Afghan Shias in the firing line: 'IS wants to wipe us out'

By Secunder Kermani
BBC News, Kabul

  • Published
Memorial service
Image caption,
Kabul's Hazaras are feeling under attack

Tears and wails of grief fill the air around a hilltop cemetery in the outskirts of Kabul. "Why did you leave us?" one distraught mother cries out. Another lovingly caresses the photograph of her dead child.

Families of about 50 students killed in a suicide bombing by the Islamic State group on a tuition centre in the Afghan capital in August have gathered here for a memorial service.

Many of the dead were just teenagers. All were from the Hazara community. Followers of the Shia sect of Islam who are believed to be descendants of the Mongols, Hazaras are hated by IS who view them as heretics. Armed soldiers stand guard around the graves in case of further attack.

Amongst those killed was 16-year-old Fatima. Her mother Amina tells me she used to weave carpets to pay for her schooling. One, unfinished, lies by the entrance to their small home. Fatima had been working on it the day she died.

"She was my eldest child. She was very good and very brave," Amina tells the BBC. "She used to ask me to pray she would one day become a doctor."

Image caption,
Fatima wove carpets to pay for her education

Fatima's father Nasrullah recalls the moment he found his daughter's body.

"I went to lots of different hospitals after the attack trying to find her. Finally someone said: 'There are six bodies here, check if your daughter is one… I uncovered their faces and saw my child."

The family moved to Kabul from another province around two years ago to search for work. But the Shia dominated neighbourhood they settled in, Dasht-e-Barchi, in the west of Kabul, has become a focus of IS attacks.

Fatima's father wants to go back to their village, but her mother is torn about what to do. "I'm not letting my other children go to school now because there's no security here. It's a bad situation, but if we leave Kabul, I will be leaving Fatima behind."

At the bombed tuition centre, shrapnel is stuck in the blackboard whilst handwritten notes lie among the rubble. This horrific attack was one of more than a dozen claimed by IS in Kabul this year.

Image caption,
Most of the dead were teenagers

IS militants first appeared in Afghanistan in 2015, and although they are outnumbered by the Taliban with whom they have at times clashed, they have established a stronghold in the east of the country. IS have been repeatedly targeted by US airstrikes, with a number of their leaders killed, but over the past two years they carried out more attacks in the Afghan capital than any other militant group.

Hazaras are reported to make up 9-15% of the population in Afghanistan, though figures are at times disputed. They have often faced violence and discrimination both because of their ethnicity and their Shia faith, including when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan. The hardline Islamists ruled from 1996 until they were toppled by US-led forces in 2001.

But Hazara leaders say even the Taliban have never targeted the community in the kind of deliberate sectarian suicide bombings that IS are now carrying out.

As a result, many Hazaras are deciding to leave the country. Mohammad Sadiq runs a secondhand shop in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood. He says he set it up last year to buy the possessions of the rising number of community members leaving Afghanistan to seek sanctuary in Iran, Turkey and Europe.

"People are fleeing the country because of unemployment and the lack of security," Mr Sadiq told the BBC. "Daesh [IS] are carrying out all these attacks. They want to wipe our people out."

As a sign of how desperate people in the area now are he shows me elaborately embroidered quilts stitched by mothers to hand down to their children, but sold off to pay for the cost of travel. Pointing to a set of saucepans, he says they were wedding gifts given to a newly-married couple that recently left the country.

Many in the community blame the government for not doing enough to prevent the attacks. But Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish told the BBC the authorities regularly thwart plots.

"We recently stopped four attacks in the west of Kabul. That shows how effective our security forces are."

Image caption,
Students have returned to class in a new building

Outside the mosques in Dasht-e-Barchi armed volunteers stand guard, some with weapons provided by the government. Many here say they feel afraid every time they are in a public space.

But the students of the tuition centre are back in the classroom, in a new building. The attack weighs heavy on everyone's mind but there's also a sense of defiance.

"I was so scared after the attack, it's hard to get over it," says 19-year-old Leylu Rasuli. "But if I don't study I won't achieve anything. My family don't like it but I have to keep coming here."

Fellow student Gisu Gity adds: "We won't surrender… By getting good qualifications and studying we will defeat the terrorists."

A few weeks after the attack on the students, twin suicide bombings at a nearby wrestling club killed at least 20 people. Since then there have been no further blasts in Dasht-e-Barchi, but residents remain fearful.

On 11 November, six people were killed in an IS attack on a Shia-led protest near the presidential palace in central Kabul. At the tuition centre sandbags line the windows and armed guards watch over the students as they head home. This is a community braced for further violence.