Kabul school attack survivors speak of determination to support children

Saturday's devastating terror attack against a school in Kabul has shocked a nation already accustomed to tragedy

People puts flowers outside a school after a deadly attack on Saturday, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 9, 2021. The Interior Ministry said Sunday that the death toll in the horrific bombing at the entrance to the girls' school in the Afghan capital has soared to some 50 people, many of them pupils between 11 and 15 years old, and the number of wounded in Saturday's attack has also climbed to more than 100. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
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Survivors of a ruthless terrorist attack in Kabul that killed dozens of children have spoken of their trauma at seeing young students maimed by at least three explosions.

They spoke of their determination that surviving children should continue their education despite the threat of terrorism, whether from ISIS or the Taliban.

The Taliban denied the attack, while ISIS, who have a small presence in Afghanistan and have conducted similar attacks, did not issue a statement.

Seeking a better life 

Abdullah, 42, a construction worker in Kabul, had been firmly against sending his daughter to go to school.

It was not that didn’t believe in education for girls.

On the contrary, he hoped his 18-year-old daughter Shukria would graduate with a top level degree and make something of herself, someday.

“But after so many attacks on education institutes, we pulled her out of school last year. But this year, despite our refusal, she insisted on rejoining her school. She was determined to continue her education,” he says.

Abdullah, who like many Afghans goes only by one name, has been looking for Shukria since 4.15pm yesterday.

Shukria was among hundreds of other students leaving the Sayedul Shuhada School in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul when a car filled with explosives detonated at the gates of the school.

Two other IEDs close by also went off shortly after, leaving nearly 53 killed, the majority of victims being school girls like Shukria. At least 100 were injured.

Whoever is behind this attack is an enemy of education and knowledge

This is the third such attack on an education institute in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood, which is predominantly populated by the Shiite Hazara ethnic minority of Afghanistan who are often persecuted by insurgent groups.

About 24 people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a private learning centre in the neighbourhood in October. In August 2018, a similar attack inside the classroom of a learning centre killed 34 students.

Saturday’s attack has been the deadliest by far, and primarily targeted school girls who were leaving the premises at the end of the afternoon lessons.

Eyewitnesses, affected families and first responders who talked to The National claimed that the casualty toll could rise much higher, saying they have counted over 80 bodies so far.

“I have looked for her everywhere. I went to the majority of Kabul’s hospitals—private, public, small clinics, home clinics, but there is no sign of her,” he says, holding back tears. “Her mother is checking in other hospitals. She has been constantly crying,” he adds.

As the death toll continues to mount, Abdullah’s hope dwindles with every passing hour.

“I saw her name on the injured list of one of the hospitals but they couldn’t locate her. I feel she may have been incinerated in the blast,” he says, breaking down at the words. “We are in so much pain right now. Apart from her, I only seek patience right now,” he says.

Shukria, her father says, was his first-born, the eldest of seven siblings, and a trailblazer in the family.

“She was a very hardworking girl,” he says fondly. Despite trying, Abdullah says he can’t help referring to her in the past tense.

“Apart from school, she attended other courses, English and painting. She really liked to paint and wanted to be a professional artist one day,” he adds with pride.

Abdullah, who has been fasting for Ramadan, hasn’t eaten in two days. He did not break his fast yesterday and did not eat sehri, an early morning meal Muslims have before starting their fasts.

“But my Shukria Jan was also fasting,” he says, when offered water and comfort.

The building of Shukria’s school, although still standing, carries the scars of the attack; shattered windows and piles of broken glass are remnants of yet another tragedy inflicted on the community.

Ms Aqila Tawakuli, the principal of the targeted school, was in the building when she heard the first two explosions. “Along with two other teachers, I ran towards the main gate to shut it so the students didn't go out. I directed the students already outside to move in the opposite direction, and that is when the third blast happened,” she said, unable to hold back her tears.

What Ms Tawakuli saw after the explosion will forever remain etched onto her mind.

Horrific aftermath 

“I saw students without limbs, bodies without a head, bodies there were burned. I saw pieces of my students scattered all around me,” she recalls, still visibly shaken from the shock and trauma.

“The two teachers with me who were helping the victims of the first two blasts were also injured in the third explosion,” she says.

While the neighbourhood has come under attacks several times in the past, the school hadn’t been threatened before, Ms Tawakuli said.

Security failures 

Incidentally, officials from the Afghan intelligence department had visited the school on the morning of the attack to enquire if the school faced any security issues. “I told them we needed more security guards. We have nearly 7,500 students and only three guards.

I requested them to provide police patrolling in the area around the time children leave the school. They told me to make a written request, but before we could do anything, we were bombed,” she said.

“Whoever is behind this attack is an enemy of education and knowledge. They don’t want these kids developing and this is not the first or the second attack. They have repeatedly attacked our [Hazara Shiite] children,” she said, her voice rising.

Abdullah held similar sentiments and blamed the government for failing to protect his daughter. “They have a hand in this; the government doesn’t want us to be educated,” he said. “How can something like this happen? How could they not notice a car with explosives parked near a crowded school or people digging the ground and placing explosives?” he questioned.

But Ms Tawakuli remained determined to soldier on, saying they planned to restart the school after Eid. “I felt so proud to see an interview with one of our students who said they won’t stop their education. They will continue going to school, and we will be here for them,” she said.