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Afghan Hazaras fear Taliban gains

1 July 2021 | By Pamela Constable

A mural in Kabul memorializes the scores of girls killed in a school bombing. Some could be identified only by their shoes. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

KABUL — The pair of bloodstained girls' sneakers, painted on a wall in downtown Kabul, serves as a grim reminder of the terror wrought here.

Late one afternoon in May, a triple bombing outside a large city high school in West Kabul killed 85 people and wounded over 140. Many were teenage girls who had just finished their afternoon classes. The first blast was so fierce that some bodies were burned or maimed beyond recognition. All that remained of one girl was a single sneakered foot.

Seven weeks later, the impact of the blast near Syed al-Shahda High School is still being felt across the working-class community that is home to several hundred thousand ethnic Hazaras and Shiite Muslims. Afghanistan is about 90 percent Sunni Muslim and 10 percent Shiite; almost all the Shiites are Hazara. It wasn’t only the deadly toll of the attack that reverberated so strongly, or even the fact that so many of the victims were schoolgirls. It was the cumulative burden of fear, of a message being sent repeatedly by shadowy forces who residents and community leaders say want to violently crush their aspirations to prosper. Now, as Taliban forces press hard for a military victory and U.S. forces withdraw, Hazara leaders fear their lightly policed communities will be especially vulnerable to extremist vengeance.

“They don’t want us to become educated or successful,” said Mohammed Alizada, a Hazara member of parliament who lives in Kabul. He said the group’s support for democracy and thirst for knowledge have clashed with the strict religious mores that Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State extremists seek to impose. “They want to keep their supporters ignorant, and they don’t want us to challenge them,” he said.

After the fall of Taliban rule in 2001, thousands of Hazaras, returning from exile in Iran or from havens in the north, flocked to West Kabul. They established a tightknit urban microcosm, rebuilt war-scarred mosques and shrines, opened discount stores and workshops. Over time, their religious festivals grew more grandiose and their demands for rights bolder.

But these advances were met with dozens of terrorist attacks on Shiite sites and gatherings, including bombings during the holy days known as Ashura and, in 2016, a blast during a peaceful protest that killed 80 people and wounded more than 200. Most of the attacks were blamed on the Islamic State, a fanatical anti-Shiite group, and denied by the Taliban. Some have never been claimed.

Flowers are placed outside Syed al-Shahda High School after the horrific attack in May. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

Despite these violent threats, the community’s hopes have remained centered on educating its children and arming them for professional success in the modern world. Syed al-Shahda High School, built in 2013 as a free public institution with funds donated by Japan, was a pillar of that effort. By last year, it had 14,000 pupils, studying in three shifts a day. One of them was Zahra Hussain, 18.

“My daughter was very bright. She wanted to study English and go to a top university, but we couldn’t afford to send her to private classes,” said Mohammed Hussain, a day laborer who earns about $25 a week. He enrolled Zahra in the seventh grade at al-Shahda, where she blossomed. “She was always at the top of her class, and this was her last year,” he said last week, weeping into his scarf. On May 8, Zahra and her best friend started to walk home together. They never arrived.

The bombing of al-Shahda was the latest in a series of attacks on educational and cultural institutions in West Kabul that have shaken the community and its faith in the transformative power of education. In the past two years, three private college-prep centers have been bombed, killing scores of students whose families hoped they would win entrance to a top university or a foreign scholarship.

But al-Shahda was a larger and more prominent target, and the bombing was especially shocking. Now, many parents say they fear sending their children to school at all. Last week, when the families of five victims gathered at Hussain’s house to talk about the attack, a sense of despondency filled the room. The women, draped in black, stared at the carpet. The men, fathers and brothers of dead girls, frowned or fiddled with cellphones.

Asked to describe what had happened that day, they forced themselves to relive terrible moments seared into memory: the echoing booms, the panic and confusion, the frantic searches of hospital wards and morgues, the horrors some confronted alone but could not bear to tell others about.

“We looked everywhere, but we couldn’t find her,” said Shahrbano Alizada, a gaunt, downcast woman whose daughter Fereshta, 15, died in the blasts. “Finally, the mosque loudspeaker announced they had an unclaimed girl’s body. My husband went, and he recognized the red plastic watch on her wrist, but he hoped it was a mistake. Then we all went. Her face was totally burned, and her legs were full of holes. But when I saw her shoe, I knew.”

Shahrbano Alizada, whose daughter Fereshta was killed in the school bombing, and her son Ali sit with the girl’s portrait. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

Outside the school compound last week, a single police truck guarded the parking lot. The main building was empty but sparkling like new, with classrooms freshly painted, stacks of donated books and piles of new desks in the yard. The principal, Aqaila Tawakoli, said it would reopen after the country’s covid-19 surge dies down, but she also said she was not sure how many students would return.

“Since the incident, a lot of donations have come from abroad, but I am scared to come here every day,” she said. “The teachers are scared, too, and the parents say their children have been affected mentally.” There is a proposal to build a high wall with barbed wire around the school, she said, “but that’s not enough. We are still vulnerable.”

There has also been talk about the community taking up arms to defend itself, an uneasy topic that clashes with its efforts to advance through peaceful means. Previous agreements with Kabul police have allowed armed local men to guard Shiite religious sites and festivals, but no plan has been put in place to protect schools, and police are stretched thin among crowded markets and narrow alleys.

As Taliban attacks continue to spread across rural provinces this week, thousands of Afghans have joined militias and vigilante groups to support government forces. In some of those areas, Hazaras have also begun to form armed groups. But in West Kabul, where tough militiamen fought the Taliban in the 1990s, members of a new, more educated generation are torn between keeping their heads down and preparing to defend themselves.

“Picking up a gun is the last option,” said Abdul Latif, 22, a university student whose younger sister Shafiqa, 18, was killed in the al-Shahda blasts. “We want to get an education, to vote in elections, to abide by the laws. But these terrorists want to carry out genocide against our sect, against our success. If the government can’t protect us and our families, it may be our only option.”

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