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‘It’s Like a Nightmare’: For Bombing Survivors, Anguish That Won’t Stop

GHAZNI, Afghanistan — Every night, Hamdullah Hemat gulps down a 500-milligram prescription sleeping pill. He is 15 years old, a ninth grader. Last month, he saw his best friend die in a suicide bombing at their school.

Mary Alimi, a 30-year-old mother of three, suffered a head injury in the same bombing. She can no longer remember her children’s names.

Jamila Neyazi is 19, a schoolteacher. She suffered hand and shoulder wounds in the July 7 blast and saw many of her students cut by shattered glass, or bludgeoned by flying debris. She fears she is clinically depressed.

“I feel numb,” she said. “I wish there was a calm, dark place where I could sit and cry.”

There are dozens of suicide bombings in Afghanistan every year. Each is uniquely tragic, and each is swiftly overshadowed by the singular brutality of the next.

Like a blast wave, the psychological shock of a bombing reverberates far beyond the site of the attack, inflicting unseen wounds that last a lifetime. Those who absorb the blast and survive are forever altered, and even people miles away can be swept up in the emotional aftermath.

For many, memories of a bombing are so painful and insistent that they blot out any thoughts of a future.

ImageCreditFatima Faizi/The New York Times

“I was born in war. I grew up in war. And I will be killed by war,” said Ms. Neyazi, the young teacher.

For most Afghans, the counseling that many trauma victims would receive in the West is not an option. Treatment is scarce, and many of those who could access it fear being stigmatized, said Lyla Lynn, an American psychologist who works in the country. Afghans who are traumatized by violence typically seek out a mullah or visit a shrine, she said.

The World Health Organization has estimated that in Afghanistan, a country of about 35 million, more than a million people suffer from clinical depression, and at least 1.2 million from anxiety. But it says the real figures are likely to be much higher.

Ms. Lynn, the founder of Peace of Mind Afghanistan, which seeks to raise awareness about mental health in the country, said she had often treated Afghan patients for six to 12 months before even beginning to see improvement.

The Taliban suicide bomber who detonated a truck full of explosives on the morning of July 7 was targeting a nondescript building in Ghazni, a sprawling city in eastern Afghanistan. It housed an office of the National Directorate of Security, the government spy agency.

The bomber may or may not have noticed that four schools were nearby, clustered together in the densely packed neighborhood. The bombing killed 12 civilians, including 15-year-old Hamdullah’s best friend, Hamidullah, also 15. More than 100 children were wounded.

The military term for such casualties is collateral damage. The same term could apply to Aziza Alimi, 70, who watched her home collapse from the explosion but escaped without injury. Her grandson’s wife is Ms. Alimi, the mother of three, who is so shattered that she can barely speak.

ImageCreditSayed Mustafa/EPA, via Shutterstock

Another grandson of Aziza Alimi, Jaber, 8, was in school when the Taliban attacked Ghazni in August 2018. He was not physically harmed, but he was so traumatized by the gunfire and explosions that he has refused to return to school ever since. His grandmother tried spanking him, then cajoling him with toys. After the July 7 bombing, he said to her, “I told you so.”

She said Jaber fled to a relative’s home after the bombing last month so that she would not force him to return to class.

Hamdullah, the 15-year-old, said he went to his friend’s funeral but could not face the grieving family.

“It’s like a nightmare. I hear his voice, his laugh, his smile, and it drives me crazy,” he said.

He said he felt guilty because he had persuaded Hamidullah to transfer to the school, Afghan Rahmati, so they could attend classes together.

“In other countries, 15-year-olds are kids,” Hamdullah said. “To be honest, in Afghanistan we have never been kids at all.”

Gullalia Ahmadi, 18, a first-grade teacher, suffered hand and foot wounds in the bombing. She saw children wailing and smeared with blood, still in their seats or wandering smoky hallways.

Since then, she said, she has slept fitfully some nights and not at all on others.

“Whenever I try to fall asleep, I hear screaming and crying and I smell the blood,” she said.

ImageCreditFatima Faizi/The New York Times

Hekmat Zaki, 23, another teacher at Afghan Rahmati, escaped physical injury but fears his emotional scars are permanent. He tried to resume teaching a few days after the bombing, but many of his students, like young Jaber, are traumatized and refuse to return to school.

“I can’t sleep,” Mr. Zaki said. “Every night, I have to pace in the yard for hours.”

He does not expect his students to recover anytime soon, either.

“This attack has affected them terribly and it will remain with them for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Like other recent suicide bombings claimed by the Taliban, the Ghazni attack pierced the hopes raised by reports of progress in peace talks between the militants and the United States in Doha, Qatar. The talks seek to reach a lasting political solution in the nearly 18-year war, along with a comprehensive cease-fire.

On the morning of the Ghazni attack, Taliban representatives met separately in Doha with a group of Afghan officials and citizens for informal discussions about a possible road map to peace. Two days later, the participants issued a joint declaration vowing to work to reduce “civilian casualties to zero.”

The declaration called for guaranteeing security in several types of public institutions. Among them were schools.

Ms. Neyazi, the teacher, expressed astonishment that the destruction at Afghan Rahmati had been brought about by a Muslim.

ImageCreditFatima Faizi/The New York Times

“Look at me!” she said at the bombed-out school, three days after the Taliban took responsibility for the attack. “I am wearing a hijab.” Only her hands were visible.

Her garment, covering her from head to toe, was of the type that the Taliban required women to wear when they controlled Afghanistan, before the American invasion in 2001. Ms. Neyazi is socially conservative, a devout Muslim. But she refuses to believe any pledge by the Taliban to protect civilians.

“I cry a lot and I’m so hopeless,” said Ms. Neyazi, who was waiting in vain for her pupils to return. “We don’t want the Taliban back in this country.”

Hayatullah, 40, who goes by one name, lives near the blast site but was not physically hurt. His four nieces and nephews, who were in class but survived, were emotionally devastated.

They are behaving like many of the other children. Farahnaz, 7, cries herself to sleep every night, her uncle said. She refuses to be left alone for more than a few minutes.

Ayesha and Belal, both 8, and Mohammad Yusuf, 9, are also terrified. They seem lost and adrift. They refuse to return to school.

Their uncle has heard the pronouncements from the peace talks in Doha. They leave him cold.

“Peace — what peace?” Mr. Hayatullah said. “There won’t be any peace at all. Suicide bombers and explosions are all that we can expect for the rest of our lives.”


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