The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Worse than the civil war’: Kabul violence makes Afghans fearful of unseen enemies — and each other

Friends and relatives of Agence France-Presse photographer Shah Marai Faizi pray as they gather at his burial in Gul Dara, Kabul, on April 30. (Andrew Quilty/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — A pall of fear is settling over this shellshocked capital, where too many bombings, too many funerals, and too many moments of panic and dread in recent months are beginning to take a cumulative toll on people’s state of mind. 

The effects are both subconscious and deliberate. A shopkeeper ducks behind a counter when an unknown customer enters. A man whose son died in a mosque bombing now prays at home. A policeman shouts at journalists to stay away from a crime scene, fearing they will draw new violence. A student with a backpack arouses instant suspicion.

“People are so afraid now that when a tire blows, they run,” said Jamshid, a grocery manager in his 30s who uses one name. He was at work May 8 when he heard an explosion across the city. Coming out to the doorway, he said he saw a young man take off a backpack and shoot it, blowing himself up.

The two bombs, both aimed at police stations, killed six people. The one next to Jamshid’s shop blew out hundreds of windows in a cellphone company headquarters across the street. Jamshid was unharmed, but the blast shattered his store windows too — and his nerves.

“This is worse than the civil war,” he said, describing childhood memories of rival militias rocketing the capital. “At least then you knew where they were shooting from, and most rockets didn’t kill people. Now you never know where the next bomb will go off, and they are much deadlier. It affects you mentally.”

Insurgent attacks on Kabul have been occurring periodically for more than a decade, but in the past year the pace of bombings and shootings has accelerated sharply. The turning point came last May, when a massive truck bomb shook downtown Kabul during morning rush hour. More than 150 people died and hundreds were wounded. 

Since then, both the Taliban and Islamic State militias have claimed several dozen attacks, some of them on the same day. And since Jan. 1, the two groups have struck hotels and mosques, military and police facilities, voter ID centers and commercial markets, and diplomatic and official enclaves, leaving hundreds dead and injured and affecting thousands of families.

With city residents increasingly angry at the government for failing to protect them, security officials have been taking extra measures, such as adding guards and barriers around the main diplomatic zone and putting administrative police officers on street patrols.

But police officials said they are stretched thin, covering a wide urban area full of potential targets — now including 375 voter registration centers for parliamentary elections in October. They also said it is frustrating to try to identify potential suicide attackers who look like everyone else. In a pair of back-to-back bombings April 30, the bomber pretended to be a journalist who was covering a previous blast at the same spot.

The Islamic State claimed double suicide bombings in Kabul on April 30 that killed at least 25 people, including nine journalists. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We are supposed to be enforcing the law, catching criminals and stopping terrorists too. Now we have an added focus on the elections,” said Gen. Daoud Amin, Kabul’s police chief, who complained that his roster of 14,700 men is still inadequate. Spotting suicide bombers, he said, is hard without the technical equipment that wealthier countries have. “All we can do is watch closely and rely on our instincts.”

On the surface, the capital is still bustling, with wedding halls and shopping malls lit up until late evening, mosques filled on Fridays, and high-rise apartments under construction. But in recent interviews, residents said they are now fearful of carrying out their regular activities or have changed their habits — avoiding attack-prone locations such as police stations, praying before they leave home, and keeping in constant cellphone touch with loved ones. 

Many people said they had lost a relative, co-worker, friend or neighbor to terrorist attacks in recent months, and some said they had agonized over whether to abandon jobs or worship practices that exposed them to danger. In Dasht-i-Barchi, a Shiite-majority district, produce seller Abdullah Haidari, 69, said his son was killed in a recent mosque bombing and his family had since begged him repeatedly to switch to a different one.

“God knows how much I miss him,” Haidari said, pointing to a spot in the mosque where his son died. “I feel sad every second of my life, but I am not alone. Many people have been going through this. All we hear about these days is suicide, martyrs and death. My wife tells me not to come here, but I can’t abandon this mosque.”

Like others, Haidari blames the government, as much as the insurgents, for his loss. “A hen protects her baby chicks,” he said, but President Ashraf Ghani, “with all the resources he controls, cannot protect us.”

The dilemma is acute for journalists, especially TV crews who are expected to rush to every terrorist attack scene. After the April 30 bombing, which killed nine Kabul-based Afghan journalists, local TV and radio stations went through a period of grief and soul-searching. But almost all of the crews decided to remain on the job, citing both economic need and professional commitment.

Inside the bunkerlike offices of TOLO TV last week, a portrait of Yar Mohammad Tokhi, a cameraman who died in the blast, hung in a tiny room piled with equipment. Another cameraman, Hasib Sadat, was badly burned and partly blinded two years ago, when Taliban insurgents bombed a TOLO staff bus. Now he is back on the job, although he acknowledged he tends to cover softer stories. 

“This is my profession. It is the only way I know to support my family,” Sadat said. Yet he said it was hard on his family, especially his 4-year-old son. “He remembers seeing photos of me in the hospital, and he always tells me not to go to the office,” Sadat said. 

Another crew member, Ramez Ahmadi, said he has covered so many funerals and violent attacks that he often dreams of gruesome street scenes and panics at sharp sounds. “If someone throws a stone, we get scared,” he said.

Rumors also spread panic these days. This month, when a downtown bank manager heard reports that security forces were looking for a group of insurgent gunmen in the city, he ordered the nervous staff to stay inside for the rest of the day and send customers to another branch. The rumors turned out to be untrue.

For bystanders who witness actual attacks, the resulting jittery nerves can trigger overreactions. Ever since Jamshid saw the young man detonate the bomb in front of his shop, the mere sight of a backpack terrifies him. Every time a customer comes in, he said, “I pray he won’t be carrying a bundle or a bag on his shoulder that might explode.”

Sharif Hassan contributed to this story. 

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan at near-record level this year, according to U.N. report

‘We suffer more’: Rising violence on Shiite targets takes toll on Afghanistan’s Hazaras

Taliban appeals to American people to ‘rationally’ rethink war effort

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news