On August 24, 2016, the Taliban attacked my undergraduate university, the American University of Afghanistan. The following 11 hours were the darkest hours of my life, but the aftermath of the attack taught me a lot of lessons of resilience, hope and the power of community in the wake of tragedy. This event that has shaped my understanding of the connection between education and peace in Afghanistan. Below is my survival story.
Where was I on that day? I was on campus that day and it was the first week of the fall semester. New students arrived on the campus, having big dreams and hopes to start their studies and become someone in their lives. It was a beautiful day. I was excited to start the semester and I missed my friends during the summer break.
The following 11 hours were the darkest hours of my life, but the aftermath of the attack taught me a lot of lessons of resilience, hope and the power of community in the wake of tragedy.Sveto Muhammad Ishoq
That day, I had accounting class following anthropology. It was 6:30 pm. I had to leave for the anthropology class, which was in Azizi building. I was in the Bayat Building, which was bombarded half an hour later.
I reached Azizi Building and about 15 minutes later had to leave for the Maghrib prayer. I came back. Our professor, Bruce Josephson, was a new professor. It was his first semester teaching at AUAF and also his first week in Kabul. He was explaining some anthropology definitions.
We all heard a big blast! Windows were broken, the light was gone, the dust and smoke was seen everywhere. Students were screaming and for a few seconds we laid down. Then the guard started screaming and saying, “Ruuuuuun”!
I grabbed my bag, notebook that was on the table, and my phone. I was hugging my bag and my hands were full with my stuff. Students were screaming, crying, and panicking. It was a shocking moment for everyone. But I tried to stay strong, tried not to give up, and tried to escape from that place. I was with my friend who was sitting near me in the class. We all ran to the corridor of the A building where all students, professors and staff were there.
It was a shocking moment for everyone. But I tried to stay strong, tried not to give up, and tried to escape from that place.Sveto Muhammad Ishoq
BANG, BANG! The gunshots were heard consistently and the screams of the students were even louder. The guard asked everyone not to panic and move faster.
We ran, ran, ran. Finally, we reached the secret exit door. On that way, I lost my friend who was running with me. I looked back, screaming her name and looking for her, but the guard shouted not to stop and keep running. I kept running. I was left alone for a few minutes. Then I saw a girl who was running behind me. I grabbed her hand and we ran together. I did not know her before, but there was a special bond between us. Nobody talked, everyone ran. There was a silent conversation of understanding between us. There was not time to look back, there was not time to talk or ask questions. Just run. Run holding hands not to lose each other, even not knowing each other’s names.
There was not time to look back, there was not time to talk or ask questions. Just run. Run holding hands not to lose each other, even not knowing each other’s names.Sveto Muhammad Ishoq
While we were passing a jungle of debris and broken glass, my “running partner” fell and all her books fell on the ground. I told her to be fast and we continued running. We reached the street where there were a lot of students crying and trying to find a shelter. The girl and I were confused where to go, since everyone went in different directions. Suddenly, a guy told us to come this way and showed a way to us. He opened the door and asked to come inside, we went inside and it was the girls’ dormitory.
There was complete chaos in the dormitory. Students crying, screaming and hugging each other. Every student was talking on the phone, crying. Some were concerned about their brothers and sisters who were still stuck at the university with the terrorists. I called my family and informed them of this incident. I told them I was safe and in a safe place. I asked them not to worry about me. From that moment, I was busy answering calls from my family, friends and colleagues concerned about my situation.
Our injured classmates were brought to the dormitory and it was unbelievable seeing them in that condition. I called my other friends asking about their safety. All of them were safe and in the neighborhood.
I tried to call those two friends but they wouldn’t pick up their phones. I called once, twice, and then finally one of them picked her phone. I asked, “Where are you???” She replied in a very low voice saying, “I’m in the large conference room and in the corridor. Two terrorists are talking loudly and I can hear their voices coming to us, help us.” She hung up.
I could not utter a word. I was shocked. I did not expect my friends to be in danger. Since I was myself in a safe place, I thought everyone was safe. But now, I could only wish that were the truth. Someone called me and asked me to report this to the guard so that they will inform the university and help my friends. I tried to help them and told the dormitory guards about their situation. The guards reported it to the university and they promised to help them.
I could do nothing except wait. Different things were coming to my mind. I was wondering what they were doing now, how they might feel. I was sitting on the corridor and waiting for good news. I tried to call them again but their phones were switched off, making me even more worried. But I had faith. Deep down, I knew they were strong girls, they were brave girls and they could get out of there safely.
But I had faith. Deep down, I knew they were strong girls, they were brave girls and they could get out of there safely.Sveto Muhammad Ishoq
The girls from the dormitory were allowed to leave and go home one by one. When the clock turned 11:17 pm, it was my turn to leave the dormitory. My mind was with my hostage friends, but I had to leave. I reached home safely and everyone was happy to see me alive. But I was worried about my friends – what if they wouldn’t be able to go home? What if they were stuck there and would not succeed in coming back home? There were a lot of what if’s, but I had no answers to them.
Two of my friends along with their whole class were stuck with the terrorists until 4:00 a.m. Until 4:00 a.m, they were waiting for death in the Bayat building. They were in the same room with the terrorists until 4:00 am. They could not even breathe, but Allah helped them and the police rescued them. They were not even injured.
Yes. Miracles do happen.
It is true that we lost many valuable lives during the attack, but at the end education prevailed. There were many rumors about the university’s closure. However, we were blessed with a supporting community trying their best to reopen the university. Everyone, including faculty, students and staff stayed strong and supported each other during those times.
It is true that we lost many valuable lives during the attack, but at the end education prevailed.Sveto Muhammad Ishoq
We started the #EducationWillPrevail campaign all over social media because we didn’t want the terrorists to win, we wanted education to win, we wanted to continue our studies. This has become AUAF’s post attack motto.
We started the #EducationWillPrevail campaign all over social media because we didn’t want the terrorists to win, we wanted education to win, we wanted to continue our studies.Sveto Muhammad Ishoq
The university operations were suspended. We grieved but we never lost hope. We honored the sacrifice. Together we stood up stronger than before, and continued the legacy of each of our martyrs because we believed that education must prevail and there should not be other way.
Together we stood up stronger than before, and continued the legacy of each of our martyrs because we believed that education must prevail and there should not be other way.Sveto Muhammad Ishoq
AUAF created a memorial Logo – we put this logo in our profile pictures and we created AUAF Community Facebook Group – this attack caused people to be closer, to know the value of each other, and to embrace each other.
The Afghan government showed huge support for us. This gave us more hope. On November 2016, 2016, Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan invited and met over 500 students, faculty and staff and they discussed how important is AUAF for the future of Afghanistan.
After 7 months, the university reopened – one of the happiest days of my life. Everyone was so excited for the reopening of the university. 95% of students were back to campus and we also had 85 new students.
The reason why people were back and were trying hard to make it reopen again is the strong desire for education. We were frustrated, we had this feeling of why we should let the people come in and bomb the educational sector? Why do they have to do it? Why should we let these evil people win? We tried hard not to let the terrorists to win the battle. They wanted to end the education and we believed that education is a key to our country, it’s key to prevent violence and attacks. We came back despite threats. We came back despite fears. We came back despite many challenges and difficulties.
The day of graduation was the happiest because we proved to the terrorists that we won!!!
WE SUCCEEDED, WE GRADUATED, AND EDUCATION PREVAILED!Sveto Muhammad Ishoq
Author: Sveto Muhammad Ishoq, AUAF Alumna and founder of Chadari Project.
Editor: Thomas Valenti