KABUL, Afghanistan — One by one they brought the girls up the steep hill, shrouded bodies covered in a ceremonial prayer cloth, the pallbearers staring into the distance. Shouted prayers for the dead broke the silence.
The bodies kept coming and the gravediggers stayed busy, straining in the hot sun. The ceaseless rhythm was grim proof of the preceding day’s news: Saturday afternoon’s triple bombing at a local school had been an absolute massacre, targeting girls. There was barely room atop the steeply pitched hill for all the new graves.
The scale of the killing and the innocence of the victims seemed further unnerving proof of the country’s violent unraveling, as the Taliban make daily gains and the government seems unable to halt their advances or protect its people from mass killings. On Sunday there were mourners everywhere in the neighborhood of the bombing, home to the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, but hardly any security to protect them.
The death toll exceeded even previous massacres in this bustling neighborhood of a minority long singled out for persecution by the Taliban and, in recent years, the Islamic State. Afghanistan’s second vice president, Sarwar Danesh, himself a Hazara, said more than 80 people had been killed in the attack.
After the 2001 American invasion, the Hazaras were a minority that made the most of the country’s new educational and business opportunities, and they make up a large part of the country’s young technocrat generation. But through it all, the predominately Shiite Muslim group became a target of choice for Sunni militants like the new Taliban insurgency and ISIS.
They have grown increasingly angry at the government, accusing the security forces of standing by while they suffer horrific casualties. Now, on the edge of what many fear will become a return of Taliban rule in many areas with the planned American troop withdrawal, and a new civil war some see as inevitable, the Hazara are increasingly determined to take their security into their own hands.
On Sunday, a wheelbarrow stacked with the bloodied clothing of the girls, packed tight in plastic bags, was parked outside one mosque where bodies had been brought. At another mosque, a basement room, crowded with black-robed women, echoed with muffled sobs. At a third mosque grim-faced men clustered on the steps, murmuring about taking up guns and joining forces with a Hazara warlord named Abdul Ghani Alipur, who is on the run from the government.
Outside the metal gates of the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School, twisted by the blast, the remains of the girls’ final moments — shredded backpacks, charred notebooks, crushed slippers, loose pages of notes — were piled in a pit, pored over by silent onlookers.
All over the Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood Sunday, grieving families of Hazara buried their daughters, ages 11 to 18. Streams of mourners snaked up the area’s hills. The air was filled with laments for the dead sounding from mosques. Some girls were so badly disfigured by the blasts they could not be identified Sunday.
There was the fear that the massacre was just a prelude.
“We can’t do anything but mourn,” said Jawed Hassani, a shopkeeper, outside the Imam Ali mosque. He said: “We supported the government, but all we get in return is being blown up. These girls, they came from working-class families. They don’t have anything.”
Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
The government blamed the Taliban, which denied any role. The Taliban, however, continually target the Hazaras for violent persecution. And they have a record of opposing education for girls, especially teenage girls. But some analysts blamed the remnants of renegade Taliban who once claimed allegiance to ISIS.
Whoever was responsible, they appear to have taken pains to kill as many of the girls as possible.
First, a suicide bomber blew up a car full of explosives at the school gates. As the students, all girls at that hour, rushed out of the mixed-gender school in panic and into the neighborhood of dusty streets, two more bombs went off, killing even more. Nearly all the victims were girls.
“Yesterday their dreams were shattered,” said Ghulam, a day laborer, preparing to mourn at the Qamar-e-Bani Hashim Mosque.
“Today we are going to bury them with thousands of dreams,” he said. “That is one of the poorest schools in the neighborhood. Those girls don’t even have 15 cents to buy bread.”
For the Hazaras of sprawling Dasht-e Barchi, home to over one million people, the precise identity of the killers didn’t seem to matter all that much Sunday. Their faces bore the minority’s resigned look of perennial persecution. They noted bitterly that, over an hour after Saturday’s attack, it was difficult to spot a single member of the security forces in the school’s vicinity.
And they cited many of the other attacks they had been subjected to, and the government’s repeated failure to protect them.
“We get blown up on the street, in the mosque, in the hospital, at the wrestling club, everywhere,” said Kazim Ehsani, the imam of the Qamar-e-Bani Hashim Mosque. “And yesterday when the attack happened, there wasn’t even one police officer,” he said. “Now, there’s a crowd, and there isn’t even one security officer,” the imam said.
“People are collecting their loved ones’ bodies,” he said. “We are in shock. Everybody is terrified.”
Everybody here can easily run down the litany of attacks the Hazaras of Dasht-e Barchi have suffered over the years.
“We haven’t committed any crimes, and now it’s happened to us again,” said Mohammed Hakim Imon, one of the mourners.
“Why do we deserve to die?” he asked. “The people who commit these crimes, they are the enemies of humanity.”
There was last October’s attack outside an educational center that killed 30, and the May 2020 attack on a hospital maternity ward in which 15 women were killed, both tied to Islamic State. There was the September 2018 attack on a wrestling club that killed 20, the school attack that August in which 34 students were killed, and the 2017 mosque bombing in which 39 died. Not to mention the massacres of Hazara in the civil war-torn Kabul of the early 1990s by the forces of warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and his ally, Ahmad Shah Massoud, now revered — not by Hazaras — as a national hero.
The absence of government security forces Sunday, even though funerals are often targeted by the extremists, prompted some to say that the community could rely only on itself.
“If we want to protect ourselves, men and women should pick up guns,” said Ghulam, the day laborer.
The attack “compels Hazaras to pick up guns and defend themselves,” said Arif Rahmani, a Hazara member of Parliament. “Whether the government likes it not, people will stand up and provide themselves with their own security,” he said. “Hazaras will have to make their own decisions,” he said. “There will be gunmen on every corner and street of their neighborhoods.”
Outside the school Sunday a crowd surrounded an elderly man shouting, “God, please help us!” A man listening said: “The only option is to take up guns. We just buried an 11-year-old girl. What is her crime?”
The man, Qasim Hassani, a vendor, continued: “If the government doesn’t stop these terrorists from coming into our neighborhoods, we will do it. Today I am just a vendor. But if they keep pushing, I will be the next Alipur.”
President Ashraf Ghani proclaimed Tuesday a national day of mourning for the victims.
The blast was so powerful it shattered the windows of stores a considerable distance down the street.
“It’s terrifying,” said Naugiz Almadi, a mother clutching her young daughter outside the school. “Hazaras have nothing to protect them. Only God.”
Fatima Faizi contributed reporting.