KABUL -- Ahmad Zia was sitting behind his wooden registration table when a suicide bombing ripped through Kabul’s Maiwand Wrestling Club, where scores of athletes were in the middle of a training session.
The blast flung Zia, the club administrator, off his chair and into a wall.
Covered in dust, the 28-year-old stumbled through the debris to help pull the bodies of the dead and wounded out of the burning sports club. The floor was covered with blood and the wrestling hall was strewn with dismembered bodies.
Less than an hour after the blast at Maiwand, a car laden with explosives detonated outside the same club in the western part of the Afghan capital, targeting journalists and emergency responders.
The twin bombings killed 30 people and wounded more than 90.
“There was fire, dust, and body parts everywhere,” said Zia, who added that there were around 150 people inside the club when an Islamic State (IS) suicide bomber struck that September day in 2018. Many were wrestlers aspiring to make Afghanistan’s Olympic team. “I’m haunted by what happened.”
The attacks occurred in Dasht-e Barchi -- a predominately Shi’ite enclave in Kabul that is home to the Hazara minority.
IS and Taliban militants -- Sunni extremist groups that consider Shi’a apostates -- have been blamed for devastating attacks that have killed hundreds of Hazara in the area in recent years.
Fears of more mass killings of Hazara have amplified after the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement aimed at ending America’s 18-year war in Afghanistan.
Signed on February 29, the deal envisages a power-sharing arrangement that is likely to bring the militants back into government.
But many Hazara fear that a deal with the Taliban will bring persecution rather than peace.
“Peace with the Taliban will not be a peace at all,” said Zia, wearing a black jacket over a sky blue pirhan tumban, the traditional baggy shirt and pants common in Afghanistan. “How could I ever accept them? When they have killed our children and torn apart our families, how can we?”
Zia lost two cousins in the bombings -- one a guard and the other a young wrestler.
Dasht-e Barchi has been the scene of a string of gruesome attacks by IS militants, including bombings targeting Shi’ite mosques and holy sites, public gatherings, schools, and sports clubs.
Outside of the capital, Taliban militants have kidnapped and executed Hazara civilians and stormed Hazara areas that have forced thousands to flee their homes.
Many here do not distinguish between the Taliban and IS, which experts said is comprised of disgruntled former members of the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and other Islamic militant groups in the region.
“The Taliban and Daesh are both terrorist groups that kill poor and innocent people,” said Zia, as he walked on the mats of the empty wrestling hall, referring to the Arabic acronym for the IS group. “They are both the enemies of the people, not just the enemies of one ethnicity or religion.”
History Of Violence
Militant violence has transformed Dasht-e Barchi, a thriving urban enclave, into a war zone.
The Maiwand Wrestling Club is barricaded behind high concrete blast walls and razor wire. The wrestling hall, even after extensive renovations, is still pockmarked with shrapnel from the 2018 bomb blast. Yet the club has more wrestlers than ever, with around 400 people training each day in four sessions.
The Taliban strictly prohibited most forms of sport during their 1996-2001 reign, deeming them un-Islamic, and used sports venues for public executions.
Soldiers, police officers, and even armed plainclothes civilians -- paid and trained by the government -- guard the entrances and the rooftops of mosques, schools, and sports clubs. There have been growing calls for the community, where suspicion of the government is rife and anger is widespread, to take its security into its own hands.
The civilian forces are controversial in Afghanistan, where ethnic militias fought over control of Kabul during the country's devastating civil war from 1992-96 that killed some 100,000 people and left most of the capital in ruins.
The beleaguered Hazara minority has long been persecuted.
During the 19th century, Afghan monarchs attempted to forcibly convert the Hazara, seize their lands, and bring Hazara regions in the country’s highlands under the control of the central government. They were campaigns that killed thousands and forced even more to flee their homes, including many to British India. Hazaras who resettled to Kabul and other cities suffered discrimination and were often employed only in low-paying jobs.
During their oppressive rule, the Taliban terrorized the Hazara, wrestling control of Hazara regions in Afghanistan through a campaign of targeted killings and what rights groups have suggested amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Historically the poorest and most marginalized ethnic group in Afghanistan, the community has made major inroads since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban regime, becoming powerful figures in politics and the media.
