An Afghan man and woman walking outside the “Barchi National-100 Beds Hospital” where an attack at the maternity ward in May 2020 left 16 mothers and mothers-to-be dead, in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul. – AFP

KABUL: It has been a year since Atiqullah Tanha’s wife was murdered during a cold-blooded killing spree at a Kabul maternity ward, leaving their twin daughters motherless. “They cry a lot at night,” Tanha said, saying the children are frequently unwell. “The doctor says mother’s milk would have helped prevent most of the health issues.” Even in a war-weary nation already deeply scarred by decades of conflict, the massacre of 16 mothers and mothers-to-be in western Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood caused horror.

International groups issued bold statements of condemnation, while Afghan politicians decried the violence and promised justice, though the assault-which killed 25 in total-went unclaimed. But, like with most attacks in Afghanistan, there was little to no follow-up. Only on Saturday, a series of bombs targeting a school in the same neighborhood-which is largely populated by Shiite Hazaras-killed more than 50 people, most of them schoolgirls.

Few expect authorities to track down the perpetrators of the latest carnage-or prevent similar massacres in the future. And those fears are rising as Washington and NATO accelerate the withdrawal of their troops, leaving Afghan government forces to fend for themselves and protect the vulnerable population. Still, many had hoped the sheer savagery of last year’s attack would finally usher in change.

Giving birth in hiding
That May 12, three gunmen rampaged through the hospital, shooting mothers in their beds and forcing many pregnant women to hide in safe rooms, where one gave birth. One infant, just hours after being delivered, was shot in the leg, but survived. In the immediate aftermath several women volunteered to help. “Being a mother myself I feel their pain,” said Ghazal Sharifi, a lecturer, who along with her friends collects aid for the babies.

“No one is like their (real) mother… but we still have several women going to their houses to feed them.” Weeks after the attack, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an international medical charity that managed the ward, pulled out of the facility. “The assailants have also left women and babies without access to essential medical care,” said Isabelle Defourny, MSF’s director of operations.

The Afghan government has continued to blame the Taleban, but interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian says no arrests were ever made. The US, however, pinned the blame on the Islamic State group. “No evidence was publicly brought to support those claims,” Defourny said. “Since then, MSF only received oral information that an Afghan investigation into the attack is ongoing,” she said.

Little hope for justice
Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict as the US and international troops withdraw. And there is little confidence that the already battered Afghan security forces will be able to turn the war’s tide, as peace talks between the Taleban and the Kabul government stall. There is also little hope that the brutality will be met with justice.

“One thing that’s clear is that the Afghan government hasn’t been doing a very credible job of investigating previous attacks,” Heather Barr, co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, told AFP days after the school blasts. “(They should) really try and figure out who did this and hold them accountable.”

Tanha and his family are still coming to terms with the tragedy. “My elder daughter Zakia asks for her mother the most,” he said as the twins played in his lap. A year on, Dasht-e-Barchi resident Akram Muradi still cannot comprehend the events of that day. He had just left the maternity ward after his wife gave birth to their daughter, Maryam, when he received a call that the facility was under attack.

“Nobody would believe somebody would attack such a place and massacre mothers who are giving birth,” he said. He rushed back, hoping to find his wife, frantically calling her mobile phone before hearing the ringtone coming from a nearby body bag. “It was the saddest moment of my life,” said Muradi. Muradi still bristles at the government’s failure to find those responsible. I have no hope they will be found,” he said. “I’m now looking for a way to take my children out of the country… I have lost all hope for Afghanistan.” – AFP