War & Peace

A Sad Nawruz: Violence risks tainting an important Afghan holiday


AAN had wanted to wake up on a Friday, post its piece about Nawruz special food traditions, and enjoy the quiet of one of the last weekends before elections and more hectic days of work. That this was a delusion became clear as details about yesterday’s attack at Kabul’s Serena hotel started to emerge. On afterthought, the whole idea had been optimistic to start with.

The outgoing solar year, 1392, ended in a bloodbath. The last week has been particularly bad, with major attacks carried out in two provincial centres before the last incident in the capital. Maimana on 18 March and Jalalabad on 20 March. In each instance the number of casualties went double-digit. (There was also an attack on a police post in Farah’s notorious Bala Boluk district during which four policemen and four attackers were killed).

If in Jalalabad the militants sought to target the security forces – eventually involving passers-by – the attack in Maimana, which the Afghan newspaper Hasht-e Sobh termed “blatant enmity to humanity,” was particularly heinous, as it took place in a crowded bazaar. The sleepy provincial town in northern Afghanistan has already too often been the object of unwanted attention on the part of suicide attackers (see earlier AAN analysis of the province here). This time, too, the balance was bloody: 16 civilians lives were lost, dozens more people were wounded.

Then came the Serena attack. Shorter than other high-profile commando attacks in Kabul, but nonetheless deadly, it left dead – apart from the four attackers – nine civilians, customers of the hotel restaurant only guilty of being there to enjoy their food. Four of them were foreigners, five were Afghans.

A particular piece of news, the death of Ahmad Sardar, heavily struck many Afghan and international colleagues and friends. Sardar was an AFP reporter and founder of Kabul Pressistan, a media production company specialised in facilitating international journalists. His family was nearly completely destroyed: his wife and two children died alongside him, while the sole survivor, a youngest son, is fighting for his life under medical treatment (read here and here). In protest for these murders, Afghan journalists gathered at the Sardar Mohammad Daud hospital declared a 15-day ban on reporting on the Taleban.

Now, the usual questions arise. Do the attacks indicate a trend? Is the increased pace of violence targeting the morale of the Afghan forces at the eve of the international withdrawal? Is the aim to disrupt the security of the elections and electoral workers? Or is it an attack on the very occasion of a celebration of Nawruz in a “Western-style” restaurant? As often, these questions have no clear answer. The Taleban’s claim of responsibility of the attack in the Serena Hotel features many inconsistencies with the dynamic of the facts (and, more typically, exaggerated figures of casualties) that raise doubts about its authorship. The very young perpetrators (some of whom were apparently still teenagers) used only pistols, contrary to the Taleban claim that they had “automatic weapons, grenades and powerful sticky explosives”. Also, if they, as the Taleban claim, “selectively took down their targets”, well, that makes them intentional killers of women and children.

The only conclusion which, if grim, seems realistic to infer, is that of a continuity of violence between the year just gone, 1392, and the new one started in such an ominous way, 1393.

But Nawruz is no mere turn of the calendar. It is also the occasion to celebrate the coming of spring, new life, and happiness. The possibility that the attack on the Serena could have represented an opportunistic occasion for militants to collaterally target a celebration often resented by extremist religious groups may not be completely excluded, especially in the light of another incident; an attack today in Khakrez district of Kandahar. Here, the shrine of Shah Agha, the local venue for Nawruz celebrations, was hit by an explosion which killed three local party-goers.

Therefore AAN opted for withholding its “lighter” piece on the Nawruz traditions until tomorrow, the second day of Nawruz, as a token of respect for all the victims of the recent attacks. Finally, after a day spent watching Kabul’s people celebrate their New Year in parks, gardens and houses, this at least can be argued: to try and take on the coming of spring, even on the part of deadly killers as those ravaging Afghanistan nowadays, seems neither wise nor realistic. Nawruz is being and will continue to be celebrated.

Happy Nawruz to everybody who acknowledges that something like spring exists.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace