Dozens of young girls were buried in a desolate hilltop cemetery in Kabul on Sunday, a day after a high school was the target of the bloodiest attack in Afghanistan in more than a year.
A series of explosions outside the school during the peak holiday shopping season killed more than 50 people, most of them female students, and injured more than 100 in Dasht-e-Barchi, a western suburb of Kabul populated mainly by Hazara Shias.
The government blamed the Taliban for the carnage, but the insurgents denied responsibility and issued a statement saying the nation must “safeguard and care for educational centers and institutions.”
Saturday’s explosions came as the U.S. military continued to withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops from the violence-ravaged country despite hesitant peace efforts between the Taliban and the Afghan government to end a decades-long war.
Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told reporters that a car bomb exploded outside the Sayed Al-Shuhada girls’ school on Saturday, and when students panicked, two more devices exploded.
Residents were shopping ahead of this week’s Eid al-Fitr holiday – which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan – when the blasts occurred.
Relatives buried the dead on a hill known as the Martyrs’ Cemetery on Sunday, where victims of attacks on the Hazara community lie.
The Hazaras are Shia Muslims and considered heretics by Sunni extremists. Sunni Muslims constitute the majority of the Afghan population.
Bodies in wooden coffins were placed in graves one by one by mourners still in shock and fear, an AFP photographer said.
“I rushed to the scene (after the explosions) and found myself among the bodies, with my hands and head severed and bones broken,” said Mohammad Taqi, a resident of Dasht-e-Barchi, whose both girls were students at school but had escaped the attack.
“They were all girls. Their bodies stacked on top of each other.
Last week, students at the school protested the lack of teachers and study materials, said Mirza Hussain, a university student from the area. “But what they got (in return) was a massacre,” the photographer said.
Books and satchels belonging to the victims were strewn around the site of the attack.
Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, blamed the Taliban. “This savage group does not have the power to confront security forces on the battlefield, and instead targets with brutality and barbarism public facilities and girls’ schools,” Ghani said in a statement.
The Taliban have denied any involvement and insisted they had not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year, when they signed a deal with Washington that paved the way for talks on peace and the withdrawal of the remaining US troops.
But the group clashed daily with Afghan forces in the rugged countryside even as the US military reduced its presence.
The United States was supposed to have withdrawn all its forces by May 1, as agreed with the Taliban, but Washington pushed the date back to September 11 – a move that angered insurgents.
Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada reiterated in a pre-Eid message that any delay in withdrawing troops was a “violation” of this agreement.
“If America does not live up to its commitments again, then the world must stand up and hold America accountable for all consequences,” Akhundzada warned in Sunday’s message. He also said the country should “safeguard and maintain educational centers and institutions”.
Unicef, the United Nations agency, condemned the attack on the school.
“Violence in and around schools is never acceptable… Children should never be the target of violence,” he said, urging warring parts of the country to protect human rights.
The Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood is regularly the target of attacks by Sunni Islamist militants.
In May last year, a group of gunmen launched a cheeky daytime raid on a hospital in the area, which left 25 people dead, including 16 mothers of newborns.
On October 24, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a training center in the same neighborhood, killing 18 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.