The volleyball court where the attacks took place has been turned into a burial site. (Photos: Ahmadullah Ahmadi)
Sharing a border with Pakistan’s turbulent Waziristan region, Paktika is one of Afghanistan’s most unstable provinces. One month ago, 63 people including schoolchildren were killed and another 97 injured in a suicide attack during a volleyball game in Paraaw village, Yayakhil district.
Located 26 kilometers from the provincial capital Sharana, Yayakhil district is considered relatively secure. One of the main reasons is the high quality of locally recruited police forces.
The suicide attack targeted a Pashtun community. A majority of the people in this region still live in isolation, lacking access to modern technology. Although some families use cell phones, their lifestyles generally follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. Aside from the main road, all roads that connect the district to the capital of the province are unpaved.
Local residents say they had never experienced a tragedy of such scale, and will live with the horror for the rest of their lives. Sporting events and other types of public gatherings have ceased, and a cloud of gloom seems to hang over the people.
The residents of Yayakhil’s mud-brick houses live in poverty. Haji Gul Khan, a tribal elder, says the victims’ children are facing severe hardship. They are deprived of education, their health condition is poor, and they have no one left to take care of them. Their smiles are devoid of joy; they are terrified, Gul Khan added.
Young people have also given up playing volleyball, cricket, football, and other sport games based on a decision by elders, said Gul Khan. “If the people again get together in such large number, it’s more likely that there will be another suicide attack. That’s why we the elders of this region have come together and decided to ban such activities for some time to prevent another kind of atrocity.”
Many of the children orphaned by the attacks have no one left to care for them.
A woman who lost her son in the incident lives with her widow daughter-in-law and orphaned grandson in a mud-brick house with no way to make a living. Another woman whose husband died in the attack says her family has lost its sole breadwinner and now has nothing to eat. She says her children live in her brother’s house now. The house where she and her family lived before the attack is empty.
“My three children and I now live with my brother,” she says. “His economic situation is not good enough to help us. I don’t know what we should be doing to survive.”
The sporting ground has turned into a graveyard for those who lost their lives in the attack. The Afghan national flag covers most of the graves, and the site is seldom empty— victims’ families regularly gather here to mourn the loss of their loved ones.
“There is no longer any happiness, cheer, or joy among the people,” says Gulab Khan, who is from Yayakhil district and plays volleyball. “People would play football, volleyball, cricket, and other games. But now, no one is willing to play anything anymore.”
One of the children who survived the attack says he was buying chips from a shop near the playground when the suicide bomber ignited his vest. “My foot got injured and I became unconscious,” he recalls. The youth were giving us some small gifts during the game when the bomb exploded. When I regained consciousness, I found myself lying in bed in one of the hospitals in Kabul. My foot was in a cast.”
The formation of local police units in the province made the population more vulnerable to Taliban attacks. Many believe the suicide attack was a warning, and that it mainly intended to kill local police and youth who were playing and watching the game. Those who survived the incident but lost their loved ones have resolved to defend themselves against future atrocities, and vowed never to shelter Taliban and other militants on their territory.
Locals have also called on the government to clear the region of Taliban operatives, but it’s not clear whether these demands are realistic. In general, locals seem disappointed about the local and central government’s lack of attention to the incident. They believe that if the government paid more attention to the people of this region, such an attack would never have taken place.