One cold morning in Kabul, seventeen-year-old Shabnam Bakhtiari wore her clothes and arranged her books to get ready to attend a practice test for the national university entrance exam, Kankor.
It takes about half an hour to get to Kaaj Educational Center, where Shabnam was scheduled to take the practice test. Shabnam’s mother, Hadya, asked Shabnam to eat her breakfast before going to Kaaj. In response, Shabnam said she had no appetite and would be late if she took the time to have her breakfast. To save time, Shabnam takes some naan with herself to Kaaj, “The exam ends at nine o’clock. I will eat something when I get back.” Shabnam says to her mother. These were the last words that the mother and daughter exchanged with each other. Soon after, Shabnam left her home. Her mother closed the gates and returned to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.
An hour later, at around seven o’clock, Shabnam’s older sister Tamana, and her mother got together in the living room to eat breakfast. Meanwhile, Shabnam’s father, Sher Ahmed, was busy reciting the Quran. Hadya’s phone rang, and on the other end, a panting and frightened voice could be heard saying, “Aunt! I am Sabrina…there has been a suicide attack at Kaaj; I made it out alive, but I couldn’t find Shabnam. . .” The call quickly disconnected.
Hadya, startled, dropped her phone — her entire world seemed to have been upended. Sher Ahmad, taking notice of Hadya’s countenance, frantically asks her wife what seems to have happened. Hadya attempts to put herself together to reply, “An explosion has occurred at Kaaj. . .” For a moment, the silence returns, and no one knows what to do or say. Then everyone runs towards Kaaj in a panic. Sher Ahmed frantically takes off ahead of everyone else. Then Hadya, followed by Tamana, left the house.
All three: father, mother, and daughter, reach Kaaj. Once inside the courtyard, they notice the scene of the catastrophe. The explosion had been so intense that most of the building was severely destroyed, and its roof was blown away.
Many had been killed and injured. A large crowd had gathered. Some had come to help, but most were seeking a family member. More than several hundred students attended Kaaj. Everyone was trying to get the dead and the wounded out of the ruins. Many lined up on both sides of the exits, rushing to the doors as soon as a new body was taken out of the building—all trying to identify their loved ones by looking at their faces, hands, and clothes. Most — severely burned — could not be identified anymore.
One had come to find their sister — another in search of their daughter. Hundreds had gathered, all looking to find a sign of their family member’s whereabouts and condition.
The Taliban’s armed forces soon surrounded Kaaj and brutally dispersed the victims’ family members. Members of the press were not allowed to interview the family members of the victims. Continually threatening those at the scene with harsh consequences, the Taliban forces scolded the women gathered for not abiding by the appropriate hijab rules or if they spoke with the press members.
Tamana attempted to get inside the building. Once inside, she saw a partially severed leg, several bloody boots, and shoes scattered around the yard. Blood had been splattered everywhere. A young man gets in her way, telling her that there are many dead and wounded inside. “I don’t think you can stand the sight,” he says. Tamana waited around the corner for her father, who braved to go inside, hoping to find his daughter.
At that point, Tamana saw her mother slowly walk towards her — holding a blue plastic bag covered with blood. Tamana runs towards her mother. As they get closer to each other, Tamana sees her mother’s fallen countenance. Her mother says, “Your father has found Shabnam’s body. It is best if we both go there.” Tamana held her mother’s arms as they walked to find her father. She sees her father sitting in a corner, hitting himself in the face, saying, “They killed my Shabnam, my daughter, they killed our Shabnam!”
Tamana says that she barely felt anything at that moment. Numb, Tamana was worried about her parents. I looked at my father and noticed he was weeping in the corner. However, my mother seemed utterly shocked — she seemed to be dumbfounded and unable to utter any words or even cry. My mother suffers from a heart condition and rheumatism. I was afraid that something might happen to her — that she would fall ill. “We all waited until my uncle showed up, and then we retrieved Shabnam’s body with his help.”
Tamana says that Shabnam’s body was wrapped in the traditional white linen used for burial. Immediately, she noticed that Shabnam’s body was still bleeding — and blood was getting through the white linens. Shabnam says, “We carefully examined her body.” Three bullets had hit her in the skull area, and one seemed to have been lodged in her head from behind. Shabnam’s body seemed to be punctured by bullets all over.
Tamana says, “Shabnam’s body was ritually bathed and prepared for the burial but was still bleeding. Unable to stop the body from bleeding through the white linens, my uncle brought some plastic covers and started wrapping her body with it, then covered the body with the white linens.” Only then could Shabnam’s body be buried.
