By Pamela Constable
August 25 at 8:16 AM
KABUL — Mohammed Naser heard the bomb go off and ran to his second-floor classroom window, just in time to see the cinderblock 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, leaving at least 12 people dead and 45 wounded.
The unknown attackers 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. Then students started jumping out the windows, and I did, too,” Naser recounted from his bed at the Emergency Hospital in the Afghan capital.
At the same time that Naser and about 20 other students were huddled 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 teammates 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 he, 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. Naser, who had landed on a cement patio when he jumped, broke his right arm and shattered his left hip, but crawled to a basement library and passed out. When he woke up, police special forces 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 teammate later died in a hospital and their unit commander was shot dead in the all-night gun battle. But he said he was glad most of the students had been rescued and proud that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had stopped by his hospital bed early Thursday.
“I lost two of my friends, but the president came here and said he appreciated what we had done,” said Nizami, who was a pharmacist before joining the police. “Education is so important for our country,” he added. “If people are educated, there would be no more war.”
Ghani issued a statement later Thursday calling the attack “a cowardly attempt to hinder progress and development in Afghanistan.” He said terrorist groups seek to obstruct the development of “values that Afghans believe in” to bring growth and prosperity but that such attacks will only strengthen the nation’s determination to “fight and eradicate terror.”
No group has claimed responsibility for the campus assault, but its combination of a powerful bomb followed by a commando-style ground assault was typical of previous attacks on foreign and government facilities in Kabul by Taliban insurgents. The abduction of the two university teachers also has not been claimed.
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 if and when the university would reopen, however. University officials have made no comments and have ordered students not to speak to the press.
Khuda Baksh, 61, a shopkeeper whose daughter Farzana received 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 that continued all night Wednesday and into 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, including many 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 psychological effect of repeatedly targeting the country’s most modern university, financed 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. 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 from one of the classrooms on the third floor of the same building where Naser and his classmates were trapped. Mohammed Daud, a junior majoring in economics, described trying to calm frightened female classmates as they all heard firing in the dark and then 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 teacher, 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 young 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.