Kabul, Afghanistan – For weeks, Afghan cities had been preparing to celebrate the 100th independence anniversary on Monday.
There were billboards of King Amanullah Khan and multicoloured lights strewn across trees and roundabouts. The Afghan flag flapped in the wind, hanging from cars.
But that collective sense of joy came to an end at 10:40pm on Saturday.
An attack targeting a wedding in Kabul, where most guests were Shia Muslims, saw more than 60 people killed – including 14 members of a single family – and more than 180 others injured.
The assault was claimed by the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). A fighter reportedly neared the stage where musicians were playing and detonated his explosive vest.
It was an attack that people like Massoud Ahmad, 22, could not have foreseen.
With a handful of other young Afghan men, in the lead-up to August 19, he had climbed wooden ladders to paint Afghan flags and statements about freedom on the blast walls behind the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul’s commercial hub.
The art project was part of a government-led effort to commemorate the day King Amanullah Khan reclaimed Afghanistan’s foreign affairs independence from Britain.
“In the past, most of the celebrations were online, but when we realised it’s been 100 years, we knew [we] had to do something special.”
They wanted “to show the world that we once had independence and we have independence now”, said Ahmad, whose own family had sought refuge in Peshawar during the civil war.
Ahmad and his friends took pride in their work, but the irony of painting on massive concrete walls meant to protect a government institution was not lost on them.
“Many of my friends say they’ve only seen suffering in this country. They say to me, ‘You’re crazy, look at our lives, all we’ve ever done is go from one war to another, which one of us has a job, who can hang out somewhere and not be worried that there will be a bombing?”
But even before the tragedy on Saturday night in Kabul, many Afghans had questioned the value of celebrating independence at a time when the Taliban and the government have been accused of conducting attacks and operations that are taking massive tolls on civilian life.
Meanwhile, the concept of independence in a country that witnessed the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and the US-led intervention in 2001 has also become a talking point.
“To have independence, you have to have freedom, and we don’t,” said Wana Zaman, a 25-year-old Kabul resident.
Afghanistan is dependent on billions of dollars in foreign aid. More than 14,000 foreign soldiers are present in the country.
In Nangarhar, the eastern province where Amanullah, his wife Soraya Tarzi, and father King Habibullah Khan, are buried, the provincial Governor, Shah Mahmood Miakhel, organised an ongoing series of events around independence, including academic seminars to discuss the nature of freedom.
“We want to know what is independence, from every angle – cultural, economic and political. We are encouraging these people to discuss these issues in conducive environments,” he said.
Miakhel says Nangarhar – which for years served as the winter capital – was the ideal place to have these discussions.
“The people here played a major role in terms of administration and politics, therefore, Nangarharis feel very connected to these matters.”
Amanullah Khan's biggest mistake in copying Ataturk was his lack of education and awareness about his own country.
The government has now postponed long-planned celebrations, including reopening Darulaman Palace, built by Amanullah in the 1920s.
Amanullah’s legacy, however, is not without critics.
When posters and billboards with images of President Ashraf Ghani and Amanullah Khan began appearing at government institutions, Ghani was accused by some of using the iconography of the monarch as a form of campaigning for the September presidential elections.
In 2016, Ahmad Wali Massoud, the brother of anti-Soviet commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, lashed out at Ghani for saying: “Today I feel very proud that one of the aspirations of our national hero Amanullah Khan is becoming a reality.”
Massoud, whose brother was given the title of “National Hero” after the US-led invasion of 2001, accused Ghani of “offend[ing] some people – those who have a major affiliation to the national hero”.
Ghani has long had an affinity for Amanullah and what sources say was the king’s “modernist” approach to cultural and social issues, including the status of women.
In 2017, the president again called Amanullah a national hero, saying: “freedom was declared” by the king.
Amanullah’s reformist agenda led to British-stoked uprisings against him in the south and the north of the country.
An admirer of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish leader credited with secularising his country, Amanullah was viewed as moving too quickly with his reforms, including calls for equal gender rights.
Orzala Nemat, the director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit think-tank, said Amanullah’s chief mistake was in not knowing his own people and their limits in accepting cultural and societal reforms.
“Amanullah Khan’s biggest mistake in copying Ataturk was his lack of education and awareness about his own country, a country with a reunited state, a state that was still dependant on external funding,” said Nemat, pointing to another criticism of Amanullah, that he spent extravagantly on visits to Europe and the Darulaman Palace in a then-largely empty area of Kabul.
This, said Nemat, required higher taxes in an already poor nation, which she strengthened the backlash against a king already seen as an outsider by the people.
Late on Sunday as the independence anniversary neared, the victims of Saturday’s wedding blast tragedy were being buried.
According to TOLO news, Ahmad Jawad, a relative of the bride, said he has lost his two sons aged 11 and 15 years.
“What was the sin of my sons?” Jawad said, adding that as the violence took place, the president was busy “celebrating the festival of [independence]”.