Working in Kabul: Bomb attack on Hazara protesters

Researching Security fellow Jorrit Kamminga was working for Oxfam in Kabul during the bomb attack on Hazara protesters on 23 July 2016

Photo_Jorrit_KammingaThe day before the attack was a Friday, the first day of the Afghan ‘weekend’ and Kabul was very calm. There are always reports of security incidents but most of these are very far away from the capital or at least from the heart of the city. Late in the afternoon, I had a very positive meeting with the Commander of the Resolute Support Mission, in which we spoke about the security situation but also about the many positive developments in Afghanistan over the past years, such as the increase of interaction between civil society and the state, with more citizens now demanding good governance and access to their basic rights.

My visit to Afghanistan had almost come to an end, and knowing there was no opportunity to leave the guesthouse the day after, as the protests of the Hazara minority had already been announced a week earlier, I quickly went shopping for presents in Chicken Street. I have been coming to this famous shopping area for eleven years now and the intensive bargaining (followed by still paying too much of course) has almost become routine. I know the shops and I know where I can quickly buy what I need. With a bag with some lapis lazuli stones, some jewelry, a nicely carved wooden box and a present for an Afghan colleague who managed to arrange my working permit in no time, I went back to the Oxfam guesthouse.

The next day, Saturday, starts with the normal routine. As our Afghan colleagues have their second day off, I can stay at the guesthouse, go to the gym and have a bit more time than usual for breakfast. I meet with a few work colleagues and we talk about the protests of the Hazara ethnic minority who are demanding that Bamyan province is connected to the planned electricity transmission line. While at first glance the Hazara protests are about the provision of basic services, they are at least partly motivated by broader perceptions of systematic bias against the Hazaras. According to the first news reports, the protests are peaceful and no serious incidents are reported. The international news on TV is still dominated by the shooting in Munich and the government crackdown in Turkey. My colleagues are joking that I will be stuck in Afghanistan as my flight back through Istanbul will surely be cancelled in these circumstances.

A few hours later, Kabul is in turmoil. The suicide attack occurs in the south-western part of the city. I am in Qala-e-Fatullah, two police districts to the north. I don´t hear the blasts but a moment later there is some shooting going on in my neighborhood, apparently nothing serious but some panicking local people or tense security forces. Even here in Kabul people still get upset when such attacks happen, especially because we did not witness an attack of this scale since December 2011 when 63 (also mostly Hazaras) died in an attack on a Shia shrine. The worst part is that this attack was targeted at civilians. In contrast, while many civilians also die in Taliban attacks, the Taliban usually target a specific government or international institution.

My colleagues and I are quite shocked and watching the images of the attacks on television somehow makes it difficult to grasp that this is actually happening in the same city. At least we hear that all Afghan colleagues are safe and accounted for. At two o’clock at night, there is some further shooting in the area of the guesthouse but for the rest everything is calm.

On Sunday, the first working day of the week, most Afghan people have the day off because President Ghani has declared a national day of mourning. While I drive around Kabul in the morning, it am astonished how quickly a city can return to normal. People go about their business and it is almost as if the terrorist attack never happened. Some roads are still blocked and the Hazara community is torn between continuing their demonstrations (forbidden during the day of mourning) and calls to turn this horrific event into a nation-wide act of solidarity with the 91 people who died and the 265 who were wounded.

There is no silver lining to this tragedy. It is terrorism at its worst: cowardly striking fear into the political heart of a country where many people are working firmly towards putting an end to poverty, instability and to at least 38 years of conflict. Islamic State has claimed responsibility, which makes this their first attack in Kabul or in an urban centre for that matter. It is not clear whether the predominantly Sunni terrorist organisation was deliberately targeting Shia Hazaras, whether it was retaliation against the substantial military offensive against Islamic State that started the week before, or whether they would have exploited any big gathering in Kabul on this day. Some fear this may be the beginning of a bigger presence of the terrorist group in Afghanistan which so far has been mainly confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar. Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), as they are officially called in Afghanistan, consists mainly of former members of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) and fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). For the moment, however, the ongoing military offensive against ISKP seems to be quite successful in eastern Afghanistan, and they also face strong resistance from the Afghan Taliban.

I have a little bit of hope, therefore, that this ruthless attack might somehow play a part in putting the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban back on track. The fact that the Taliban quickly denied any responsibility for this suicide attack could maybe represent a tiny stepping stone towards peace in Afghanistan. For me personally this attack will not stop me from returning to Afghanistan. My next trip is already planned and in my current support role I will be assisting Afghan colleagues and project teams until at least March 2017. Over the years, I have experienced quite a lot of tension and turmoil in Afghanistan but this will never weigh up against all the beautiful things I have seen in this country and all the wonderful interactions I have had with Afghan people since 2005.