Days of fighting in Helmand prompt mass displacement and raise doubts about prospects for peace despite ongoing talks.
Kabul, Afghanistan – Rahimullah Sahi was in class at Kabul University’s Islamic Studies department on Monday when he heard the sounds of gunfire from the distance.
He and the other students assumed the sound was echoing from an incident near the university’s sprawling campus, but the soon realised the elite institution itself was under attack.
“Suddenly we saw people running and screaming,” says the 22-year-old, who narrowly escaped the deadliest attack on the university, which left at least 22 people dead and dozens more injured.
But fleeing the chaotic scene was not easy as the gunmen rampaged through the campus, firing indiscriminately at their targets.
For 20 minutes, Sahi and hundreds of other students sought cover from the sounds of gunfire, which they described coming in a steady stream from every direction.
“All I remember is masses of people running, screaming. People looking for somewhere to hide. It was absolute madness,” Sahi told Al Jazeera.
All I remember is masses of people running, screaming. People looking for somewhere to hide. It was absolute madness.
Sahi knows he was lucky, as it took Afghan and international forces more than six hours to clear the nation’s largest university campus of the three assailants armed with assault rifles, pistols and grenades.
Even worse, Sahi and other students speaking to Al Jazeera said dozens of trapped students and faculty were held hostage during the hours-long assault on the university.
The Taliban, whose representatives are currently in Doha for peace talks with an Afghan government delegation, were quick to disavow and denounce the attack.
“Certainly, such attacks are carried out by evil elements that were defeated in Nangarhar and Jowzjan provinces,” their spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement that alluded to their rival force, ISIL (ISIS).
Kabul has seen a surge in violence in recent months despite the talks in Doha.
The ISIL group claimed responsibility for the attack – the second such attack in less than two weeks targeting students.
ISIL also claimed the earlier attack, which killed 24 people in the Dashte Barchi area of Kabul.
In a message on the Telegram messaging app, an account claiming to belong to ISIL said they had “killed and injured 80 Afghan judges, investigators and security personnel” who had been gathered for an event at the Faculty of Law.
Though there was no evidence of large numbers of officials being killed and injured, the law faculty itself bore the signs of indiscriminate destruction. Classrooms with the day’s instruction still scrawled on the whiteboards were riddled with bullet holes.
One classroom’s walls were covered in blood while, in another, boots and shoes abandoned by fleeing students sat on blood-stained wooden desks.
“They were such good boys and girls, so well-behaved,” Saifullah, a worker at the law faculty said of the attack, which he says resembles nothing he’s seen in his 40-plus years of life in the country.
“I was born in violence, during the Communist coup d’etat, but in all that time I’ve never seen anything like this. Not even from the Soviets,” he says sitting on a plastic chair outside the destroyed building.
Saifullah too was lucky that he had walked towards the auditorium only minutes before the attack.
“I got a call that there was gunfire and grenades going off in the law faculty but I couldn’t make it back,” he says, adding that his way was blocked by the rushing students – up to 500 at a time – who were trying to get away. Some young women fainted from the shock.
Saifullah says the brutality of the crime makes it quite clear that it an ISIL attack, but others are less convinced.
Najib Wardak, a security official who took part in a candlelight vigil on Monday evening, says he does not buy the Taliban’s denial.
“I saw what happened inside, there was a white Taliban flag drenched in blood and ‘Long Live the Islamic Emirate’ scrolled on the wall, why would Daesh do that?” he asked, using the Arabic acronym to refer to ISIL.
In a statement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a professor himself who had previously served as the university’s Chancellor, made sure to mention the Taliban by name, saying, “This attack will not go without response, we will retaliate.”
On Tuesday, the country’s first Vice President Amrullah Saleh also pointed finger of blame towards the Taliban, which rejected the claims.
The west-backed government announced a day of mourning in the wake of the attack that has shocked Afghans.
On the gates of the university, signs reading “Boycott Doha talks” were hung by the following morning as social media users tried to get a similar hashtag trending online.
Wardak said the talks must immediately come to an end and that Kabul must convene an emergency meeting with Washington to sort out why the peace process has borne no fruit.
Realising that the attack came on the eve of a US election in which both candidates have expressed a desire to pull out American troops, Wardak says the people of Afghanistan have a clear message for both incumbent President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
“The United States took the lead on the matter of Afghan peace and now they can’t just leave us behind, they have to finish what they started. They cannot just cut and run, no matter what they promised during the campaigns,” said Wardak.
For Sahi, the Islamic Studies student, the problem isn’t in Doha or in Washington, but in Kabul.
“Our government has proven itself incapable. If they cannot ensure our security at home or at work or even at school, then they need to leave the government. We cannot go on like this,” he said after speaking at a protest outside the university on Tuesday.
To him, Monday’s attack was the final blow. It took away his last refuge.
“This was the one place in the entire country that I felt at peace. Now, even that has been taken from us,” he says.