Deadly school attacks cast dark shadow over HE aspirations

A devastated girls’ school has been swiftly rebuilt in a relegated corner of the Afghan capital Kabul after a brazen terrorist attack this month, but the scars and fears sustained by the female students aspiring for higher education remain unhealed.

Terrified by a spate of unclaimed deadly assaults aimed at academic institutions, teachers and students, the youth see their education under attack in Afghanistan.

The 8 May assault in front of the Sayed Al-Shuhada girls’ school in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul, an area populated mainly by the Hazara minority, left 85 dead – many of them schoolgirls – and 147 injured when a car bomb was detonated and two more bombs exploded. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission described the attack as a “horrific massacre”.

Earlier, on 30 April, at least 25 students were killed in Logar province, allegedly by the Taliban, in a car bombing that targeted a hostel where they were preparing for their university entrance test. However, the Taliban did not claim or reject involvement in either of the attacks.

Afghanistan has witnessed a spike in deadly Taliban assaults across the country that has led to mounting casualties on all sides.

Fears of a deteriorating security situation and its effect on education have risen since the announcement of an exit date of September 2021 for American troops by United States President Joe Biden, which some fear could lead to a return of the Taliban. The formal withdrawal of US troops began on 1 May.

“In many contexts, access to education is particularly harsh for girls for economic and cultural reasons, but also for security reasons of which the recent attack in Afghanistan is only one latest tragic example,” said Virginia Gamba, UN special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict, and Najat Maalla M’jid, UN special representative on violence against children, in a joint statement on 12 May.

“If you remember and connect the dots between the previous terrorist attacks on tuition centres as well as teachers and students in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul, you would realise this is no less than systematic assassination of an academic and educated class in Afghanistan,” Maryam Mehtar, a leading ethnic Hazara social activist and journalist, told University World News.

The terrorists seem unable and unwilling to reconcile with the modern realities of Afghanistan where girls and women have the chance to study and excel, she said.

“I, like all Afghans wishing to have our children receive education without any fear of being attacked, am frightened by the prevailing situation,” she added.

“Escaping the country out of fear is a bitter option, but only available to few, select people who have the financial means. So many with that luxury have opted for that, but that’s not the solution for young girls of poor families who are eager to get educated in Afghanistan.”

Nation in mourning

Afghanistan observed a national day of mourning on 11 May to express grief over the killing of more than 100 boys and girls in the two separate terrorist attacks. The national flag at all public offices in the country and diplomatic missions around the world was at half-mast.

“I declare a day of national mourning on Tuesday this week in honour of the martyrs of the terrorist attacks on innocent students in Logar and on innocent students in Kabul. Fatiha and Dua [prayer] ceremonies will be held in all government institutions and provinces, all mosques and prayer halls and in foreign missions of the country,” said President Ashraf Ghani in a televised address at the time.

The back-to-back explosions took place as students were leaving for home at around 4:30pm local time. According to Afghan officials, the first explosion was a car bomb and then two bombs placed near the entrance of the school ripped through the crowd of young girls during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

The list of victims obtained by University World News suggests that among those killed in cold blood were some of the school’s brightest students aspiring to become future doctors, scientists and social workers in the country.

One was 15-year-old Aqeela, who wished to become a doctor, her father Mohammad Amin, a father of four, told University World News: “I migrated from Bamyan to Kabul eight years ago in the hope of better higher education and a secure life for my family, particularly my daughters.”

Videos circulating on social media showed utter carnage at the site of the blasts as schoolgirls splattered with blood were heard screaming for help.

Wrapped in white sheets, bodies of mostly young girls wearing black school uniforms were lying on the ground of the Emergency Hospital before the mourners gathered strength to carry them back home for burial.

Shocked parents and siblings burst into tears on hearing news of yet another schoolgirl losing the long battle for life at the city’s Emergency Hospital. One by one the small coffins emerged from the building amid the cries of those anxiously waiting in hope of recovering their loved ones.

“What was her fault?” shouted Ali Reza, a relative of a young girl named Noorya who was pronounced dead after succumbing to her wounds.

Young students caught up in war

Alam Jan, a leading academic figure from Logar and a researcher at the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan, told University World News it was appalling to see young and promising students becoming caught up in the raging war in Afghanistan.

“All of these boys who were killed in such a brazen terrorist attack were some of the brightest from a single district [Azara] in Logar and wished to seek higher education for their own welfare and for the welfare of Afghanistan,” said Jan.

A prominent Afghan woman politician, Fawzia Koofi, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament and vice-president of the National Assembly, who is engaged in intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, argued that the armed insurgency by the Taliban and their reluctance to agree to a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds have paved the way for “all forces of destruction” to cause havoc.

“The terrorists see their weapons as less powerful than the pen and copybooks of educated boys and girls. They are trying to target the soft segment of society to terrorise society and demonstrate to the international community that they have the power to target the assets and future of Afghanistan,” she told University World News.

“Only if women and girls continue to enjoy the rights and liberty to study and work can Afghanistan become a stable and democratic country,” she concluded, noting that an educated Afghanistan would be a best partner for the whole world as that way it would remain committed to common principles of education and democracy.