Afghanistan: Kabul neighborhood struggles to regroup after bombing

In the corner of a Kabul neighborhood where almost every family lost someone in an early December bombing, the psychological and economic effects are far-reaching.

Tom A. Peter
A vegetable seller stands over his goods in a Kabul neighborhood where 50 people from just 15 families were killed or injured when a suicide bomber killed more than 80 people and injured scores at an Ashura celebration in Kabul on Dec. 6.

Before a bomb blast killed his son and injured three of his daughters, hospitalizing two of them, life was anything but easy for Ahmad Shah. Like many in his poor Kabul neighborhood, he eked out enough to survive by pulling a rickshaw-like cart made of scrap wood. Merchants who either had a small load or couldn’t afford a truck hired Mr. Shah to drag their goods across town on his cart. 

Shah made enough to support his family’s day-to-day needs, but had to take out loans from microfinance organizations for heating supplies and food during the winter. He had hoped to work off his debt before the spring, but his careful plans crumbled when a suicide bomber detonated himself at religious Ashura festival on Dec. 6, killing more than 80 people, injuring scores, and taking a catastrophic toll on his family.

“I lost my son and I need to take care of my injured daughters. Now I need to borrow money from friends and family to care for them. It will take a long time to pay my debts. It will make my life even more horrible,” says Shah. “Why couldn’t all of us die together so we could have peace and not have these things to make us worry?”

Although only two weeks have passed since the Ashura bombing, it has long faded from the headlines as Afghan news moves on to other macabre events and political developments. Still, the story of those affected by the bombing, one of the largest single-incident losses in recent Afghan history, provides a window into the challenges that face Afghan society as it works to rebuild amid deep-seeded psychological trauma and its far-reaching effects.

After more than 30 years of war, it’s difficult to find an Afghan untouched by violence. Despite persistent NATO statements that the situation is improving, civilian causalities have steadily increased every year since the US-led war began more than a decade ago. In the first half of this year alone, 3,606 Afghan civilians were killed or injured. According to a United Nations report, insurgent attacks caused 80 percent of the 1,462 civilian deaths here.

“War and conflict in Afghanistan have dragged on for more than three decades and caused many Afghans psychological trauma,” says Azizudin Himt, the head of the Afghanistan Psychologists Association. “There is not any survey or census about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but we have many people who suffer from it in this country.”

Dr. Himt adds that a number of people who suffer from trauma struggle to take an interest in their work and move their life forward, a serious problem for a nation trying to put itself together again after nearly a third of a century at war. Additionally, Afghanistan lacks the ability to adequately treat those suffering from psychological problems induced by trauma such as PTSD.

Shah lives a short walk from the Abu Fazal shrine where the Ashura bombing occurred. Made up of mud brick houses and uneven dirt roads, the neighborhood likely doesn't look much different today than it did when it was first formed about 300 years ago. The shrine is also a short distance from several government buildings and a modern luxury hotel where the cost of one night in a basic room is almost double Shah’s monthly earnings.

In his corner of the neighborhood, 50 of those killed or injured in the attack came from 15 families, or a little more than 100 people. One family home now stands empty, the front gate bolted shut, after the blast killed seven and injured seven more people living there. Three family members were already disabled from various incidents over the past several years.

Another man in the neighborhood voluntarily gave up his home, vowing to live the rest of his life in the local graveyard alongside his wife, mother-in-law, and two sons who he lost in the suicide attack. Residents say he spends most of the day wandering the city before returning to the cemetery at night.

“Now we are concerned that maybe we will go deeper into poverty,” says Abdul Hussein, an elder in Shah’s neighborhood who lost his wife in the attack. “Our concerns are like a mountain. We are not people who have businesses and trade that generates a big income. We just depend on our daily work to survive and when you lose people who used to work it creates serious problems for the community.”

Residents say they will support their neighbors who lost breadwinners for a time, but they concede that given their own financial situation it is impossible for them to do so long-term. Help from outside the community has been more or less nonexistent.

Shah’s 12-year-old daughter Tarana, who was injured but not hospitalized, appears in a memorable photograph taken moments after the blast by Agence France-Presse photographer Massoud Hossaini. In the picture, which is likely to become one of the iconic images of the Afghan war, Tarana stands covered in blood with her arms outstretched, crying, and surrounded by a circle of dead women and children. One of her sisters sits among the dead, weeping, her face covered in blood.

“I was really scared by that incident and now when I go to bed at night I can’t sleep. I just lay awake scared,” says Tarana, adding that she also suffers from loss of appetite and no longer likes being outdoors.

Her photo ran in newspapers around the world after the blast and now hangs on the side of the Abul Fazal shrine. Shah keeps a printed copy of the photo, but says he has mixed emotions about it.

“Maybe this picture will help to bring a change, but it won’t be useful for me because I lost everyone. We got harmed and we’re losing more to take care of my injured daughters,” he says.

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