Tamana Jafari, Shabnam’s classmate, was sitting next to her that day and had barely made it out alive herself. She says that she first heard a gunshot and then a loud bang.
“I took shelter under the table, but Shabnam bravely got up and asked everyone to calm down in a loud voice. Suddenly, the suicide bomber entered the class and shot Shabnam and her classmates. Shabnam fell to the ground, and a massive explosion shook the building. I lost consciousness, and when I woke up, the classroom seemed brightly lit. I noticed that the ceiling had been blown away. Dozens of my classmates were lying on the ground next to me. I saw fractured skulls, severed hands, and legs amid the broken tables and chairs. Blood was flowing all around me. For a moment, all the noise subsided — it was all quiet until I started hearing some moans. Then I heard some noise outside the classroom.”
Jafari attempted to get up and noticed that Shabnam had fallen next to her. “I managed to remove the broken table and chairs that had fallen on top of Shabnam. Her body was covered in blood and injuries. . .for a brief moment, I felt like she [Shabnam] had fallen asleep. I thought to myself that maybe she had fainted.” I tried shaking her awake, but she did not react. I put my hand on her shoulder and called on her again, “Shabnam Jan, please wake up!” She did not reply. I called on her again, “Shabnam Jan! Please wake up!” I did not see her move. I placed my hands on her face and saw that she was not breathing. She was shot several times in the head. Tamana thinks that Shabnam was killed within the first seconds of the explosion.
The night before the explosion, Shabnam, along with her family members, were invited to a relative’s house. She refused to go – saying that she wanted to prepare for the university entrance exam. Shabnam was determined to sacrifice everything to excel at the practice test.
That night when Tamana and her family returned from the relative’s house, it was past midnight. Shabnam was still studying in the living room. This was the last time she saw her younger sister. The next morning, Shabnam left for Kaaj and never returned home.
Hadya, their mother, says that Shabnam came to the living room early in the morning and asked for twenty Afghanis from her father, then turned to her and said, “Mother, please pray that I secure a high score on the test. I want to succeed in the university entrance exam and study in my favorite field at the university.” Shabnam smiled and told her parents that she would take care of them first.
Her mother said, “Shabnam left home without eating her breakfast. She did not even eat dinner the night before. She was so enthusiastic when she left home the day of her practice test. She smiled at me while I was closing the gates after her. She left, but did not return!”
“She loved biking around the neighborhood,” Tamana says. Fearing the Taliban, Shabnam could not bike around Kabul. She dreamed of a time when she could freely wear her floral patterned dress and walk outside in the sun.
Speaking of Shabnam’s hopes of studying medical sciences, Tamana says, “Last year was really challenging for Shabnam. She was worried about how the security situation started deteriorating rapidly. She worried about the Taliban closing universities to women — in the same way, that they closed the schools to girls.”
According to Tamana, Shabnam’s only motivation was to study as hard as possible. Speaking of her sister’s tireless dedication to her studies, Tamana says, “She [Shabnam] used to study for hours in a row without getting tired. Sometimes when her mood was down, she would turn to self-help books in order to motivate herself.”
Besides preparing for the university entrance exam, Shabnam was also studying English to study abroad in case the Taliban banned girls from attending universities. Tamana — speaking of Shabnam’s unyielding determination — says, “She [Shabnam] used to say that if the Taliban banned women from attending the universities one day, she would apply for a scholarship — and study somewhere abroad.”
While painfully weeping for her sister, Tamana says she regrets not seeing her sister leave early that morning for Kaj. “Shabnam was very kind and attentive. Since she was the family’s youngest child, I would sometimes get upset at her because of her [Shabnam’s] mischievous and jovial behavior.” But she always apologized quickly. A few days before she was killed at Kaaj, she came and sat next to me and said: ‘Khowar Jan, [dear sister], please don’t get angry with me. I apologize if I have upset you. Life is so unpredictable in Afghanistan, especially for us women and Hazaras; no one knows if I will be alive tomorrow — I don’t want you to be upset with me.'”
Shabnam was right. Life is unpredictable in Afghanistan. Shabnam was still a child and had not even had the chance to wear her colorful and flowery dress when she was killed that day at Kaaj. Shabnam could not fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor to treat her ailing parents. Shabnam’s death and unfulfilled dreams left a permanent scar on her family’s heart.
The very same day that Shabnam was killed, her family found her bloodied body and buried her in a cemetery next to Zeinab Kubra High School. Zainab Kubra is the same high school where Shabnam studied. Tamana says that Shabnam liked her old high school very much. “She [Shabnam] used to visit Zainab Kubra every once in a while. Finally, Shabnam rested next to her beloved high school.”