Although there is no census, Shi'a are believed to make up around 15 percent of Afghanistan's 30 million people, which is largely Sunni. Hazara account for the overwhelming majority of Shi'a in the country.
Aside from past Taliban atrocities against the Hazara, the extremist group’s strict interpretation of Shari’a law and its policies on women and education could threaten advancements made by the Hazara in recent years. Socially and culturally more progressive than other ethnic groups, the Hazara fear their rights to education and to practice their religion will be threatened under a peace deal.
'Ball Of Fire'
Amir Hamza was among the more than 400 people packed inside the Imam Zaman mosque in Dasht-e Barchi in October 2017.
As the worshippers knelt in rows to pray, a suicide bomber at the front detonated his explosives.
Blood spattered the walls inside the mosque as bits of flesh sprayed the ceiling. Broken glass and concrete littered the praying mats.
That bombing -- claimed by IS militants -- killed 58 worshippers and wounded more than 100.
“I was sitting in the same row as the suicide bomber,” said the 72-year-old Hamza, a caretaker at the mosque, whose hearing was impaired after the attack.
“There was a ball of fire that burnt my beard, the left side of my face, my left leg, and even the money I had in my top shirt pocket.”
Hamza, a father of eight, was rushed to the hospital where he spent several days in intensive care.
“This was the work of the Taliban or Daesh,” said Hamza, who trudged inside the renovated prayer hall with a limp. “They are the same. They claim they defend Islam but they bombed God’s house and destroyed the holy books inside.”
Guards brandishing AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles guarded the entrance to the mosque, which can fit around 2,000 worshippers. Worshippers are searched and vehicles are prohibited from parking near the mosque for fear of car bombings.
But the security measures did not prevent the horrific attack from taking place.
Hamza’s family was among the first to move to Dasht-e Barchi in the late 1990s.
Once a largely barren area with just several settlements, the crowded enclave is now home to hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Hazara who have fled war and poverty in neighboring provinces. Many residents here are poor, although some affluent neighborhoods have also sprung up.
Hamza came to Dasht-e Barchi during Taliban rule from the southeastern province of Ghazni, where he said the Hazara population was persecuted, arbitrarily jailed, and their land confiscated.
“If the Taliban came back to power as part of a political deal, then we won’t be able to live as we do now,” said Hamza. “Would this mosque be open? Would all the schools be open?”
'We Cannot Accept The Taliban'
In August 2018, dozens of high school graduates were hunched over their wooden desks inside a crowded classroom at the Mawoud Academy in Dasht-e Barchi.
In the middle of a lesson, a suicide bomber stormed into the classroom and detonated his explosives.
Forty students were killed and nearly 70 wounded inside the destroyed classroom, which was full of broken bodies strewn over smashed desks and chairs.
All the dead were students under the age of 20. They were attending extra lessons to prepare for university entrance exams that were just weeks away.
Sabara Ahmadi, an 18-year-old student, had been taking lessons at the academy. Although she was not there that day, she lost two close friends in the attack.
“I’m very scared,” said Ahmadi, sitting on a bench in her school garden, chatting with classmates between lessons. “But the attack also made me even more determined. I want to carry on for my classmates who were killed.”
Ahmadi’s parents moved to Kabul from the neighboring province of Maidan Wardak after 2001.
Life for the family was difficult in Kabul, an overcrowded city of 5 million people at risk of near-constant militant attacks and plagued by mass unemployment. The family rented a room in a neighborhood where running water and electricity worked only sporadically.
But for Ahmadi’s uneducated parents, the sacrifice would almost certainly be worth it -- their eight children would have a better life.
Ahmadi’s three older brothers, who grew up during Taliban rule, were denied an education. But she has been able to attend school and hopes to study for a computer science degree.
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The Taliban was notorious for its poor treatment of women, banning them from working or going to school.
Since 2001, millions of Afghan girls have gone back to school, women have joined the workforce, and dozens of them are members of parliament.
The militant group has suggested it is committed to guaranteeing women their rights, although only in accordance with their strict interpretation of Islam.
Ahmadi, donning jeans and a pink head scarf, fears the return of the Taliban as part of a peace deal could jeopardize the future of young Afghans, especially girls.
“We cannot accept the Taliban,” she said. “Everything will get worse. Even though I’m scared, I can still go to study. But the Taliban will probably take that away from me, too.”