Video footage shows books pulled from the shelves, door locks smashed and pictures defaced. Four years after a Taliban suicide bombing ended Najiba Bahar’s life, the hardline group trashed the library that became her legacy.
“I am devastated right now,” her fiancee Ghulam Hussain Rezai told AFP at a hotel near Rome, where he is staying after being evacuated by the Italian military in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
Following Najiba’s death in 2017, he and her friends and family set up the Najiba Foundation library and computer lab to provide education for girls and boys in Afghanistan’s remote Daykundi province.
It even hosted a girl’s volleyball team.
But the building in Nili City was looted when the Taliban swept through last month, according to videos and photos shared with AFP.
“The library and computer lab is partially destroyed,” said Rezai.
He said his team managed to flee from Daykundi but “my family, my friends, my staff at the Najiba Foundation are totally in panic”.
“They are living in hiding, I am worried about their security.”
He and Najiba had been planning their wedding when on July 24, 2017, a Taliban-claimed car bomb struck a bus carrying her and other government employees in Kabul.
The 27-year-old was among at least 26 people killed, her body so disfigured that she was only identified through her engagement ring.
Beautiful lives lost
Najiba grew up in a village in Daykundi but blazed a trail for girls’ education by winning scholarships to study computer sciences first in India and then in Japan, where she received her master’s degree.
Her friends and family were stunned by her death, but setting up the foundation “helped me with the trauma, that I did something for Najiba”, Rezai said.
“I cannot bring her back.”
They began with an idea for a library, ending up with around 12,000 books, but also a computer lab to reflect Najiba’s passion and to help youngsters in a region with little internet access.
Rezai thinks it became a target of the Taliban because the Islamist group is “opposed to girls’ education, and this was a hub for girls and boys”.
And he believes there was another factor: “This was somehow evidence of their crime.”
The foundation aimed to counter extremism through education, promoting open-mindedness and tolerance, and to remind the local community not just about Najiba but also others who lost their lives.
“We stand against forgetting,” Rezai said, emphasising it was important to remember “how many beautiful lives were lost”.
“Everyone in Afghanistan has lost someone… the tragedy becomes normal. I wanted to establish this to show that this is not normal,” he said.
Rezai would like the foundation to continue, if there was a way to do it while ensuring the security of his staff.
But for now he is facing an uncertain future, waiting to hear where the Italian government will send him once he finishes coronavirus quarantine.
NATO-member Italy was a key player in the international military operation in Afghanistan and evacuated almost 5,000 Afghans in the chaotic last few weeks.
Rezai flew out with his 21-year-old sister but left everything and everyone else behind, including his mother and two nephews aged 16 and 21 who were in his care.
His nephews were supposed to travel with him but became separated in the crowds at Kabul airport. For several gut-wrenching hours, he did not know if they survived the August 26 attack by the local chapter of the Islamic State group.
Finally he got through to his mother. “Of course they are emotionally affected, but thank god they are safe,” he said.
Looking around the little hotel that is his temporary home, he says the last few years have been “torture”, but adds ruefully: “This is the Afghan way of living.”