As It Happens·Q&A

Afghanistan's Hazaras gripped by grief and fear after deadly attack on schoolgirls

The victims of a deadly bombing in Kabul on Saturday were mostly young, impoverished schoolgirls from the minority Hazara community, working to build a better future for themselves and their families, says a local human rights activist.

The Hazara community, an ethnic Shia minority, has repeatedly been targeted by extremists

Schoolgirls hold flowers as they arrive at a hospital on Monday to visit students who were injured in a car bomb blast outside a school in Kabul. (Reuters)

Story Transcript

The victims of a deadly bombing in Kabul on Saturday were mostly young, impoverished schoolgirls from the minority Hazara community, working to build a better future for themselves and their families, says a local human rights activist.

Dozens of people, most of them girls aged 11 to 15, were killed on Saturday in a bomb attack outside the Sayed Al-Shuhada school in Afghanistan's capital city. The death toll is still climbing as families scramble to find their missing daughters. As of Monday, at least 85 people were confirmed dead, according to the Washington Post and CNN.

The government has blamed Taliban insurgents, but a spokesperson for the group denied involvement and condemned any attacks on Afghan civilians.

The explosions went off in the city's Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood, home to a large community of Shias from the Hazara ethnic minority, which has been targeted by armed extremists several times before. 

Jawad Zawulistani, a Hazara activist with the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what he calls "a systematic campaign" of violence against his community. Here is part of their conversation.

These girls, young schoolgirls with their lives ahead of them, and so many of them now dead. What does that loss represent to their community and to your community?

I think it's very difficult for the families to cope with the loss of their hopes, with the loss of their young girls, young children in whom they had invested so much hope.

The girls who were killed in that attack and the community, their school, is one of the most impoverished communities in Afghanistan….  Most of their family members are daily wage workers … and they were maybe the only children of that family who were going to school to get educated for the first time.

Their fathers, their parents, had very big hopes in them and that their daughters would be educated and they would see a better day, a better experience, have a better life than their parents.

So the magnitude of the pain, the magnitude of the suffering of the community, is unimaginable. I cannot say how deep their suffering and how powerful and how painful their sorrow is after this attack.

And it happens in continuation of dozens of more attacks [on the Hazara community], as I said, starting from 2015…. But, unfortunately, no measure has been taken to protect the community and no redress mechanism has been put in place to at least provide a sense of healing for the community and a sense of protection for the community.

Afghans go through belongings left behind after deadly bombings on Saturday near a school in Kabul. In this picture, someone holds what appears to be a school book riddled with holes. (Mariam Zuhaib/The Associated Press)

The way this attack took place, it was clearly designed to have the maximum results, the maximum number of casualties among these children. Can you tell us a bit about how this was executed?

As reported by the police and by the local residents, first, a car bomb exploded in front of the gate of Syed Al-Shahada high school while the girls were leaving their classes and getting out of the school. And then two IED explosions followed the car bomb attack. And some of the people were the first responders who rushed to the scene to help the victims of the first explosion, and they fell victim to the following IED explosions, too.

And the sad thing was that according to the community members who were there on the scene, for several hours, there [was] no one to help them. Police arrived on the scene two hours after the incident took place, and the ambulances came even after that. 

When the explosions happened, people took the injured and the dead on their shoulders, on the taxis and on the motorcycles, on the bicycles available there, to take them to a nearby hospital or a centre where they could be attended to.

Ruqia Bakhshi, 14, one of the students who was injured in a car bomb blast outside a school, on Saturday, receives treatment at a hospital in Kabul. (Reuters)

You can only just imagine how terrifying that must have been for those girls leaving that high school and trying to escape these attacks. For them, for their families, this is just so shattering, isn't it?

Of course, it is so shattering, the incident itself, the magnitude of the attack, and the number of people it killed, the number of dreams it shattered.But also, in addition to that, the bigger pain is that they are coming from the most impoverished segments of the Afghanistan society, who most of the families even do not have enough money to treat their children who are lying on hospital beds.

We have lost the count of victims in these incidents and attacks. But no security has been provided- Jawad Zawulistani, Hazara human rights activist 

Also, it is a very traumatizing and damaging experience to look after the dead or the injured ones after an incident happened in Kabul. They search every hospital, bed by bed. The mothers go to the morgue to find and to identify the dead bodies of their daughters. And in a lot of cases ... in such attacks, a lot of people get so disfigured, so, so burned, that it's very difficult for their family members to identify them.

This was not the first attack, even in recent times, on the Hazara community near Kabul. You've had another school where 30 people were killed. That unbelievable attack on the maternity hospital that killed the mothers and their babies as well.… Do you feel that you are getting the support from the Afghan forces? 

If they were able or willing to provide protection for the community, we would not have seen so much pain. We would not have seen so much bloodshed and slaughtering of our children.

That is one of the main reasons that the community members, the victims [and] survivors, believe that … the Afghan government is intentionally ignoring their demands and is being indifferent to their suffering. And that's why their demands for protection always remain unheard.

We have lost the count of the incidents. We have lost the count of victims in these incidents and attacks. But no security has been provided. 

Roses are placed near the site of the deadly attack in memory of the more than 85 people killed, most of them girls aged 11 to 15. (Mariam Zuhaib/The Associated Press)

There are a number of Hazara leaders who are suggesting that because you don't seem to get any support from the central government or from the security forces, that the community itself should take up arms and defend itself. Is that the right approach?

The community members are full of anger and despair, and they are in a very desperate situation. So in such a situation, they can resort to anything.

But I personally believe that that is not the solution. If the community resorts to self-protection, then what's the government for? What are the security forces for? What's this very detailed security apparatus, police apparatus, for?

The community has been always demanding that they should be represented in the security sector [by someone] who understands their needs, who understands their demands and who [is] familiar with their vulnerabilities. 

The Hazara community that [is] a minority, and a persecuted minority, in Afghanistan was somewhat protected by the existence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They are now going to leave September the 11th. What is your biggest fear as to what is to come in these next weeks and months?

I have to first clarify that they were not there to protect the Hazaras. But the international presence in Afghanistan provided or enabled an environment where the Hazaras had a relative sense of security and protection.

But with the international forces leaving Afghanistan and the international presence withdrawing in Afghanistan, that sense is not there. 

They leave a situation behind that [has] not only Hazaras, but everyone feel[ing] frightened... They are fearing for the gains they have made. Hazaras, Afghan women in general, they are fearing that they would be more at risk, that they will be more exposed to attacks by the Taliban and by other extremist groups in the country.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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