Kabul, Afghanistan – For the residents of Qalai Muslim, a small mountainside community on the edges of the capital city of Kabul, the evening of February 15 began like any other.
As the sun set and the cold winter air filled the mud and brick homes that line the neighbourhood’s unpaved roads, the residents closed their shops and prepared for dinner.
But, within hours of sunset, the silence was broken by the sound of police cars speeding towards a small field near the top of the mountains.
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Residents rushed out of their homes to see what had transpired in their little corner of Kabul. It turned out that nine people – all men, ranging from 20-somethings to middle-age – had been shot by unknown gunmen. The killings quickly made headlines in Afghanistan and abroad, based on reports that the victims were among the millions of Afghans suffering from addiction. Residents, however, vehemently deny media reports that the victims were “homeless” addicts.
Nine men, ranging from 20-somethings to middle-age were shot by unknown gunmen on February 15 in a small mountainous neighbourhood [Ali Latifi/Al Jazeera]
“Their pictures were broadcast on TV, look at them, they didn’t even look like addicts,” said Jamal, an area resident who said four of the victims were from Qalai Muslim. The 26-year-old vehemently denies the media reports that he said made their neighbourhood look like one of the many areas in the city where hundreds of addicts at a time gather to get high on heroin.
“They weren’t even podaris [heroin addicts], they were just some guys who would gather from time-to-time to smoke weed,” he said.
Other residents in the area were just as adamant in their denial of the men being heroin addicts without homes or families.
“Only one of them was single, the rest all had wives and children. They all had jobs,” said Hamid, a local store owner.
Rather than faceless addicts, who are often depicted as thieves and grifters, area residents described the victims as family men, students and even a government worker.
The media reports of the slayings of drug addicts by unknown gunmen led to a litany of rumours and conspiracies across the city. Some Kabulis feared that the men may have been connected to five police officials who were arrested on charges of drug smuggling earlier this month. “Maybe they were in on it and knew too much, so they had to be disposed of,” said Hasan, a university student who had heard about the killings on the radio. Though the Kabul government and its foreign backers often tie the Afghan drug trade to the Taliban armed group, which taxes the transportation of drugs from one area to another, Afghan officials have repeatedly been accused of involvement in the nation’s drug trade.
In 2018, Wais Ahmad Barmak, who at the time served as the Minister of Interior, confirmed that government officials were among 1,906 people arrested on charges of drug smuggling. A year earlier, the airport police chief of the western province of Herat was also detained on charges of drug smuggling.
Despite the reports and rumours, the Qalai Muslim residents say the men were victims of an increasing crime rate in the Afghan capital. Criminal records show that at least 523 people were killed as a result of violent crime in Kabul last year.
The January killing of Ali Sina Zafari, a 22-year-old student at the American University of Afghanistan, by armed robbers led to the creation of a city-wide campaign called “Kabul is not safe/peaceful”. Soon after Zafari’s killing, the hashtag #KabulIsNotSafe began trending on Afghan social media.
The two weeks leading to Zafari’s death had seen at least 70 reports of criminal activity, including armed robbery and assassinations, in the Afghan capital.
The rising crime rates even caught the attention of the current Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, who in January said: “Kabul residents are increasingly concerned about the gravity of the security situation because of the criminal incidents.”
Few days ago, I was in my car crossing Silo road. A biker shot a young man and ride away. Some people were fearfully watching the scene & some were running… dusk, darkness and the cold evening was approaching. This is how we live! #KabulIsNotSafe https://t.co/sEc3855C7X
— Shafiqa Khpalwak شفیقه خپلواک (@ShafiqaKhplwak) January 19, 2020
In complete loss of words for the loss of this young dynamic man who was robbed and then stabbed to death the previous day in Kabul. #KabulIsNotSafe pic.twitter.com/Eh63wMZvHG
— Ali Wanderlust (@ASDoosti) January 5, 2020
Police officials speaking to Al Jazeera said the deaths of the nine men were still under investigation. “We are still awaiting the autopsy results to see if they were addicts or high at the time of their deaths,” said Ferdous Faramarz, a spokesman for the Kabul Police Department.
Faramarz said that the reports of the victims being addicts probably spread because the area where the men were killed, near a series of mountainside caves, was known to be home to illicit activities and suspicious figures. Though the reports of the men’s addiction have yet to be verified, the scourge of drug addiction is quickly growing across Afghanistan as newer drugs enter local markets from Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Washington alone has so far spent more than $8.62bn on counter-narcotics efforts but there are currently at least 3.6 million people addicted to drugs in the South Asian nation.
Over the decade, the problem of drug addiction has spread far beyond heroin.
In the cities of Kabul, Kunduz and Jalalabad, mysterious multicoloured pills, adorned with the logos of international brands like Louis Vuitton, Kenzo, Coca-Cola and Red Bull, have enjoyed massive popularity among the nation’s urban youth population.
