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.
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.
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.
All told, almost every Afghan family has lost at least one person to the conflict over the past four decades.
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.
There is a lush green place out there, and like millions of Afghans before them, my people will risk everything to get to it.
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.
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.
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.
My country doesn’t have much left, but I am certain it is rich in the bravery of its people.
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.