It’s the day after yet another explosion in the Afghan capital, Kabul, this time at a voter registration centre. Another 69 innocent Afghans confirmed killed (so far) and another 120 injured. My colleague Reza Hussaini and I are sat in our office, each scrolling through Facebook posts, trying to avoid the most graphic and bloody photos of the bombing.
We are working together on a project examining Afghanistan’s migration decisionmaking, policymaking and migration culture. For months, we’ve been asking what makes someone go, what makes someone stay, and why people change their minds about going or staying.
Over the past 18 months, we’ve been interviewing families from different ethnic groups at regular intervals. All feel the same insecurity; all worry whether those who go to work or to school will return in the evening. But the fear is particularly sharp in the Hazara community, a primarily Shia minority group who have been specifically targeted.
The voter registration centre bombing happened in the neighbourhood of Dashte Barchi, which I know very well. When I first came to Kabul six years ago, it was the area where I felt most at ease, with no outward signs of insecurity. Visiting the area recently for the first time in months, I was shocked by the number of heavily armed police and police vehicles, especially surrounding Marafat school, which was hosting an annual school celebration. My companion, a Hazara, confessed to feeling afraid, wondering if there would be an attack.
Reza, like three other members of my team, is Hazara himself, and Barchi is the heart of their community. He tells me that since the April 22 bombing, the phone has not stopped ringing, as friends call to ask what to do now.
Fight or flight?
Some are calling for a demonstration, but most say there’s no point. “It doesn’t have any effect, the government doesn’t care about us. It will just bring us together as another target for another attack.”
Some suggest now is the time to leave, that they have already sacrificed so many of their people and cannot sacrifice any more. Some reject that: “No, that is exactly what these people want,” said one. “They want to drive us across the borders.” Others argue that the so-called Islamic State (IS) is targeting Shia Muslims because they don’t want the Hazara to participate in this year’s elections.
Still others argue that “we need to arm ourselves again – we need to defend ourselves”. They take to social media to declare that the time for crying is done, and now is the time to channel those emotions into anger and fight. But fight against whom? IS, which has been active in Afghanistan for some years, claimed this attack, but some are blaming the government, arguing that since it’s unable or unwilling to provide security, they will have to take matters into their own hands.
The fear in this community is palpable. Most of this year’s bombings have targeted the Hazara; in 2017, there were four major attacks on the Hazara community in Kabul, but there have been three in the past six weeks alone.
Later in the afternoon, I attend a performance based on our research by the Theatre Department at Kabul University. The performance is not as tight or as focused as it should be. At the final curtain call, one of the students tries to pay tribute to those who died but collapses, unable to speak.
I look out into the audience and wonder how many are deciding to leave their homes – and how many will be able to stay.