The String of ISIS Attacks That Killed Three Generations of One Afghan Family


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – When Masuma Rajabi saw her relatives overrun her family’s courtyard, she burst into tears.

Her family has gathered here twice in the past two weeks, first to mourn the loss of her husband, who was killed in a terrorist attack on a Shiite mosque in northern Afghanistan, and then again after another bombing of a Shiite mosque in Kandahar. after killing his father-in-law and hitting the skull of his 15-year-old son Maisam with a shrapnel.

She clung to the hope that Maysam would recover. But now, seeing her husband’s cousins ​​and her mother crying softly, Mazuma knew that she too had lost him.

“How is this possible?” Masuma, 32, asked, hiding her face in a damp head scarf.

For decades, the Afghan Shiite community has experienced violence, primarily supported by the Taliban, who consider the Shiites to be heretics, and in recent years by the Islamic State of Khorasan, or ISIS-K.

When the hard-line Taliban Sunni Muslims seized power in August, they vowed to end decades of bloodshed and tried to reassure Afghan Shiites that they would no longer be their targets, as they did during the group’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001. This time the Taliban allowed the Shiites to celebrate the sacred holiday of Ashura; they sent a Shia cleric to work in Shia communities; they visited Shiite mosques to show solidarity and vowed that the new government would protect them.

But two terrorist attacks by ISIS-K in mosques in October, which together killed more than 90 people and injured hundreds of others, ignited fears that in fact the Taliban will allow the Islamic State’s uncontrolled campaign against Afghan Shiites. The attacks have also raised concerns in neighboring Iran, Shia Muslim theocracy and the self-proclaimed protector of Shia Muslims around the world, where officials expressed concern about the fate of the Afghan Shiites under the Taliban rule and the threat resurgent ISIS-K attacks on Iranian soil.

Now, many Afghan Shiites fear the beginning of a brutal new chapter in which their safety depends on the very movement that once had a goal.

Few understand this devastating new reality more than Mazuma and her family. In just two weeks, she and her relatives lost a grandfather, father and son – three generations of Afghan men who spent most of their lives in a country at war but died after the bloodshed was about to end.

“When the Taliban came to power, we did not expect this,” said Masuma’s uncle, 50-year-old Abdul Razik Rajabi, the morning after Maysam’s death. “But now I cannot say if the Taliban will support our people or not.”

In the aftermath of the attack, an unsettling silence reigned around the mud-brick houses, sewn together with narrow streets and electrical wires hanging overhead. It is one of the few Shiite districts in Kandahar, the country’s Pashtun center. Some Hazara Shiites – an ethnic minority persecuted for centuries – migrated to the southern city in search of work or escape from violence. Others have lived in the south for hundreds of years.

Masuma’s father-in-law, 60-year-old Haji Nematullah Rajabi, migrated from the central province of Ghazni to Kandahar almost half a century ago and lived a comfortable life in the relative tranquility of the city. He started selling agricultural equipment, married his wife Sugra, and eventually had a daughter and two sons.

Ezzatullah Rajabi, 33, the son of Sugra and Nematulla, married Mazuma and had three sons of their own. They moved to Kunduz, the economic center of northern Afghanistan. The move made sense to expand the family business, but it scared Ezzatullah’s mother. After the Taliban briefly took over the city in 2015 and 2016, Sugra called every week and begged him to return to Kandahar.

Yet when the Taliban launched their military offensive last summer, even Ezzatullah was on edge. After the group seized power and publicly pledged to protect Afghan Shiites, who make up 10 to 20 percent of the country’s population, Ezzatullah said his fears were allayed.

Then on October 8, an Islamic State suicide bomber destroyed the Ezzatullah Mosque in Kunduz, killing at least 43 people.

Mazuma heard the explosion and rushed to the mosque, knowing that her husband had gone there to pray. She searched the bodies out in bloody scarves for him. The next morning, Nematullah arrived from Kandahar and found Ezzatullah’s body, limbs bent like a rag doll, in the hospital morgue. Seeing him, Nematulla nearly fainted.

The family returned to Kandahar to bury Ezzatullah, and the following Friday, determined to show his unshakable faith, Nematullah went to his mosque to pray. That morning, he called Masuma three times and asked her to send his eldest grandson, Maisam, to him.

Mazuma conceded. But at about 1:00 pm, she heard another explosion – this time from two suicide bombers who burst into the mosque during Friday prayers. As a result of the explosion, the bodies were scattered over the blood-drenched carpets. Stunned survivors poured out of the building through broken windows, while others searched for loved ones.

Nematullah’s surviving son, Ahmad Zia, found him among the bodies – his right side was bloody, his eyes closed and he could barely speak – and then noticed Maisam, whose head was wrapped in a bloody scarf. He took them both to the hospital, where Maysam had life support on and Nematulla died – one of at least 47 people killed that day.

The attack on the Bibi Fatima Mosque was the first attack by ISIS-Q in Kandahar, a historic Taliban stronghold, and shocked the Shiite community there. For many, the week that followed was a series of funerals and mourning. In one Shiite region, mourners gathered every day at a bombing victims’ cemetery, whispering prayers at a row of fresh graves.

At the cemetery gates, security talk engulfed a group of men as they walked past a teapot of tea. Some argued that a new, untested government would not be able to counter the resurgent threat from ISIS-K. Others have questioned the Taliban’s stated intent to protect Afghan Shiites – even wondering if some Taliban might view the recent attacks as a call for the unhindered assassination of Shiites.

“The Taliban are just saying they are trying to keep us safe, but why should we trust them?” – Asked 36-year-old Khalil, looking at the graves.

For the leaders of the Shiite community, the consequences of the explosion were clear: it was time to take security back into their own hands. Days after the attack, they met with Taliban officials at a mosque – the air still smelled of charred flesh – and demanded that the new government return the seized weapons to some 40 Shiite places of worship in Kandahar.

The Taliban agreed to return up to three weapons to each Shiite mosque and offered compensation to the families of the victims of the bombing.

“This is not only the right of the Shiite nation, but also the right of all the people of Kandahar to security,” said Haji Mullah Abdul Ghafar Mohammadi 41, chief of police for the Taliban in Kandahar, in an interview.

But weeks later, the Taliban still have not returned their weapons, prompting some Shiite leaders to take matters into their own hands.

When people poured into the Bibi Fatima Mosque the following Friday, two men with Kalashnikovs stood at the entrance, and plainclothes guards watched the counters of nearby shops. Others sat on nearly every rooftop nearby, their bodies hunched over and weapons aimed at the sidewalk below.

Nevertheless, many remained on the brink. At the house of the Rajabi family, Ezzatullah’s brother Ahmad Ziya planned to go to the mosque, but his mother did not allow.

“He is the only son I have left,” his mother Sugra said quietly.

He looked at her with pain, with a heavy mind occupying the state of Maysam. The boy was hospitalized last week, intubated and passed out. Eleven relatives in shifts squeezed an old hand-held oxygen pump to keep him alive.

When Ahmad Zia returned to the hospital that night, the doctors told him the news he feared: Maysam was brain dead.

The next morning, the family gathered for a well-rehearsed death ritual. Relatives visited the family home, prayed at the mosque and took Maisam’s body to the cemetery to bury him next to his father and grandfather.

Vali Arian provided a report from Istanbul.


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