On a day historically meant to mourn the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Afghans were burying their own dead.
Only hours after an attack on a Kabul shrine left at least 16 people dead, grieving families began to lay their brothers and sons, their daughters and sisters to rest.
The Monday evening attack on the Kartei Sakhi shrine in western Kabul targeted Shia worshippers who had gathered in the hundreds on the eve of the Muslim holy day of Ashura.
The rare sectarian attack was yet another reminder of the grim security situation facing the nation — even in the capital — a week after the European Union signed an agreement with the Afghan government allowing the EU to deport thousands of Afghan refugees, whose asylum claims were denied.
“There is no guarantee here, not even of another second … We came here to pray, nothing else,” said Zaker Hussein Gholami.
Gholami, who made the 15-hour trek from the central province of Daikundi, said he the gunman entered from the women’s section of the iconic mosque.
Though official accounts only referred to a single attacker, Gholami and other witnesses who spoke to TRT World said there were multiple gunmen inside the mosque.
“I didn't stop praying, not even to save my life. I didn't care if I died, I should have continued to pray.”
The gunmen, said Gholami, were wearing the uniforms of a public protection force and armed with kalashnikovs and grenades. They launched at least three of the grenades.
“They started shooting at everyone,” Gholami said of the moment he and three others sought shelter in a nearby storage space.
Though the area quickly filled with what was presumably tear gas, Gholami said he caught glimpses of the madness that was unfolding only a few metres away.
Even in the storage space, Gholami was not safe. “He was loading his gun and I was thinking this time he's going to kill me.”
Unsure of whether the gunman saw him or not, Gholami quickly climbed a nearby electricity pole to get to the roof of the building. While there, he and a friend, took comfort in the fact that they were surrounded by bricks.
“We planned to throw bricks at them if they tried to attack us,” Gholami said.
Gholami and his friends were lucky that they managed to escape the three-hour ordeal uninjured. Others, were not so lucky.
Looking back on the events of Tuesday night, Gholami says: “Security is totally a mess in Afghanistan … If they wanted to kill everyone they could have, they even shot at women.”
Sayed Abdulahad Musavi, an influential Shia cleric, agrees. “We were expecting better levels of security for mourners,” Musavi said.
The cleric dismisses the killings as a sign of a sectarian rift in the country. “We don’t have those problems in Afghanistan … These terrorists might be Afghan, they might be Pakistani, they might be Chechen, they are for hire,” said Musavi.
On Wednesday afternoon, a message posted on an accounted purported to belong to a local branch of the Syria and Iraq-based Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to the statement, there was a single attacker identified only as “Ali Jan,” who targeted the Shia worshippers by detonating his explosive vest among the victims after he ran out of ammunition during his initial shooting spree.
Shias make up between 15 and 20 per cent of the population of Afghanistan.
The last attack on the Shia minority came during a peaceful protest in Kabul that was attended mostly by the members of the Hazara community — who make up the bulk of Afghanistan’s Shia population. That attack, which killed 84 people and left 130 injured, was also claimed by a group alleging ties to Daesh.
Another attack on the nation’s Shia minority during the 2011 Ashura commemorations had left at least 70 people dead. The 2011 attack, one of the worst in the Afghan capital, was claimed by the Lashkar-e Jhangvi, a Pakistan-based group that has targeted Pakistani Shias for several years.
Musavi said the latest attack served as yet another shameful reminder to the whole country, that no one is ever truly safe.
“It was saddening ... Not just for the Shia, but for all the people of Afghanistan.”
Author: Soraya Lennie from Kabul and Ali M Latifi