KABUL — Mohammed Naser heard the bomb go off and ran to his second-floor classroom window, just in time to see the cinder-block garden wall blow apart. The lights went out and students rushed for the stairway, but someone said gunmen had entered the first floor.
“We were trapped. Girls were screaming in the next classroom. I could feel the fear,” Naser, 21, a business student at the American University of Afghanistan, said Thursday morning, hours after militants bombed and stormed the campus Wednesday evening.
The attack left at least 16 people dead and 53 wounded, the Afghan Health Ministry said Thursday.
The unknown assailants detonated a truck bomb at a school for the blind next door to the prestigious U.S.-run university while evening classes were in session. A small squad of gunmen rushed into the compound, battling police and other security forces until the pre-dawn hours. At least seven students died and hundreds were trapped for hours before the assailants were killed and the campus evacuated.
“They were trying to kick down our classroom door, so we pushed all the tables and chairs against it,” Naser recounted from his bed at the Emergency Hospital in the Afghan capital. “Then students started jumping out the windows, and I did, too.”
While Naser and about 20 other students were huddling behind a pile of furniture in their economics class, a police special forces officer named Faraidoon Nizami, 25, was trying to fight his way up to their location.
“I saw one guy wearing a commando uniform, and I shot him,” Nizami said Thursday. As he and his squad mates from the police Crisis Response Unit started up the stairs, another militant threw a grenade down and injured one of them. Nizami said he threw a grenade back and saw the second attacker collapse, but Nizami, too, was wounded.
Naser and Nizami ended up in the same cramped hospital ward Thursday, along with half a dozen other wounded students and police officers. Naser, who had landed on a cement patio when he jumped, broke his right arm and shattered his left hip before crawling to a basement library and passing out. When he woke up, special forces officers were carrying him to an ambulance.
“This was a political attack,” he said. “They are trying to stop education in Afghanistan, and our university is the only one with international standards. It is a horrible pattern.” Two foreign professors, including one American, were kidnapped by gunmen near the university Aug. 7 and have not been heard from since.
Nizami, who was nursing a leg wound, said his injured squad mate later died in a hospital. Their commander, Lt. Mohammed Akbar, 33, was shot dead while trying to evacuate students from the upper-floor classrooms. He was praised in numerous official statements and tweets Thursday as a courageous officer who had led rescue missions during some of the most infamous militant attacks on buildings in Kabul, including the Serena and Intercontinental hotels, the parliament and the election commission.
President Ashraf Ghani visited Nizami and other patients Thursday morning. “I lost two of my friends, but the president came here and said he appreciated what we had done,” Nizami said. “Education is so important for our country. If people are educated, there would be no more war.”
Ghani issued a statement calling the attack “a cowardly attempt to hinder progress and development in Afghanistan.” He said terrorist groups seek to undermine “values that Afghans believe in,” but he vowed that such attacks will strengthen the nation’s determination to “fight and eradicate terror.”
Later, after the president met with his national security advisers, his office issued a second statement saying the attack was “orchestrated from the other side of the Durand Line,” meaning from Pakistan. It said he spoke by phone with Pakistan’s army chief and asked for “serious and practical measures against the terrorists organizing the attacks.”
No group immediately asserted responsibility for the campus attack, but its combination of a powerful bomb followed by a commando-style ground assault was typical of previous Taliban attacks on foreign and government facilities in Kabul. Afghan officials have often accused Pakistan of harboring Taliban militants and leaders. Afghan officials reportedly gave Pakistani authorities three cellphone numbers used by the attackers that appeared to be from Pakistan. Pakistani officials released a statement late Thursday saying those numbers were from an Afghan company that provides cellular service on both sides of the border.
A Taliban spokesman said
the group was “investigating” Wednesday’s attack.
Some of the surviving students and their families echoed Ghani’s defiant message Thursday, saying they planned to continue their education despite the threats. It was not clear when or whether the university would reopen, however. University officials have made no comments and have ordered students not to speak to the media.
Khuda Baksh, 61, a shopkeeper whose daughter Farzana suffered a mild head injury in the attack, said he would send her back to the university if it reopens. Speaking outside the Emergency Hospital, he said he had waited all night while she was trapped on the second floor of the classroom building before finally lowering herself to the ground with a curtain.
“I am a poor man, but I am proud that all my children have been educated,” Baksh said. “My country needs educated people because there is so much illiteracy. I worry every day when my children leave home, but my daughter is a talented student and she wants to help her country.”
In a flood of tweets and online messages all day Thursday, students, professors, friends and supporters expressed similar sentiments. Many blamed militant groups for seeking to sabotage education. Zabiullah Mudaber tweeted that the attackers were “afraid of our bright young generation.” Arhum Butt tweeted: “To destroy education is the easiest way to rule. Hang in there #kabul.”
Despite the bravado, however, the terrifying campus attack added yet another violent blow to prospects for higher education and professional ambition among young Afghans, especially in the capital, where many flock to study and work. On July 23, terrorists detonated a suicide bomb during a peaceful demonstration by mostly young ethnic Hazaras, many of them college students.
Tens of thousands of young Afghans have fled the country in the past two years, some joining the flow of illegal migrants to Europe. Unemployment is soaring, and the collapse of the Western-financed war economy has left many young professionals jobless.
The attack on the country’s most modern university, established and run by Americans, is also bound to cast doubt on its future viability here, especially coming so soon after the kidnapping of the two foreign professors. No group has asserted responsibility for those abductions. In Wednesday’s attack, another foreign lecturer, a woman from Uganda, was slightly injured, according to hospital officials.
One of the saddest scenes recounted by students Thursday was inside another classroom on the third floor of the building where Naser and other students were trapped. Mohammed Daud, an economics major, described trying to calm frightened female classmates as they listened to gunfire in the dark and then heard a gunman walking toward their room.
“We all kept quiet. He entered the room and fired a few rounds and left,” recalled Daud, who was being treated at the Emergency Hospital for a broken shoulder. “Then I saw our lecturer with blood on his chest. He walked toward the window and threw himself down.” Daud said he was afraid to follow but heard another gunman approaching and jumped. On the ground he saw his professor, an Afghan, lying dead.
“His name was Ahmad Naqib Khpelwak, and he was one of the best teachers,” Daud said. “He had two master’s degrees and was planning to begin his doctorate.” Other students tweeted a photograph of Khpelwak, a handsome and confident-looking man with a yellow scarf around his neck.
“We have lost another asset of Afghanistan,” one of them tweeted.
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.