Photo: A funeral procession on Oct. 12, 2016, for one of the 17 people killed in an attack on a Shiite shrine in Kabul the previous day. (Hedayatullah Amid/EPA)
By Pamela Constable
October 12 at 1:01 PM
KABUL — A second attack in two days struck Shiite worshipers Wednesday in Afghanistan as a deadly bomb blast tore through crowds defiantly gathered to mark one of the holiest commemorations for Shiite Muslims.
The blast in the northern Balkh province — home to one of the most important Shiite shrines — followed an attack Tuesday in Kabul at a Shiite shrine that killed at least 17 people and raised fears of more violence during the Shiite processions and gatherings.
But Shiites refused appeals to stay off the streets, packing areas in Kabul and elsewhere for events marking Ashura, which ends a month of mourning for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who was killed in battle in the 7th century.
Details of the Balkh attack were not immediately clear, but police said at least 12 people were killed and 28 wounded.
The Islamic State reportedly claimed it was involved in orchestrating the Kabul attack, according to the group’s media wing. Many Sunni-led militant factions, including the Islamic State and the Taliban, consider Shiites part of a heretical branch of Islam.
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In the capital, the area around the assaulted Karte Sakhi shrine was cordoned off to traffic, and security was extremely heavy. Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police officers were stationed on every block, and squads of gunmen in trucks circled the ethnic Hazara Shiite district of West Kabul.
In July, suicide bombers from the Islamic State killed 80 people at a peaceful protest by Hazaras in the same community.
Even before Tuesday’s deadly violence, the Afghan government had urged people not to congregate during Ashura and expose themselves to danger. Five years ago, at another shrine in Kabul on Ashura, 70 people were killed in a suicide bombing claimed by a violent Sunni group from Pakistan.
But Shiites thronged the streets in acts of defiance: pushing baby strollers, wearing sashes saying “We salute Hussein,” hoisting flags from minivans and bicycles, and smearing their cars with red paint to symbolize the blood spilled by Hussein.
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“We have zero fear,” said Sayed Abdullah, 20, a geology student wearing a black tunic and green scarf to represent mourning and Islam. “Those who did this are determined to stop our gathering, but they will fail.”
Like many people in the crowd, Abdullah said there was no enmity between Afghan minority Shiites and majority Sunni Muslims, and he accused outside forces of using violence in an attempt to sow sectarian division and hatred.
“There is unity and empathy between us,” he said, adding that students of both sects had read the Koran and passed out alms together this week.
Nasir Alizada, 27, a metal worker, said he was at the rally that was bombed in July, where young Hazaras had gathered to protest discrimination and poor public services to their community. Although the group was weakened and splintered by the attack, it will “continue to struggle for our rights,” he said. “We have no fear of the enemies of Islam.”
Women brought their entire families out for the events, seemingly unfazed by the previous night’s attack at the Karte Sakhi shrine. The ornately tiled and turreted shrine is surrounded by a cemetery and park that is a popular spot for picnics among Shiites, especially during new year celebrations in March under the calendar followed by Iranians and many other Shiites.
“We are worried that Hazaras will be targeted again, but we still want to take part. We are ready to give our lives,” said a high school senior who gave her name as Roya. She and two friends had visited 12 shrines during the week, she said, and now they were on their way to visit Karte Sakhi as well.
Despite the festive air, tension was evident everywhere.
Police repeatedly shouted at drivers to keep moving, and hundreds of mosque security volunteers urged people not to bunch around the charity food stalls and the tents selling colorful banners and posters of Hussein and other historic figures in heroic and benign poses.
Men and boys performed ritual self-flagellation in frenzied circles in symbolic rites for Hussein’s death. Drum-pounding funeral chants boomed from loudspeakers.
“This day is very important for us every year, so we cannot worry,” said Mohammed Reza, 56, a shopkeeper. He held hands with his two young grandchildren, both wearing green headscarves, as they moved through the crowds.
“If there is another attack or explosion, it doesn’t matter,” he added. “We are here to dedicate ourselves to Hussein.”