By Ali Mirzad. Published on May 17, 2021 11:03am
Earlier this month, bombs once again hit the Dasht-e-Barchi area of western Kabul, this time targeting the Sayed Al-Shuhada all-girls school. The aftershock of the three blasts in the Afghan capital could be felt across the Atlantic by Hazara-Canadians. And whenever a bomb goes off back home, Hazaras here in Canada brace for the worst.
Zahra Nader — a PhD student in gender, feminist, and women’s studies at Toronto’s York University, and a former New York Times journalist — fled her native home in 2017 due to mounting dangers she faced as a Hazara, a woman, and a female reporter. On May 8, her phone suddenly lit up; within minutes, she was getting Facebook alerts about the bombing. Shukriah Hussini, Nader’s 17-year-old niece, was a student at the targeted school.
Last week, I caught up with Nader and asked her to describe that terrible day.
“I called my sisters incessantly,” Nader said. “I knew my sister-in-law is a teacher in that school, and my niece studies there. They weren’t picking up. My anxiety was rising by (the) minute.”
Those minutes turned into the longest half hour Nader has ever lived. Feeling the full weight of every passing second, she kept trying to connect with her loved ones back home. After what felt like 30 hours, not 30 minutes, she finally learned that her niece survived the horrific attack. Her sisters told her: “We are all fine, (but) we don’t have electricity; the Taliban has blown up an electricity pylon.”
Nader continued: “I was terrified and worried for my family, and couldn’t stop thinking about other families. … I thought about students who will never return home, and of mothers who must bear that pain. As a mother, that thought was choking me. It was like a pain in my throat that didn’t go away with a silent cry; I needed to sob. So I spent the afternoon sobbing at a nearby creek.”
The principal of the girls’ school that was attacked, Aqeela Tawakoli, told a local news reporter that, before the bombs went off, security officials from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior Affairs showed up to do a security sweep of the school.
They asked how many guards the school had, and the location of its security cameras. Tawakoli said: “I was surprised by their questions, and told them we are a public school with no funding. Where would we get the budget for guards and cameras?”
Hours later, a huge car bomb tore apart the school’s structure, shooting projectiles of human flesh and furniture through classroom windows. As students rushed to the exit doors in panic, the perpetrators detonated two additional bombs to inflict maximum damage. Although initial reports capped the death toll at 27, it has now been confirmed that 94 girls — aged 8 to 17 — died, and 165 students were critically wounded.
Mohammad Taqi, the father of one of the few survivors, said his daughter has gone deaf, suffers mentally, and doesn’t recognize him anymore. Mohammad Baqir, one of the first civilians who rushed to the scene, reported, “When I got there, all I could see was burned bodies and piles of mutilated and headless cadavers of little girls. Some didn’t have hands. Others were cut limb from limb.”
Dasht-e-Barchi is located in the slums of Kabul. Loosely translated as the Desert of Barchi, it’s a gladiator’s arena where, every day, nearly one million Hazaras try to survive. If unsanitary sewage systems and a lack of running water and electricity don’t end up killing them, atrocities like this recent terror attack will finish the job.
This isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, heinous attack on the Hazaras. In October, 24 Hazara students were killed at the Kawsar education centre. Last May, Hazara newborns — still in their incubators — were killed in an attack on a maternity ward managed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). A month later, MSF announced it was closing the ward permanently, mainly because of security threats to its staff and patients.
A Shia Muslim ethnic minority, Hazaras have long been considered infidel heretics, a crime for which they’ve endured over 150 years of physical, mental, and psychological abuse. In the late 18th century, by way of dictator Abdul Rahman Khan’s genocidal campaign, a vast number of Hazaras were slaughtered; many thousands more were forcefully displaced and enslaved. In the 1990s under Taliban rule, Hazaras were the subject of yet another series of ethnic-cleansing campaigns. It’s estimated that as many as 8,000 were rounded up and butchered by the Taliban in the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Bamiyan.
The last two decades have proven to the Hazaras that they will never be safe. Now they must brace themselves again for the Taliban’s return, compliments of a U.S.-imposed peace deal. As part of that deal, President Joe Biden declared that the U.S. military will withdraw completely from Afghanistan by September of this year — the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
As one of America’s biggest allies and trade partners, Canada has wholeheartedly participated in the U.S. war against the Taliban. A total of 158 of our men and women in uniform died while fighting bravely to oust the Taliban. The Canadian government has sent $3.6 billion in aid to Afghanistan.
Now that the Taliban is being ushered back in, Canadian foreign policy can no longer exist in the shadow of American policy. As a champion of human and women’s rights, Canada must define its own focus and purpose in the face of renewed Taliban rule. It must state clearly how it will ensure that Nader’s niece, and the millions of other Hazaras, are not killed tomorrow.
Ali Mirzad is an Ottawa-based human-rights activist with Canadian-Hazara Humanitarian Services.