AVA- Two months ago, Mohammed Murtaza Turkmeni gathered up his savings and bought his first Kalashnikov. He was born, educated and started his own family against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s civil war, but until now the 27-year-old telecoms engineer had never fought or wanted to fight.
This year, he didn’t feel he had a choice. He is one of hundreds of men from Kabul’s Shia communities who have taken up arms to protect themselves and their community during Ashura, a ceremony that has been a frequent target for bloody sectarian attacks from Pakistan to Iraq.
“It feels very sad,” said Turkmeni, part of a volunteer group who have been training in the basement of the mosque for weeks. “We are living in a country where every second there is a possibility of attack.”
The gunmen appeared on the streets of Kabul when the 10 days of Ashura commemorations began in mid-September, stark testament to crumbling security, and the devastating rise of sectarianism in a country once spared its ravages.
“In 40 years of war, Afghanistan hadn’t seen mass sectarian violence until the rise of ISKP [the regional ISIS affiliate],” said Kate Clark from the Afghanistan Analysts Network thinktank.
“It’s struck at the heart of the city, what used to be the safest part, at people doing the sort of normal things which make life worth living. You can’t really protect yourself, as the attacks have been against normal, everyday places.”
The attacks had been universally condemned by Afghans, from Taliban insurgents, to mainstream politicians, Clark added, but security forces have so far seemed unable to blunt the reach of ISIS.
The Shia community was badly shaken by a 2011 bomb at a historic Kabul shrine, an unprecedented sectarian attack that killed more than 70 mourners. Then, from 2016, the rise of ISIS in the region brought a string of similar attacks that forced most mosques to rethink security, adding armed guards to police protection.
But there have never been so many armed men, fanned out so visibly on roads leading to mosques and shrines, or beside the roadside stalls where believers offer hot tea and simple snacks to passersby.
“We had some security last year, but there is a lot more pressure this year as we think ISIS will be looking for targets,” said Hakim Abassi, who coordinates 80 guards at a mosque in central Taimani district.
The number of guards had nearly doubled since last year, he said, and they had spread out from the mosque itself, watching nearby alleyways and manning checkpoints two blocks away on the main approach road.
The government has issued temporary gun licences, but dressed in the uniform black of mourning – Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH)– they have the disconcerting air of private militias.
The particular fear hanging over this year’s commemorations, which culminate on Thursday, is born of a string of bloody Isis attacks targeting the Hazara ethnic minority, who are predominantly Shia.
They hit civilians as they went about their daily lives, killing dozens at a school, in a wrestling club, and at a voter registration centre, lacing even the most mundane routines with terror.
“ISIS are targeting one specific ethnic group, not only in the mosque, but in sports centres and schools so we have to defend ourselves,” said Mohammed Ishaq Mohammadi, a 48-year-old electrical engineer.
“People are selling anything that can bring in good money, like laptops, jewellery or carpets, to buy guns. I sold my wife’s jewellery to get a pistol.”
He still remembers feeling bemused the first time he visited a Shia mosque across the border in Pakistan, where sectarian attacks have been a problem for much longer. “I laughed when I saw people with AK-47s guarding the mosque entrance,” he said bitterly. “Now unfortunately we have the same problem here.”
Although Kabul is a city of at least 5 million, the scale of bloodshed in recent years has left few Hazaras untouched. “Our hearts are broken, all of us,” said Ghulam Abbas Sher Ali, 37, an unemployed security guard who has borrowed a gun to volunteer.
“Since [the 2011 attack at] Abu Fazl] shrine, we have all lost one relative or friend in an attack at the shrine, or at the school or the wrestling club. This is very very new, we never had this experience even in civil war times.”
The impact has rippled through the devastated communities, and been felt at many mosques, where officials say Ashura attendance is down slightly.
The volunteer guards say they are turning out to prevent it falling further, to ensure that even as ISIS takes away life, the group cannot dim the faith at the heart of their community.
“We felt like this security challenge was going to stop the ceremonies of mourning for Imam Hussein, stop us opening our mosques,” he said. “This is our red line. That’s why we took up guns.”
Thursday 20 September 2018 02:54