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What The Attack On American University Really Meant To Me

Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Students at the American University of Afghanistan on their way to campus after the August 24 attack.
There are some things that almost every Afghan knows. We all know that car bombs leave behind craters in the ground. Birds nearby die instantly from the shock wave. And human flesh can be found on rooftops and trees for days after. The details are ugly and sad — and they reveal a lot about the life we live.

On August 24, three attackers detonated explosives and shot students at the American University of Afghanistan, in Kabul, killing 16 and wounding 36. Among the dead were eight students and two professors. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the assault, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in a press release that the attack was planned in Pakistan. Roughly 750 students were on campus that day — my brother among them.

The AUAF attack wasn’t the first time my family has been affected by a terrorist incident. In the summer of 2010, I was home from my school, Randolph College. Back in Afghanistan, I didn’t miss much, except some close friends and the sweet professor Goulde, my English professor, friend, mentor, and de facto guardian. Sure, I craved the pies from Rivermont Pizza right across the campus in Lynchburg, VA, as well as my roommate’s steamed rice now and then.

I followed the news until late that night and went to bed afraid that the next day I would be seeing the faces of some of the casualties on Facebook and television.

But I didn’t suffer much — my mother cooked every day and my father was entertainer-in-chief. After I had spent the semester thousands of miles apart from my mom, she went above and beyond. If I wanted steamed dumplings three days in a row, I would get them three days in a row.

The morning of June 2, 2010, I woke up to a horrific blast. President Hamid Karzai’s representatives had arranged a peace jirga. Jirga is a Pashto word for council, and refers to a local method of resolving disputes among tribes and communities. The jirga tent wasn’t very far from where we lived at the time, and the two-day event had come under attack from the very beginning.

After the explosion, police poured into the streets. A young officer knocked on our door and advised us to leave the area as it was in range of enemy fire. We went to our uncle’s house on the other side of Kabul, and after an hour of talking politics and the attack, it turned into just another day at my uncle’s house.
Even in 2010, we were old hands at this. I had been under lockdown with dozens of my colleagues once, four years earlier, during a violent riot outside of my office. In 2005, I was late for work one day as the road to the office was cordoned off by the police. A teenager had detonated explosives after he had rammed his vehicle into an oncoming convoy of international troops. There have been so many similar encounters, I am not sure I would remember them all. I tend to forget the details of these incidents, perhaps due to some coping mechanism that we develop to adapt and survive.
My family and friends together have experienced so many, I would need to write a book to list them all. This is despite the fact that I consider us to be among the lucky ones; in the past 15 years, more than 31,000 civilians are estimated to have died as a result of the war. Those deaths are in addition to the 870,000 Afghans who died and 3 million who were wounded between 1978 and 1987. All told, almost every Afghan family has lost at least one person to the conflict over the past four decades.
But last week’s attack hurt me deeply, and not just because my youngest brother, Nawid* is in his final semester there, but because the environment at American University first showed me what my ideal Afghan society could look like. It helped me see how an educated and tolerant group of people could transform their lives for the better.

I’ve always felt that the word oasis captured the essence of AUAF. On the north end of the small campus, when I worked there, there was a large, bustling cafeteria. Men and women dined together, unusual in the gender-segregated society outside the university’s walls. As I would stand in line to get my food, I'd sometimes look around the hall. Some students would be stressing over their reading assignments, others passionately arguing over something, probably politics, and then in one corner, you would often see a student listening obediently to his professor, usually foreign, who had travelled from afar to teach him and others like him.
The first time I ever played badminton was at AUAF’s Michelle Bayat Gym, a big indoor sports hall that lies parallel to the main road. In fact, it was probably my first time playing any game, ever. As a woman, social norms dictated that I couldn’t play outside or even walk too fast. But I felt comfortable enough that day, in that environment, to pick up a racket and try this thing called badminton. I was bored just a few minutes into the game, but no one cared that I was playing it, and that was all I wanted.

Friendships, music, love — all the elements of student life existed at that campus. Many of the relationships that students forged at AUAF led to marriages. Meanwhile, there were elections for student president, group prayers, and students jointly breaking their fasts during Ramadan. There was a certain harmony and peace about the place that felt genuine and indigenous. I hoped that this happiness would spill outside the walls into the streets and up to the highways that ran to villages that had forgotten what peace and freedom felt like.
But throughout my time at AUAF, a constant threat lurked. It was common to receive safety alerts from campus security. We never knew when the previous threat subsided, but we would always learn about a new one.

And finally, over five years after I'd left, an attack actually took place. When I heard the news from my desk in New York, where I work now, I panicked and called my brother right away. He didn’t answer his phone, so I called my sister next. I did not dare call my mom; I could not even imagine how horrified she would be. In her usual calm voice, my sister told me that, though he was still trapped inside, Nawid was okay. I didn’t understand how those two things could co-exist, but her composed tones made me trust her. Later that night, my brother called and said he had been able to jump over the wall into the U.N. compound next door. He had escaped unharmed.

Still, I followed the news until late that night and went to bed afraid that the next day I would be seeing the faces of some of the casualties on Facebook and television. I woke up, went for a jog, and didn’t log into Facebook. I got my morning coffee, and then I couldn’t wait anymore.
I logged on, and the faces of those who were lost flooded my Facebook feed. Among them was a bright assistant professor, Naqib Ahmad Khpulwak, who had a double master’s degree and was a PhD candidate. I can only imagine how he achieved all that despite nearly four decades of war, refugee life, and poverty. Sami Sarwari, a musician from a poor family who had received a full scholarship and died that night, had just started the fall semester and spent less than a week at the campus. A classmate shared a screenshot of his Facebook status, which read: "Im in. Looking forward to a beautiful and bright future.”

People from many different backgrounds were killed that night, but one theme that knits them together was bravery. Professor Khpulwak had stayed back to help his students escape through his office window when he was finally found and shot. Several surviving students posted online about a police officer who ran in and out of the buildings, guiding hundreds to safety before he was gunned down; he was later identified as Mohammad Akbar Andarabi, commander of a Crisis Response Unit.

I believe in all these stories. My country doesn’t have much left, but I am certain it is rich in the bravery of its people. The living students, staff, and security forces will persevere. I assure you that on the reopened campus, AUAF’s students and staff will once again be in their classrooms, their pain still raw, but reading Gandhi, Aristotle, and Descartes as they always have.

Whatever armed group thinks they can turn our reality into a mirage is bound to fail. There is a lush green place out there, and like millions of Afghans before them, my people will risk everything to get to it.

Wazhma Furmuli is a board member of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women and former Afghan refugee who worked at the American University of Afghanistan while she pursued her dream of education. The views expressed here are her own.

*Editor's note: Furmuli's brother's name has been
changed to protect his identity.