‘My world went dark’: The day ISIL killed my cousin at school

This is a first-person account by Maisam Iltaf, an Afghan who lost his cousin in an ISIL attack on a school in Kabul on August 15.

The teenage children at the academy, which was in a Hazara neighbourhood, had been studying for their university entrance exams.

Iltaf told Al Jazeera’s Shereena Qazi his story:

“It started out as a normal day: I woke up at 4am, hit the gym, showered, made myself breakfast and left for the office.

On that hot afternoon, I was at my desk working. My colleague was peacefully reading a report I had given her. Everything was fine.

I had just finished my tea when my phone rang. It was my mum. As usual, I thought she would be calling to ask me to buy some fruit on my way home.

‘Hello, mum, what’s up?’ I asked her.

Things were quiet at first, no one spoke.

‘Hello Maisam, Rahila is missing. There has been a suicide attack at her school,’ that is exactly what I heard, I remember.

‘Everyone is out looking for her,’ she continued with a shaky voice.

Rahila’s body was found in a government morgue after the deadly attack on a school in Kabul [Maisam Iltaf/Al Jazeera]

My world went dark at once. I quickly cleared my desk, packed and left my office.

I took a taxi home, picked up my other cousin and headed to Estiqlal hospital, where I’d heard that many victims were being taken.

On my way to the hospital, I saw noisy, rushing ambulances. Not one. Not two. Many. The sound of their sirens was clamouring in my head.

The sun was already sinking behind the clouds. The day was getting darker and my feelings more grim.

At the hospital, there were scenes of chaos.

I saw dead bodies and wounded people lying everywhere. Families and friends of those affected were screaming in search of their loved ones.

I skimmed through the casualty list, rushed to the hospital corridor and squeezed into a room full of dead people. A rank smell spread everywhere. I saw people’s wounded limbs, one was halfway burned.

Cries of a woman holding her son’s dead body pierced the hospital walls. There I got the first big hit: my soul scarred, heart smashed and mind lost.

But before I myself cried of despair, a friend grabbed my hand, embraced me, and said: “Everything is going to be OK.”

But, no. We both felt helpless and weak knowing that while we were safe, many others had not been so.

‘Where is Rahila?’

My friends and I re-grouped.

We searched nearly all of Kabul’s hospitals for six hours, but Rahila was nowhere to be found.

Soon, we heard news that she was slightly injured at Ali Abad hospital. It brought us back and restored our hope. 

I was so happy and hoped things would go back to normal. That we would leave fear and despair aside and invoke the forces of good instead.

Dozens of people were killed when a bomb ripped through a class at Mawoud academy in Kabul [Maisam Iltaf/Al Jazeera]

That hope, however, soon faded and fear and despair grew larger as we found out that the injured victim was not Rahila, but someone who resembled her lying on the hospital bed.

“I found my girl,” a woman shouted. “It is her. It is Najiba. Thank God she is only injured!”

An hour later, we found what we were searching for.

Rahila’s brother and father had made their way through limbs and dead bodies, hoping that perhaps she had survived. Her father, shattered, whispered that he had found her, dead in the government morgue.

‘It was her,’ Hamid told me. ‘Every trace matched: bluish-purple dress, black cowboy jeans, black shoes, and a brown wristwatch with blood spattered all over it.’

When news of her death broke, I panicked.

The funeral

Rahila’s body was kept in a coffin in the mosque’s yard the night we found her. 

The next morning, at 4:30am, as the call to prayer from the mosque rose to a crescendo, everyone woke up for the prayer.

On that balmy morning, I felt faint and struggled to wake up. We prayed and waited for the sunlight to stream so we could go up to the rocky hilltop to bury Rahila.

On Wednesday, August 15, Rahila Monji along with 48 classmates were tragically killed and many more injured when a bomb ripped through their class at Mawoud academy in Kabul.

The bomb blast in the academy was claimed by ISIL [Maisam Iltaf/Al Jazeera]

The youngest in her family, Rahila would brighten the darkest room and cheer up every spirit with her infectious laugh, smart sense of humour and a big beautiful smile.

Her home that was filled with life and light not long ago has turned into a place of mourning.

My heart bleeds every time I see Rahila’s little study area, where she would burn the midnight oil to increase her chances of getting the top score in the Kankor – a university entrance exam – to get into university and study economics, her favourite subject.

At only 17, she taught an English language course to a class of 25 students. She prioritised education over everything else.

A page from Rahila’s diary shows a poem written in Dari that reads: Rahil can do it because she is love, she is cute, she is strong and she is empowered. To achieve one must bear the difficulties along the way [Maisam Iltaf/Al Jazeera]

I had seen her a few days before.

She was excited that she had gotten admission at Mawoud academy to start her university prep courses.

Rahila used to say she was planning to top the exam and bring change to society.

My mum and I congratulated her, held her in a warm embrace. Back then, I was thinking about her dreams.

But her dreams perished before my very eyes on Thursday, at the edge of the city, as people shovelled and dug up strips of earth.

We buried Rahila with all her dreams for education.

I stared at the sight of her getting buried. Feelings of woe, anger, guilt and heartache were so overwhelming.

As I looked at the grave that embraced Rahila, her last words in her diary kept resonating in my mind:

“I can be the Rahil [Rahila’s nickname] everyone needs – the society needs Rahil.”

“She must help her society in its pursuit of prosperity and progress. Her society can overcome its current crisis with solutions that must be drawn from the knowledge and education of its youth.

“Rahil must be one of them – one of those who will raise the proud flag of this country [Afghanistan] in the world…” 

Rahila’s desk where she used to study [Maisam Iltaf/Al Jazeera]

A day later, when I went to collect her belongings from the school, I found her bag. A black leather bag covered in dirt and blood.

The classroom she once studied in had turned into a complete ruin. Chairs spattered with blood.

A blackboard dotted with holes.

The shrapnel-filled suicide vest had done the worst things possible.

Now, from the quiet of my room, I reflect on Rahila’s life and lofty dreams. I cannot help but to also think about the lives of many of us in Kabul.

A city, I wonder, when was it at peace?”

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