KABUL — There were mostly girls in the educational center, many because they were barred from attending school by the Taliban. They wanted to become doctors, journalists, and engineers.
They arrived on a weekend morning to take a practice college entrance exam in a crowded hall, determined to overcome the massive barriers now facing Afghan women.
That’s when the suicide bomber struck.
At least 19 students were killed and 27 injured, according to Taliban authorities, in the Friday morning blast in Kabul’s Dasht-i-Barchi neighborhood, mostly teenage girls and women in their early 20s. Interviews with community leaders, hospital workers, and eyewitnesses suggest the toll is likely higher.
‘’They want to stall progress and knowledge,’’ said Abdul, referring to the attackers. He spoke minutes before leaving for the cemetery to bury his 21-year-old daughter, Fatima.
An hour earlier, employees at a hospital near the attack site had wheeled her body on a gurney into an ambulance heading to the morgue. She was still wearing her maroon-colored traditional garb, her arms falling lifelessly from the white sheet that barely covered her.
Her mother wailed as she stepped into the ambulance and gently caressed her daughter’s head. Abdul followed her inside, his eyes red with tears.
‘’She wanted to be a teacher,’’ said Abdul, who like many Afghans uses one name. ‘’She worked and studied hard. She was a good person.’’
While violence has dropped dramatically around the country since the Taliban takeover and the withdrawal of the US-led coalition last August, the country’s new rulers have been unable to thwart numerous bombings, including a deadly one on a mosque in Kabul last Friday.
No group has claimed responsibility yet for the attack on the Kaaj Higher Educational Center, but it bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghanistan and Pakistan arm of the Islamic State, or ISIS-K.
Most of those killed and injured Friday were ethnic Hazaras, a Shiite Muslim minority who have been targeted repeatedly by Sunni militants over the years.
In April, a pair of blasts struck outside a high school in Dasht-i-Barchi, killing six people, mostly teenage boys. Another school nearby was attacked in May 2021, killing at least 85 people, again mostly students. In May 2020, a maternity hospital in the same neighborhood was the scene of a horrific assault that left 16 dead, including newborns.
ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for 13 attacks against Hazaras and is linked to three more since the Taliban takeover, killing and injuring at least 700, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
‘’The Taliban authorities have done little to protect these communities from suicide bombings and other unlawful attacks or to provide medical care and other assistance to victims and their families,’’ the watchdog group said.
On Friday morning, Taliban officials were swift to condemn the bombing. Government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid described the attack as a ‘’barbaric act’' and extended his condolences to the bereaved families, assuring them that ‘’strict action will be taken against the perpetrators.’’
Between 300 to 400 students had arrived around 6:30 a.m. Friday to take the practice college entrance exam, which the Kaaj Center specialized in. The girls were divided from the boys in a large hall, as required by the Taliban.
While the Taliban have barred girls above sixth grade from attending school, it has allowed them to continue attending private educational centers. The courses are roughly $40 a semester, an enormous sum for most Afghan families.
‘’Girls were not allowed to go to school after grade six, so they would try to improve their English here,’’ said a senior community leader in the neighborhood, who didn’t want his name used because the Taliban had warned him not to speak to the media.
At around 7 a.m., gunmen stormed into the center and killed the guards. Then, the suicide bomber detonated himself in the hall, apparently near the girls’ section.
‘’I saw bodies being taken out and put in cars to be taken to hospitals,’’ said one man who lived 50 feet from the Kaaj Center and ran to it when he heard the explosion. ‘’Most of the students had blood on their bodies. Most of the victims were girls.’’
As he spoke near a side street leading to the school, a group of heavily armed Taliban fighters in camouflage arrived. The man jumped on his bicycle and fled in fear. The fighters went door to door, entering homes in an apparent search for collaborators.
But few Hazaras expect the Taliban to find the perpetrators, or to stop future attacks.
‘’They are torturing us in a cage,’’ said one Hazara man, staring at the Taliban fighters as they barged into homes. ‘’I wish I was not Muslim.’’
‘’This is like pouring salt on our wounds,’’ said another Hazara man, as he stood near Taliban fighters who had sealed off the road to the Kaaj Center.
After watching the body of her friend Hosniya, 19, get placed in an ambulance, Magul Rafi, 26, remembered her courage. Hosniya decided to leave her village in Ghazni province to seek an education in Kabul, even after the Taliban took over.
She studied mathematics and history at the Kaaj Center in the hope that a college education — which the Taliban, at least for now, has not banned for women — would offer her a new life. She was full of optimism.
‘’We are all not alive,’’ said Rafi, about living as a woman under the Taliban. ‘’It’s like being in prison.’’