed of Idress. “This incident will not waiver our faith. If anything, and as far as I know Idrees, this will bring him closer to his religion,” he said. Agreeing with Hekmatullah, Jalil added, “We can’t stop attending prayers and religious gatherings because of the fear of attacks. This is our way of life now; we are always under attack.”