At a mountainside graveyard, surrounded by dusty brown hills specked with colourfully painted houses, 20 year-old Marziah Tahery was laid to rest on Tuesday; a light breeze in the warm autumn air, echoes of children’s play in the distance.
The morning before – as on most other days – she had gone enthusiastically into Kabul University where she had been studying public administration and policy.
At least 35 people were killed in Monday’s attack on Afghanistan’s most prestigious university. Dozens more were injured; many are fighting for their lives in the hospitals of the Afghan capital, relatives waiting outside intensive care units, wrapped in blankets against the cold of the night.
Three gunmen stormed the university’s gated campus in west Kabul on Monday morning, throwing grenades and riddling classrooms with bullets. Dozens of students jumped out of the upper-storey windows, fleeing for their lives.
The attack, claimed by Islamic State, lasted for six hours and was countered by Afghan forces and US commandos. A convoy of Humvees only left the university’s premises at dusk when the three attackers had been killed. Throughout the afternoon, sustained gunfire could be heard and several loud explosions had people running for cover.
While Marziah’s family recited Qu’ran verses over the freshly dug grave decorated with red flowers and rose petals, some crying silently, others loudly, less than a kilometre away in the devastated university building the smell of blood and smoke lingers. The floors are covered in bullet casings and broken glass; a blood-smeared Taliban flag hangs from one of the windows. The surrounding area – usually a serene campus full of leafy trees and wide pathways, a rarity in Kabul – is now deserted and empty.
Marziah had studied public policy hoping one day to enter politics to shape her troubled country’s future. She had been part of a vibrant, post-Taliban generation, hoping for peace, willing to invest time and resources.
“It’s a huge loss for our generation,” says Sayed Haseebullah, her 26-year-old cousin, wiping tears from his eyes with his scarf. He stands surrounded by other male relatives; the atmosphere solemn. Marziah’s parents are in shock, he says, her mother mourning at home with female relatives as custom requires.
Marziah was not only his cousin but a close friend, he says. He’d looked out for her, he listened to her, he’d occasionally offer advice.
“There’s nothing left to say now. This land is not valuing human life. Marziah has left this world, she is gone for ever.”
Afghans fear levels of violence will increase: the UN has already documented almost 6,000 civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2020 – with more than 2,000 of them killed.
Attacks in urban centres as well as targeted killings have been on the rise – just last week Isis attacked a private education centre in a predominantly Shia area, murdering at least 30 people, most of them students.
On Tuesday, demonstrators gathered in front of the university demanding not only justice and security but a boycott of the Doha talks, the direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that officially launched on 12 September. While the militants have denied any involvement in the attack, many government officials – and Afghans generally – think the blame lies with them.
After Monday’s assault, interior ministry spokesman Tarek Arian told journalists that the Taliban was involved in the attack. And with US troops leaving – their numbers already below 5,000 countrywide – many Afghans are worried about widespread insecurity and increased violence.
Decades of war have affected the life of every Afghan, though Mushtaba Asqari, 27, says he always prayed the conflict would never hit so close. On Tuesday, kneeling by his 20-year-old sister’s graveside, his face is raw with shock and pain. He is mumbling under his breath as he touches the soft, fresh earth covering his sister’s bullet-riddled body.
Seba was a law student. “As soon as we heard about the attack, my mother ran to the university,” he says quietly. “She stood there all day with the security forces, listening to gunfire and explosions, not knowing her daughter’s fate.”
At night, after soldiers had cleared the area and evacuated the injured and dead, the family had started driving across the city, visiting private clinics and government hospitals, looking for Seba, refusing to give up.
Their hope faded at the mortuary. From there, they took her body home.
“It’s this fading hope that our entire generation lives with,” Asqari told the Guardian. “We fight so hard for change, but we live in constant fear.”