A growing number of bombings of mosques and prayer ceremonies continues to generate outrage across society. But after the condemnation and news reports abate, these once sacrosact places of communal worship remain a source of fear. Naqib Ahmad Atal reports.
Debris from the Daulatzai village mosque bomb on August 3, 2012. (Photos: Atal)
With scores of villagers seated before him for Friday prayers in the mosque in Daulatzai, Jan Alam was concentrated on delivering his sermon, oblivious to the horror about to envelop this place of worship.
“I was guiding people on the right path and urging them to be kind to each other during the holy month of Ramadan,” says Alam, an imam, or prayer leader, in the Chaparhar District of Nangarhar Province. “After I finished speaking, my cell phone rang during the adaan second call for prayer. Then I passed out, surrounded by flames.”
Alam was one of 22 people injured on August 3 after a bomb blast tore through the building in a presumed attack by anti-government forces. Several of the wounded worshippers died later in hospital or remain in a critical condition.
Coming just days after a provincial judge was killed and four civilians were wounded in a mosque bombing in Uruzgan Province, the Chaparhar attack drew wide condemnation. The speaker of the Upper House of Parliament, Fazil Hadi Muslimyar, himself a native of Daulatzai, deplored the carnage and warned that tribal leaders must “stand against the insurgents and their inhumane acts.”
His comments reflected the outrage of most Afghans at the brutal desecration of this and other places of worship. “If tribal arrangements to reduce and prevent such incidents do not take place, there will be worse in the future,” predicted Muslimyar, while President Hamid Karzai said the attack showed the intentions of the enemies of Afghanistan “to shed the blood of innocents.”
Yet this is not a new phenomenon in the strategy of those seeking to overturn the government and wreak havoc. Numerous bombings of mosques occurred in the past decade, some apparently randomly aimed, others clearly intended to kill specific individuals among the crowd. In what was reportedly the country's first mosque suicide bombing, the police chief of Kandahar was among 20 killed during a funeral ceremony in 2005. Similar attacks have since occurred in Kabul, Kunduz, Kunar, Laghman and other provinces. Most recently, on August 15, dozens of people were injured when two grenades exploded inside a mosque during morning prayers in the eastern Khost Province.
In Chaparhar and its surrounds, people became steadily more fearful that they can be harmed in or near the houses of God. In 2006, eight people died and dozens were injured by a car bomber at a funeral at the Najmuddin Akhundzada Mosque, the largest in Nangarhar. Provincial Governor Gul Agha Sherzai narrowly escaped and blamed the Taliban for this and other attacks on holy sites that have shattered public confidence.
House of God or war zone? Children in Daulalzai may grow up wondering which is the case.
The mosque aggressions, according to insiders, are part of an insurgent strategy to spread panic among the population as the 2014 timeline set for withdrawal of foreign combat troops draws closer.
Yet despite widespread claims that the Taliban carried out the Daulatzai and other bombings, the movement's spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement denying responsibility.
“They [the perpetrators] are not Taliban. They want to spread hatred against the Taliban among the people," read the statement, which blamed “unknown, masked insurgents” for the attacks. "We sent official letters to people and asked them to cooperate with us to find and capture those who loot and attack schools and mosques.”
But suspicion still falls on militant groups, be they Taliban, Haqqani Network or others fighting the government and international forces. “By attacking the mosque, the insurgents have shown that neither civilians nor religious places matter to them,” said Sherzai Adershah, a local tribal leader who lost his brother in a similar attack and who has led protests calling for greater mosque protection. The culprits were “infidels”, said Adershah, adding that “true Muslims never attack mosques.”
Meanwhile, worshippers are increasingly reluctant to pray in communal places. An atmosphere of fear and mistrust now lingers around many mosques, especially during evening or late prayers. Amin Jan, a local resident and member of Parliament, put it simply: “People now normally do not leave their homes after dark, ” Jan told Afghanistan Today.
“People now normally do not leave their homes after dark.” Amin Jan, MP.
In the face of the general rise in violence, some residents have opted to leave Dawlalzai. Attah Mohammad Helaman says living in the village became so difficult that he moved with his family to the city of Jalalabad over a year ago. “After sunset, we could not go outside of our house,” recalls Helaman. “We were afraid and were unable to perform evening, late evening, and morning prayers at the mosque.”
Other residents stay but are too afraid to revisit the sites of previous bombings. Mosque attendance figures have sharply decreased as a consequence. The Najmuddin Akhundzada Mosque used to welcome more than 10,000 worshippers for Eid and other major celebrations, but now it only has just 1,000-1,500 visitors on special occasions, said Mohammad Wali, the mosque’s imam.
Worshippers at the Najmuddin Akhundzada Mosque at Friday Prayers in August 2012. Attendance has slumped since it also became a target.
The bombings leave more than just physical scars. According to Dr. Azziuddin Hemat, head of the Afghan Psychologists Association, around two thirds of the Afghan population experience heightened anxiety or depression. The percentage cannot easily be broken down by specific causes, but physical attacks on the things held most sacred to people - families, faith, culture - would certainly contribute to the high rate, he believes: "On a national level, such incidents as suicide attacks and explosions trigger depression, anxiety, and symptoms of mental stress among Afghans,” said Hemat.
For many people it is hard to articulate their revulsion, fear and pain while others, especially politicians, are quick with almost formulaic responses to each new abomination.
Now though, an Afghan singer, Khapari Naghma, has taken the issue to the charts. She also condemns the attacks and commemorates the dead, and her Pashtu lyrics perhaps say it best of all: “Burned Qu'ran scattered in pieces; God’s house collared with blood, peoples’ lives steeped in misery.”