Kabul suicide bombing upends couple's story
By SIOBHÁN O'GRADY AND SHARIF HASSAN | The Washington Post | Published: September 6, 2019
KABUL — Fatana Elyasi should have been shopping for her wedding dress.
Instead, she was weeping over her fiance's grave in a cemetery close to her home in western Kabul. It was one of seven in a row her neighbors had dug for each member of her family killed at her cousin's wedding two nights before.
Mujtaba Azizi, 22, was among the 80 people killed when a suicide attacker detonated a powerful explosive inside a crowded wedding hall here on Aug. 17.
The bride and groom both survived but lost so many close family members that the groom, Mirwais Elmi, told a local television station he "will never see happiness in my life again."
The attack occurred just ahead of the ninth round of peace talks between U.S. and Taliban officials in Qatar, which ended with a draft agreement "in principle." But it was the local Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for the August bombing, a stark reminder that even as U.S. officials talk peace with one group, extremist violence perpetrated by militants other than the Taliban persists in Afghanistan.
"We will take revenge for every civilian drop of blood," President Ashraf Ghani said after the attack.
The wedding attack upended any remaining sense of security at social gatherings in the Afghan capital. For Fatana, it also reordered the trajectory of her life, implicating her entire extended family in a cycle of violence so unforgiving that she now can't see a way out.
At 18, she is as old as the war in Afghanistan, raised in the anxieties that have long permeated everyday life in Kabul, where bombings are commonplace. But until last month, celebrations in the capital city's colorful wedding halls were one of the few remaining places where she still felt safe.
For young couples like Fatana and Mujtaba, family weddings also offered a rare chance to spend time together in public.
Like many engagements in Afghanistan, theirs was arranged by their parents. But the two quickly fell into what Fatana described as the "purest love," and their wedding was planned for mid-September.
He was bright, kind and generous with his younger siblings. She trusted that between his gentle demeanor and steady work as a carpenter, she would be guaranteed a safe and comfortable life. Together, they dreamed of raising two children in the same Kabul neighborhood where they'd grown up.
"I feel like this love I experienced with Mujtaba, no one else has experienced," Fatana said in an interview. "From the day that we got engaged, I could feel that love in my whole body."
So when they were both invited to a cousin's wedding just weeks before their own, they jumped at the rare opportunity to see one another outside the confines of her parents' home.
Fatana recalled that Mujtaba visited her the morning before the ceremony and asked that she wear a gold dress that his family had recently bought her as a gift. She spent the afternoon applying makeup and curling her hair with her sister. Then the young women walked together to the venue, just a stone's throw from their family home.
Afghan weddings are typically gender-segregated, and on that Saturday evening, dinner had just been served on the women's side when, on the other side of the partition, Fatana's older brother Omid noticed a man he didn't recognize walk in, he recalled later.
There were hundreds of people on the men's side. The band kept playing music. Boys and men still danced. But, Omid said, he couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.
The bride's teenage brother also became suspicious and trailed the man, who was dressed in white and carrying a computer bag, asking who he knew at the wedding, Omid said.
Then there was a loud bang.
On the women's side, everyone scattered. Fatana said she ran through the back kitchen and crossed the partition. The power was out, but she could still make out the carnage. Bodies and dismembered limbs were strewn everywhere she looked.
She found Mujtaba lying in the street. He was still breathing when she knelt by him and begged him to stay with her. Then the men around them picked him up and piled him into a car with others who had been wounded.
Fatana's father, Abdul Mohammad Elyasi, was one of the few men in their family who didn't attend the wedding that night. But when he heard the blast, he ran toward the venue to help carry bodies out of the hall.
In the chaos, he couldn't find his sons.
Then his phone started ringing — each call carrying news that drove him further into grief. First he learned that one son was badly wounded, then gone. Then another son. Then nephews. A grandson. A future son-in-law.
"I felt thankful they were born and we raised them," he said. "But then someone just walked in and killed them and so many others."
One at a time, their bodies returned to his modest house, seven in all. Farzam, 5 years old. Haroon, 40. Arash and Kamran, both 13. Abdul Naqib, 16. Abdul Qadeer, 18.
And Mujtaba, 22.
"I felt ruined," Mujtaba's father, Amir Mohammad Azizi, said. "Everyone liked him, and he liked everyone."
More than a year earlier, hundreds of friends and relatives had gathered at this same house to celebrate Fatana and Mujtaba's engagement. She wore a rose-gold dress with a bright pink scarf, Mujtaba a black suit with a matching pink tie.
Her heart swelled when he slipped the ring onto her fourth finger, tying their fates together forever.
Now, so many men were crowded around his body, she hardly had the chance to say goodbye.
The next day, as the men buried Mujtaba, Fatana's mind flooded with the promises he'd made her when he was alive. "I'll make a good life for you," he had said. "I'll take care of you."
A few nights later, she fell into a deep sleep and dreamed that he had returned. He sat beside her and they chatted closely like they used to when he visited during their long engagement.
Then she jolted awake. It was dark, and Mujtaba was gone. Only her sisters were sleeping beside her.
The Washington Post's Fariba Housaini contributed to this report.