Exclusive: The school the suicide bombers couldn’t shut
Euronews' correspondent Masoud Imani Kalesar visited Kabul in the wake of a deadly ambulance blast which killed dozens, and witnessed the violence - and Afghans' defiance - first hand.
Euronews correspondent Masoud Imani Kalesar visited Kabul in the wake of a deadly ambulance blast that killed dozens earlier this year. He witnessed the violence — and Afghans' defiance — first hand.
I call it the "Bloody Saturday of Kabul".
On January 27, the Afghan capital witnessed a deadly suicide attack unlike any other. The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban filled an ambulance with explosives and managed to pass a security checkpoint. But at the second, the guards became suspicious and the driver detonated his vehicle. The blast killed 103 people, including eight soldiers at the checkpoint, and wounded 235 others.
One image from the attack has stuck in my memory: a wounded child in an ambulance. According to a UN report released last year, 923 children were killed and 2,589 wounded in 2016 while on their way to and from school in Afghanistan.
No other country in the world witnesses suicide attacks on an almost daily basis like in Afghanistan. Why? And who is responsible for preventing them and protecting civilians? After intensive planning to ensure security, I was given the green light by my bosses to head to Kabul in April to pose those very questions to the Afghan people and their government officials.
One bureaucrat on my list was the newly appointed minister of education, Mirwais Balkhi, who took office in March. He is a minister unlike many among his "foreign" ranks. He visits schools and meets students with fully-armed bodyguards.
He took me to Esteghlal high school, where, due to its proximity to the presidential palace, sharpshooters are stationed around the building while teenage pupils attend their classes. I was not allowed to film them, nor the school gates where all students are thoroughly searched before they can enter.
“How, amid such instability and insecurity, can we expect students to study with peace of mind?” I asked Balkhi.
Before I could finish my question, he interrupted me: “Frankly, the people of Afghanistan are very brave.
“Despite the different kinds of threats we face in this country, a thirst for education [among Afghans] is very much there.”
Malala High School, an all-girls faculty which lies 10 metres from where the ambulance attack unfolded, was the minister's next destination that day. There, the school Principal Shafigha Ahmadi Vardak presented him with fragments of the blown-up vehicle that she and her colleagues collected to make a "museum" in the school.
Mrs Vardak's account of that day, and photos and videos she took in the immediate aftermath, were shocking and disturbing.
“I saw a hand that had been cut off, but it was still moving," she said. "And even now when it is stormy, there are trees on the other side of the building from which hats, boots, even chins and pieces of hearts, livers are falling.”
On "Bloody Saturday", Malala school was mercifully closed. It was a public holiday and so hundreds of students had been spared from serious injury. The wave of the blast shattered windows and ripped doors from their hinges. Shards of glass blanketed desks and chairs, and scraps of material from ceilings peppered the floor leaving gaping holes up above.
While visiting the classrooms, now fixed up and filled with smiling schoolgirls, I asked the minister why he was accompanied by armed bodyguards — a rare scene in many countries, let alone in a high school.
“Warmongers are always looking for ways to eliminate me," he said. "Thus, I have no choice but to surround myself with youths [bodyguards] so we can fight ignorance. That is the only reason."
About 60% of the Afghan people are illiterate, according to the ministry of education. Among them, UNICEF reports that 3.7 million children are deprived of an education — 60% of them girls. I asked Balkhi if boosting literacy could put an end to suicide attacks in the country.
“100 percent, 100 percent," he said enthusiastically.
After my meeting with Balkhi was over, I turned to the other names on my checklist for this trip. Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who's second only to President Ashraf Ghani in government, was next, followed by Amrullah Saleh, the former head of state intelligence, and Pierre Mayaudon, the EU Ambassador to Afghanistan.
General Nicholson, the Commander of NATO & US Forces in Afghanistan, couldn't make his appointment with me, despite his office earlier confirming he would be available. And I missed out on meeting President Ashraf Ghani — his office did not reply to my media requests, so that was that.
On April 30, seven days after my arrival, I was done and ready to fly back to Euronews headquarters. But Kabul wasn't finished with me yet. When I reached the capital's airport, the counter was closed. I was 10 minutes late and the next flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until the next day. Then on the way to my guest house, I learned that a suicide attacker on a motorbike had blown himself up in the Shash Darak neighbourhood, not far from the airport.
Despite warnings that a second attack might follow, I decided to head to the scene which was just 300 metres away and film with my mobile phone. My Afghan colleagues were already there, so I packed some recording equipment and prepared to leave.
But I quickly realised I was missing a crucial cable. My microphone wouldn’t work without it, so I asked my cameraman Hayat Skandari to join me as soon as he could. Unbeknownst to me, as I waited for him, a second suicide attacker disguised as a journalist had hurtled into a media huddle at the scene of the first blast and detonated a device, killing nine of my Afghan colleagues.
Among the dead was Yar Mohammad Toki, a Tolo News Cameraman. Just few days earlier, we rubbed shoulders while filming in a nearby garrison where hundreds of young commandos were graduating.
But my mourning didn't stop there. Hayat finally joined me outside a war victims emergency centre in haste, but not for long. After accompanying me to film desperate relatives who had lost touch with loved ones in the blasts, his phone rang.
He learned that his nephew, Nowroz Ali Rajabi, a reporter for Afghanistan’s 1TV station, had perished in the second explosion. And it is only through sheer luck or chance that I was spared the same fate — just because I’d lost a cable.
The following day I made my flight and left Afghanistan, a country battle-scarred by 40 years of war and conflict. A country that wonders when the day will come that a minister can visit schools without armed bodyguards, and an ambulance can safely pass a bustling district carrying neither explosives, nor a child wounded in a suicide attack. To my surprise, most of the people I spoke to in Kabul do believe that day will soon come.