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These pills, known locally as Tablet-K, are believed to be smuggled in from across the Durand Line and the border with Tajikistan. In the southern and western provinces near the Iranian border, the past decade has seen a spike in the production, smuggling and use of crystal meth. Back in Qalai Muslim, 26-year-old Jabar does not want his community to become the new face of drug use in Kabul. “We are good people, we study, we work. We don’t deserve to be associated with such things.”
‘Horrific act’: Kabul hospital carnage shakes Afghanistan
After struggling to get pregnant for years, Zainab, 27, gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday morning at a small hospital in the southwestern corner of Kabul. She was overjoyed and named the boy Omid, meaning “hope” in Dari. At roughly 10am (05:30 GMT), an hour before she and her family were set to…
After struggling to get pregnant for years, Zainab, 27, gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday morning at a small hospital in the southwestern corner of Kabul. She was overjoyed and named the boy Omid, meaning “hope” in Dari.
At roughly 10am (05:30 GMT), an hour before she and her family were set to return home to neighbouring Bamiyan province, a three-hour drive away, three gunmen disguised as police burst into the hospital’s maternity ward and started shooting.
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Zainab, who rushed back from the washroom after hearing the commotion, collapsed as she took in the scene. She spent seven years trying to have a child, waited nine months to meet her son and had just four hours with him before he was killed.
“I brought my daughter-in-law to Kabul so that she would not lose her baby,” said Zahra Muhammadi, Zainab’s mother-in-law, unable to contain her grief. “Today we’ll take his dead body to Bamiyan.”
No group has claimed responsibility for the massacre of 24 people, including 16 women and two newborns. At least six babies lost their mothers in an attack that has shaken even the war-torn nation numbed by years of violence.
An Afghan woman looks for her relative at the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital [File: Omar Sobhani/Reuters]
“In my more than 20-year career I have not witnessed such a horrific, brutal act,” said Dr Hassan Kamel, director of Ataturk Children’s Hospital in Kabul.
The raid, on the same day that at least 32 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar, threatens to derail progress towards US-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attacks and ordered the military to switch to offensive mode rather than the defensive tactics it adopted while US troops withdraw from the country after a long, inconclusive war.
The Taliban, which signed an agreement with the US in February, has denied involvement in both attacks, although trust among officials and the broader public has worn thin.
An offshoot of the ISIL (ISIS) armed group is also among the suspects; it has admitted it was behind the Nangarhar bloodshed.
We named him ‘hope’
Muhammadi, the mother-in-law, said she saw one of the attackers firing at pregnant women and new mothers, even as they cowered under hospital beds.
“We gave him the name Omid. Hope for a better future, hope for a better Afghanistan and hope for a mother who has been struggling to have a child for years,” she told Reuters by telephone in Kabul.
No group has claimed responsibility for the massacre of 24 people, including 16 women and two newborns [File: Omar Sobhani/Reuters]
The gunmen then turned to target the cradle where Omid had been asleep. As the sound of bullets reverberated through the ward, Muhammadi said she fainted in fear.
“When I opened my eyes, I saw that my grandson’s body had fallen to the ground, covered in blood,” she recalled, as she wailed with grief.
The Kabul attack began in the morning when gunmen entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, throwing grenades and shooting, government officials said. Security forces had killed the attackers by the afternoon.
The 100-bed, government-run hospital hosted a maternity clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
Just hours before the attack, MSF had tweeted a photo of a newborn in his mother’s arms at the clinic after being delivered safely by emergency caesarean section.
On Wednesday, the group condemned the attack, calling it “sickening” and “cowardly”.
“Whilst fighting was ongoing, one woman gave birth to her baby and both are doing well,” MSF said in a statement. “More than ever, MSF stands in solidarity with the Afghan people.”
Deborah Lyons, head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, condemned the hospital assault in a tweet. “Who attacks newborn babies and new mothers? Who does this? The most innocent of innocents, a baby! Why?”
‘Little point’ in talks
In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday condemned the two attacks, noted that the Taliban had denied responsibility and said the lack of a peace deal left the country vulnerable to such violence.
Pompeo also described the stalled peace effort, which planned for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin on March 10, as “a critical opportunity for Afghans to … build a united front against the menace of terrorism.” Talks have yet to start.
At least 32 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar [File: Parwiz/Reuters]
The Pentagon declined to comment on Ghani’s stated intent to restart offensive operations, saying only that the US military continued to reserve the right to defend Afghan security forces if they are attacked by the Taliban.
Relations between the government in Kabul and the Taliban movement, which was removed from power in 2001 by a US-backed invasion following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, are already frayed, and Tuesday’s events will make any rapprochement harder.
“There seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks’,” Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said in a tweet.
For Afghanistan, the hospital attack also risks further disrupting a healthcare network that is creaking amid the challenges of dealing with the new coronavirus pandemic.
More than a third of the coronavirus cases in Kabul have been among doctors and healthcare staff, Reuters reported in early May.
The high rate of infection among healthcare workers has already sparked alarm among medics, and some doctors have closed their clinics. At least 5,226 people have been infected by the coronavirus, and 132 have died, according to the health ministry.
