Kabul, Afghanistan – As sunset approached, Latifah was busy preparing food for her family to break their fast when she heard a loud boom echo through the sky.
The sound shook her two daughters, nine and six, who had just returned from school earlier in the day. The 28-year-old tried to calm them while rushing to the window to see what happened. She feared the worst, as Dasht-e-Barchi, the Shia neighbourhood of Kabul where she lives, has repeatedly been targeted by the ISIL (ISIS) armed group in recent years.
By the time she got to the window, she heard another blast – it seemed closer than the last. Then came the loudest, most jolting boom. The proximity of all three blasts terrified her. Her simple mud home was located only a few hundred metres from the Syed Al-Shuhada school, a girls’ school where the high school classes were just being let out.
Looking out her window, she saw people running to help the injured and killed and the billowing smoke, describing it as: “like Judgement Day had come”.
The death toll has now climbed to 58, including school girls, with more than 100 others injured.
“My heart sank. What threat could adolescent girls pose to anyone,” she asked, sitting a few metres from a mound of abandoned school books, notes, shoes and backpacks residents had piled up as a sign of what the Saturday afternoon bombing had truly targeted: education.
By Sunday morning though, the sadness had given way to anger.
More than 12 hours after the Saturday 4:30pm attack, no group, including the Taliban, had claimed responsibility. This was the second attack on Afghan students in as many weeks. Saturday’s bombing was preceded by an April 30 car bomb near a guest house where students were staying in the Eastern province of Logar. That attack also went unclaimed.
Government blamed for lack of security
Residents Al Jazeera spoke to on Sunday said the government has not done nearly enough to secure Dasht-e-Barchi, in spite of knowing it has repeatedly come under attack from forces claiming allegiance to ISIL.
Mohammad Ehsan Haidari, who works in a workshop near the site of one of the blasts, said he was appalled by the slow response of police and Intelligence forces.
“I called the police at 4:33pm, they said they are aware of what’s happening and will send cars shortly.”
Haidari and other residents in the area said it took officials at least an hour to reach the scene.
He did not wait for the police, he rushed to the scene of the first blast, believed to be an improvised explosive device (IED), and quickly took one of the injured girls to a nearby hospital. He says he saw five dead bodies – three girls, an old man and a teenage boy.
“She was just lying there unconscious; she couldn’t have been more than 14. I grabbed her and threw her in my car,” the 26-year-old told Al Jazeera.
However, with the other explosions going off – on two sides of the school and on the road leading to it – and crowds rushing to help the victims, manoeuvring his way along the dirt road leading to the main street was difficult.
“The crowds just kept growing, everyone was taking whoever they could to their homes or to the hospital,” Haidari said. All the while, he and other residents said the police, as well as the ambulance, arrived late.
Residents say the booby-trapped car, believed to be the final explosion, had been parked outside the school for several hours.
Even more infuriating, residents said, was the fact that two police headquarters were located within kilometres of the school.
Commander Naser Naderi from 13 Police district headquarters defended the police response. “The Police District did its work to the best of its ability.”
When police, intelligence and ambulances did arrive, they became the target of peoples fury.
One 20-something young man, who did not want to give his name, said he tried to stop people from smashing the ambulances’ windows, telling them to confront the police and intelligence officials instead.
Targeting of Hazaras
Some in the crowd said the attack had happened because they were Hazara, a long-persecuted group in Afghanistan, going so far as to blame President Ashraf Ghani himself for the years-long targeting of their community.
“Why wasn’t it Ghani’s kids, they’re not even here,” a woman said through tears in reference to the common criticism that many of the children of Afghanistan’s highest officials do not live in the country.
Latifah, the mother of two young girls, said whoever is behind the attack has reached their motive – keeping children from school.
“My girls cried all night last night, waking up saying, ‘Don’t send us to school, school is where you die.’”
Mirwais, a freelance electrician, came to the Emergency Hospital in Kabul’s commercial centre to donate blood. The 36-year-old was one of at least 100 people who came throughout the day on Sunday after reading about a need for plasma on a Facebook group.
He says “the enemies of national unity in Afghanistan” are to blame for the attack, but believes that government also cannot absolve itself of at least some of the blame.
Mirwais says with the current uncertainty around the peace talks and the September withdrawal of foreign forces, government leaders are “busy with their own wheeling and dealing, they’re not concerned with the Afghan people, only maintaining their status.”
“They are among the poorest people, in Barchi, living simple lives, and yet look at what they still have to face because no one is paying attention,” he told Al Jazeera.
He too invoked a common criticism of the current political elites, namely that many of their families are abroad. “What do they care, their children aren’t here and when things get bad they can just fly out with their second passports themselves.”
Many of the residents, including those who led loud chants against the government and security forces, did not want to give their names to the media, proof of their sense that their community is constantly under threat especially from forces claiming allegiance to ISIL, who have also targeted Ashoura commemorations and academic institutions frequented by members of Kabul’s Hazara ethnicity.
Saturday’s bombings come just days from the one-year anniversary of an attack on a nearby maternity ward that left at least 24 people, including new mothers, dead.
Many of the young men gathered felt that if the government was unable to protect them: “We will protect ourselves.”
However, with some warning of impending civil war following the planned September 11 withdrawal of US-led foreign forces, that prospect may scare Afghan authorities, who are already weary of ethnic militias appearing in the country in a repeat of the civil war of the 1990s.
Latifah says the youth will continue to pay the price unless something is done to secure Dasht-e-Barchi.
“Yesterday, it was really education that died in Afghanistan.”