Don’t look away

The war on children and education in Afghanistan should be our war too

By: /
17 May, 2021
School girls near the site of an attack a girls' school in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul on May 9, 2021. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Halfway through the Second World War, in 1942, most inhabitants — men, women and children — of a small village named Lidice in what is now the Czech Republic were murdered on the direct order of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. More than 170 men and teenaged boys were shot. Women and children were deported to camps, where 82 children were gassed to death. The killings were in reprisal for the assassination of one man, Nazi SS official Reinhard Heydrich — although Lidice had no association with the two soldiers of the Czechoslovakian government in exile who had parachuted into the country and killed him. Lidice was effectively wiped off the map. Every building was destroyed. Even farm animals were slaughtered. The village cemetery was razed.

It was a terrible, brutal episode in a long war of terrible, brutal episodes. Yet — for that stage of the war — this particular episode was different. The Nazis openly claimed responsibility for Lidice, unlike other massacres that they covered up. The massacre of Lidice was about propaganda as much as it was about vengeance, meant to demonstrate the brute force of the Nazi occupiers, a warning to any citizen thinking about resisting the unsparing grip of their totalitarian power.

Word spread, and the world reacted. Media throughout the Allied world covered the massacre, and there was an outpouring of solidarity and grief. Towns and neighbourhoods in the United States, Panama, Mexico and Venezuela were renamed after Lidice. A campaign, Lidice Shall Live, began in Britain to pay for the rebuilding of Lidice after the war. Plays, films, books, poems, sculptures and memorials appeared. People beaten down and exhausted by war and its consequences — rationing, interrupted lives, loss — paused to absorb the story of Lidice and consider what it signalled about the inhumanity of the Nazis. Later, the full scale of what the Nazis were capable of would temper the shock at Lidice. But at that moment in the war, Lidice represented a shift in perception, a juncture in how the world understood the foe they faced.

* * *

On May 8, three bombs detonated outside the Sayed Al-Shuhada School in Dasht-e-Barchi, a neighbourhood in West Kabul where members of the Hazara ethnic minority live. The Hazaras are mainly Shia Muslims and therefore also a religious minority in a country where most are Sunni Muslims. At least 90 are dead and 165 injured. Most of the dead are schoolgirls. The school had two shifts, one for boys and another for girls. The explosions were set to go off during the girls’ shift. Both the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State have targeted Hazaras in the past. The Taliban have denied carrying out this attack. The Islamic State group has attacked Hazaras in the same neighbourhood but has not claimed responsibility for this latest attack.

When I look at a photo of bloody backpacks and books strewn about what used to be a school, or another, of a long row of small forms wrapped in white body bags, I wonder: is this Afghanistan’s Lidice moment? Will the world snap awake in response to the horror of dead girls, blown up because they wanted so badly the right to be in a classroom? What else could it take other than dozens of dead children from an ethnic and religious minority, methodically exterminated?

Then I remember that almost exactly a year ago, in the same neighbourhood of Kabul, terrorist gunmen stormed down the hallways of a hospital, with ruthless precision skipping other wards until they found the doors to the one they wanted: the maternity ward. They then proceeded to kill, one by one, mothers in labour, mothers who had just delivered, and their babies too. As Médecins Sans Frontières  pointed out, the symbolism was inescapable: “Never would we have thought that such violence could be unleashed on women at the moment when they are the most vulnerable, when giving birth.” There was further symbolism in the fact that these mothers were also Hazaras, a population the Taliban and ISIS consider heretical and would prefer to eradicate rather than accommodate into their vision of a future Afghanistan under Islamist control.

The maternity ward massacre did not turn out to be any kind of turning point in the world’s resolve. There was outrage from disparate corners here and there, but it was a slow drip; the response hardly distinguishable from the standard statements of condemnation usually issued when the body count exceeds a couple of dozen.

Or there were the 32 people killed at Kabul University last year, mostly young students. Or the 24 youth killed in an education centre — again, an attack targeting the Hazaras — the month before that. Or the hundreds of schools burned down, the teachers murdered, the assassination campaign against journalists, activists and prominent women, not to mention the targeted terrorist attacks against Afghanistan’s media outlets. Atrocities in an endless stream of atrocities. Will the Sayed Al-Shuhada School attack somehow stand out from these serial tragedies and provoke a revelation, a reckoning? Or is Afghanistan too far away, too abstract? Is there any threshold of violence at all that will trigger the kind of public outrage provoked by Lidice, and as a consequence, lead to some form of justice for the victims?

In 1947, a Czechoslovak court sentenced 15 Gestapo members for their role in carrying out the massacre of Lidice. Identifying those responsible for the Sayed Al-Shuhada School attack first requires some form of serious investigation. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) is calling for “an expert and fully resourced, independent team of United Nations investigators to carry out a fact-finding mission into the massacre” in order to collect evidence and identify the perpetrators — both direct and indirect. After all, terrorist groups rely on layers of support: there are those who detonate the bombs, but there are also those who make, move and pay for them, and those who provide sanctuary and in-kind support, as Pakistan is accused of doing, with little consequence.

The UN is already mandated to do this under various Security Council Resolutions, and as the AIHRC points out, the UN is supposed to be “the custodian of international human rights law.” But so far only statements of condemnation are coming from the UN.

This could change if there was a rising tide of pressure from the publics of states engaged in Afghanistan including the permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as countries like Canada. Flawed as they are, our democracies can still be provoked to grudgingly activate the system as it’s intended to work: people demand action, and governments act. But the demand must be vociferous. It’s not.   

In 1942, people heard about Lidice and they saw it as part of their story. Everyone was experiencing war, and they were united in opposition to the blight that was Nazism. As a tragedy, Lidice made the cut; despite the astronomically greater number of Czechoslovakian Jews — 263,000 — who ultimately suffered the same fate.

“While the war in Afghanistan is in part a war on a persecuted minority, it is also a war of ideas.”

Today, the men, women and children of Afghanistan suffer; we do not. We, civilians in the safer countries of the world, do not have the shared experience of war with Afghans; we do not see ourselves as living the same story. And, like Lidice, the Sayed Al-Shuhada School, represents but a fraction of the total number of lives lost amidst a long, painful war. There have been other, bigger massacres that failed to rouse much attention outside Afghanistan. 

But while the war in Afghanistan is in part a war on a persecuted minority, it is also a war of ideas. The war on children, the war on education, the war on modernity should be our war, too. And for that reason, we should be memorializing the murdered girls of the Sayed Al-Shuhada School, telling their stories in our art, and naming places after them. But, much more importantly, we should be telling our leaders that this particular atrocity changes things; this atrocity has caused us to pay attention, to see in the crowd of terrible, deadly events enveloping Afghanistan, one tragedy that compels us to say: enough.

Canadian citizens need to demand that their government does everything it can to persuade the UN to initiate an investigation that leads to identifying the perpetrators, and then work with the Government of Afghanistan to bring them to justice and seek reparations for the victims.

These are achievable measures that would demonstrate to the Afghan people that Canada has not forgotten them. It would remind those who target civilians with terror that Afghanistan’s friends will work to ensure they will one day face justice. The Government of Canada can advocate for these changes and help to realize them. But first, we must find the fury in ourselves that compels us to ask them to.

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