KABUL, Afghanistan – For decades now, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan has been referred to as “the forgotten war,” but in truth, a more fitting moniker might be “the ignored war.” The war has been here all along — the suffering has continued unabated — it’s just been waiting for someone, somewhere to recognize it. To truly see it and all of its dark, ugly brutality.
There are, of course, brief moments of violence so unfathomable that they refuse to be ignored. Nightmares that gain the attention of the world, even if only for an instant. Wednesday’s hours-long attack on a maternity hospital, full of newborns and expectant mothers, has become one of those rare instances that opens the world’s eyes once again to a conflict that has been raging for more than 40 years now.
Suddenly, people took to their social media feeds, asking their followers to “Imagine you were born in Kabul” or “#PrayForKabul”. But do we, the wider public, truly understand what these calls to action really mean, what exactly they are referring to?
What does it mean to be born in Kabul? What precisely is it you are being asked to pray for?
“If anyone kills a life, it would be as if he killed all of mankind.” (Quran 5:32)
Yesterday 24 lives were lost, including babies, when gunmen stormed a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. #PrayForAfghanistan #PrayForKabul pic.twitter.com/H8c24O7zRa
— Muslim (@Muslim) May 13, 2020
To put it simply, being born in Kabul during the last four decades could mean life as a refugee, fleeing — as my family and I did – one brutally violent conflict or another. Or, depending on when exactly you were born, it could mean growing up in a city that was divided and showered with daily rocket attacks by warlords, or where a group claiming they would deliver the people from civil war ended up ruling with brutality and repression. Or it means watching “democracy” and capitalism, and the opportunities that come with them, reach a select few.
The sad truth is that as heinous as Wednesday’s attack on a civilian hospital in the middle of Ramadan during a pandemic is, it’s not rare.
Only a month ago, as Kabul was preparing for a COVID-19 lockdown, one of the city’s few Sikh temples came under attack. At least 25 people, including women and a child, were killed. Last summer, in the lead-up to the one-hundredth anniversary of independence, a suicide bomber walked into a wedding procession and blew himself up. He killed 63 people. Late into an August night in 2015, thousands of residents in the Shah Shahid neighborhood were awakened by a massive car bomb that shattered the idea that any hour of the day or night was safe from the threat of violence; 400 people were injured, 23 killed.
There have also been attacks on protesters demanding better access to electricity for a long-ignored province, on an education center preparing students for the college entrance exam, and on a gym.
Outside Kabul, there have been attacks during a volleyball tournament, a wrestling match, a wedding ceremony, funeral processions and even during Eid prayers.
What this handful of instances (out of dozens and dozens) shows is that nowhere in Afghanistan is safe, no matter what the governments in Europe and Turkey claim when deporting thousands of Afghan refugees. Ironically, both the European Union and Ankara issued their standard condemnations of Wednesday’s attack.
Kabul, Afghanistan UPDATE: At Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital, unknown attackers opened fire on our maternity ward – where pregnant women, mothers, and newborns were being cared for during one of the most precious and precarious stages of life.
The attack lasted for hours.
— Doctors w/o Borders (@MSF_USA) May 13, 2020
In many ways, these rote denouncements perfectly embody what the Afghan war has become for so much of the world, a place for rhetoric and platitudes without real thought or action.
Brussels and Ankara may issue condemnations, but there is little chance they will halt the deportation of Afghan asylum seekers, because by their estimation, Kabul is “safe.”
In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was long-heralded for her acceptance of Syrian refugees, justified her government’s willingness to deport Afghans by proposing the establishment of “protected zones” where the EU could safely dump rejected Afghan asylum seekers.
Germany’s interior minister at the time was much less diplomatic, saying simply, “We want the influx of refugees to be stopped,” when he too claimed that there were “many” safe provinces and that “inside areas that aren’t so stable, there are safe areas” (whatever that means).
Five years later, and despite the presence of more than 1,000 German soldiers in the country, there are still no such protected zones, and the rate of violence has increased at an exponential rate. April 2020 alone saw between 50 and 70 Taliban attacks per day.
Even more upsetting are the condemnations coming from the governments in Iran and Pakistan, two countries Afghans have long suspected of aiding and abetting armed opposition groups, including the Taliban.
Afghanistan, it seems, has become a sort of a gathering ground for empty, fast-forgotten promises and tired pronouncements. Decision-makers might very occasionally discuss Afghanistan, but rarely do they take any decisive action to either help end the bloodshed or provide people with safe shelter from the suicide bombs, the landmines, the airstrikes, the drones, the night raids and the increasing criminal insurgence resulting from a flailing economy.
So, we thank you for your prayers and imagining what life is like here, but instead, it’s time to raise the alarm on the Afghan war. The deaths must no longer go ignored. People and politicians must know what is going on here – that a hospital full of newborn babies and a funeral procession full of mourners 100 miles away have been attacked on the same day. Try to imagine that. Definitely still #PrayForKabul, but more importantly, please #RememberAfghanistan every day.