Forever scarred, survivors of IS Kabul attacks struggle on

Jan 24, 2018

Forever scarred, survivors of horrific IS attacks in Kabul struggle to come to terms with their losses

KABUL, Afghanistan — For Sayed Mushtaq Hossaini, much of the day last month when an Islamic State suicide bomber struck a seminar at a Shiite cultural center in the Afghan capital of Kabul remains a blur.

The Dec. 28 attack killed at least 41 people and wounded 84, underscoring the Sunni extremist group's growing reach in Afghanistan even as its self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria has crumbled. It was the latest in massive bombings staged by IS and meant to instill terror — both for the large numbers of Afghans killed and among those who survived the attacks.

The 26-year-old photographer was at the Teyban Center, shooting for Afghan Voice, a pro-Iran news agency run by the center and located in the same building, three stories up. The center was marking the anniversary of the 1979 Soviet invasion with an academic seminar about its impact on the country.

Hossaini remembers the explosion, then hiding behind a pillar in the room, scared for his life, watching as the flames engulfed his hands and face.

Afghan security officials say the bomber had slipped in among the seminar participants and detonated his explosives' vest as the event got underway. The blast was followed by two more explosions on the street outside, from bombs planted by IS militants intended to target anyone running out of the center after the initial explosion or rescuers coming in to help.

The Islamic State group in Afghanistan, which calls itself the Khorasan Province, views Shiite Muslims as apostates and has repeatedly attacked the country's Shiite minority and targets linked to neighboring Iran. It emerged in 2014 at around the same time the group declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq, and largely consists of disgruntled former members of the rival, much larger and more entrenched Taliban.

Hossaini survived the inferno with severe burns — but the wounds that won't heal are the ones on the inside, the hopelessness he now lives with and the realization that nowhere is safe, not even culture centers or places of worship.

"There was so much noise ... women and men screaming," Hossaini recently told The Associated Press from his hospital bed in Kabul, his hands and head in bandages. "I could hear them shouting, "I am burning, I am burning!'"

Hossaini's colleague, Hamid Azimi, 28, a reporter with Afghan Voice who was also at the center that day and was lightly wounded in the attack, shares Hossaini's feelings.

"I am so scared now, if there is a gathering somewhere, even just 10 to 20 people, I try to leave the place as soon as possible," Azimi said. "I am always thinking that something could happen. "

In October, Azimi lost his father in another IS attack, when a suicide bomber killed 57 people and wounded 55 inside a Shiite mosque in Kabul, according to a U.N. report in November detailing recent IS attacks. The bomber first lobbed a grenade into the women's section of the Imam-e-Zaman Shiite Mosque, then detonated his suicide vest.

Jan Ali Hossaini, 47 and a father of nine, was badly wounded in the mosque attack, which killed his 14-year-old son Mustafa and badly wounded his 17-year-old son Mehdi. Three months on, he still can't use his hands and relies on his wife to help him with basic needs such as eating and bathing.

Mehdi suffered burns on the entire upper left side of his body and his vision and hearing have been impaired. He was in a hospital for weeks as doctors did several skin grafts on his left side so he missed his high school's final exams.

"I wanted to become a doctor, but now when I see my condition, I don't have that hope anymore," he said.


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