Kabul medical community shaken
The attack has shaken the medical community in Kabul to its core.
Nurses and doctors who survived the hospital attack said they were in shock, and resuming duties would be an emotional challenge on top of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
“Last night I could not sleep, as scary scenes of the attack kept crossing my mind,” said Masouma Qurbanzada, a midwife who saw the killings.
“Since yesterday, my family has been telling me to stop working in the hospital, nothing is worth my life. But I told them ‘No, I will not stop working as a health worker’.”
Officials at MSF said they were working to try to normalise operations and had received support from other hospitals to treat dozens of infants and adults wounded in the attack.
Some medics at the hospital, however, said it would be hard to move on.
“The gunmen blew up a water tank and then started shooting women. I saw a pool of water and blood from the small gap of a safe room where some of us managed to lock ourselves,” said a nurse with MSF, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I saw patients being killed even as they begged and pleaded for their life in the holy month of Ramadan. It is very hard for me to work now.”
Kabul gathering attended by Abdullah hit by rocket attack
At least 27 people have been killed in an attack, claimed by the ISIL (ISIS) group, at a ceremony in the Afghan capital where a top Afghan political leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was present but escaped unharmed. While a health ministry spokesman confirmed the death of 27 people, a NATO source told Reuters news agency that the death toll…
At least 27 people have been killed in an attack, claimed by the ISIL (ISIS) group, at a ceremony in the Afghan capital where a top Afghan political leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was present but escaped unharmed.
While a health ministry spokesman confirmed the death of 27 people, a NATO source told Reuters news agency that the death toll was slightly higher. More than 30 people were killed and 42 wounded, 20 of whom were in a serious condition, the agency reported.
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The ISIL claimed it killed and injured 150 people, according to the group’s Amaq website, without providing evidence.
It is the deadliest attack since a peace deal was signed last week between the United States and the Taliban that aims for the complete withdrawal of US and NATO troops within 14 months. The war in Afghanistan is the longest one in US history, which continues for more than 18 years.
It was also one of the biggest attacks on civilians in Afghanistan in a year.
“The attack started with a boom, apparently a rocket landed in the area, Abdullah and some other politicians … escaped the attack unhurt,” Fraidoon Kwazoon, Abdullah’s spokesman, was quoted as saying by Reuters.
President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attack and called it “a crime against humanity”. He also said he had telephoned Abdullah, his longtime political rival who is contesting last month’s Electoral Commission announcement that declared Ghani the winner of September’s presidential election.
The video of attack when Mohammad Karim Khalili, was giving a speech. pic.twitter.com/EZglGlGiZg
— Tamana Ashna (@tamanaashna) March 6, 2020
Broadcaster Tolo News showed live footage of people running for cover as gunfire was heard.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Kabul, said a standoff between Afghan security forces and the attackers lasted for nearly six hours.
The difficulty in quelling the attack “really underlines that the Afghan security forces will be left in a fragile situation” after the foreign troop withdrawal, Abdel-Hamid said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban denied a role in the attack on the gathering marking the anniversary of the death of Abdul Ali Mazari, an ethnic Hazara leader who was killed in 1995 after being taken prisoner by Taliban fighters.
Despite the deal between the Taliban and the US, fighting has continued to rage across the country, casting a pall over hopes that the agreement would lead to a reduction in violence.
Several people were killed in a similar attack on the same commemoration last year. The ISIL had claimed responsibility for that attack also.
‘We’re sorry for those committing such crimes’
Dozens of relatives gathered at the morgue of a hospital not far from the blast site, with many breaking down in tears as they waited to identify their loved ones.
Ambulances and stretchers bustled between the scene of the attack and the hospital to deliver the wounded for treatment.
“I was at the ceremony when gunshots started. I rushed towards the door to get out of the area but suddenly my foot was hit by a bullet,” Mukhtar Jan told Reuters from a stretcher at the hospital.
Ali Attayee, at the hospital to support his wounded brother, told the news agency: “Those who committed this crime want to destroy our people at this juncture in society, we’re sorry for those committing such crimes.”
Representatives of the US, the European Union and the NATO condemned the attack.
“We strongly condemn today’s vicious attack…We stand with Afghanistan for peace,” the US charge d’affaires in Kabul, Ross Wilson, wrote on Twitter.
Horrific attack in Kabul today that led 2 tens of civilian casualties. Heartbreaking & unacceptable. We r tired of war & violence. @AfghanistanIHRC findings indicate more than 10,000 civilian casualties in 2019. First tangible step towards peace 4 Afgs would be ending d violence.
— Shaharzad Akbar (@ShaharzadAkbar) March 6, 2020
Shaharzad Akbar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said: “Horrific attack in Kabul today … heartbreaking and unacceptable. We are tired of war and violence.”
Hazaras are mostly Shia Muslims. Minority Shias have been repeatedly attacked by Sunni fighters in Afghanistan.
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