On the morning of Aug. 24, I awoke to a nightmare that had become a reality. The American University of Afghanistan — an oasis of intellect, education and optimism in the heart of Kabul — was under attack.
As I frantically emailed and called friends and former colleagues I knew from when I worked at the university and scoured social media and news sites for updates, the gravity of what was happening began to take hold: gunmen opening fire on classrooms, students jumping out of windows to escape. The place I knew as a peaceful community of learning and camaraderie, beloved by the Afghans who work, teach and study there, had become a battlefield.
Although Afghan National Security Forces were able to safely evacuate hundreds of students and professors, eight students, one professor, three security guards and four Afghan soldiers lost their lives during the siege.
Among the dead is my former colleague, one of Afghanistan’s most promising young academics, Naqib Ahmad Khpulwak, an assistant professor of law and a former Fulbright scholar who had been a fellow at Stanford and was about to start his Ph.D. at Oxford. The authorities told his family that he died while trying to help his students escape out a second-story window.
Sami Sarwari, a talented musician who performed at the Kennedy Center in 2013, was full of excitement at being a college freshman. He had just checked in on his Facebook page to tell friends that he was on the campus. His last post said: “Looking forward to a beautiful and bright future.”
Abdul Wakil, a friendly security guard who had worked at the university for years, also lost his life. Lt. Mohammad Akbar, a commander of the Afghan Special Forces, helped hundreds of students get to safety before he was killed.
Most who died were under 35. Their adult lives had barely begun. This was not just an attack on an institution; it was an attack on the fabric of Afghan society, on a generation, on the country’s future. The head of news at Tolo TV, Lotfullah Najafizada, himself a member of the new generation of young, educated Afghans, said it best: Those who died, he wrote on Twitter, “took bullets to protect Afghanistan’s future, defend education and promote our values.”
The university’s buildings may have been shattered, and the grief over the loss of life may feel insurmountable, but the walls will be rebuilt and the doors reopened. And the resilient young Afghan students who have carried on so many times before will do so again. They will fight for their future with their hopes and dreams, their intellect and innovative ideas. Terrorists may have temporarily invaded their place of learning, but they can never take what these students have learned.
Since it opened its doors in 2006 as one of Afghanistan’s first private, nonprofit universities — supported then and now by the United States Agency for International Development — A.U.A.F.’s high standards of teaching, and its M.B.A. and undergraduate degree programs, have made it a beacon of hope for thousands of young Afghans. It is a way to build a better life for themselves and their families, and for many, the first step in a career path as a future leader.
About 75 percent of Afghanistan’s population is under 35. The students who attend A.U.A.F. are part of that generation. They grew up with war; as displaced, stateless people; as orphans; as children who had to support their families from a young age. As a result, they feel passionately that their own children should have a better life than they did. They are modern, culturally astute and technologically savvy, and they are defining what Afghanistan will look like 10 years from now.
The university holds special meaning for me and my husband, Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States. We both had the privilege of working for the university, so we know very well how hard the staff and faculty have labored to create a safe environment for students in the middle of conflict, and how hard it is in those challenging conditions to maintain a curriculum that is the equal of better-known universities across the world.
In early August, two A.U.A.F. professors, an American and an Australian, were kidnapped while on their way to work by armed men. They have not been heard from since. Every morning, students, staff and faculty wake up and head to campus, knowing there’s the chance they might not come home that evening. But if the attackers’ goal was to scare students and faculty away, they have failed.
A poor shopkeeper whose daughter attends A.U.A.F. on a scholarship and was wounded in the attack told The Washington Post that he would send his daughter back to school once the university reopened. “My country needs educated people because there is so much illiteracy,” he said. “I worry every day when my children leave home, but my daughter is a talented student and she wants to help her country.”
The university is a microcosm of the Afghanistan the next generation wants to live in — a place where people debate their differences instead of fight over them, where diversity is respected, and tolerance and understanding are freely expressed. These are the values of a healthy, secure society, which Afghanistan is working so hard to become.
Lael Mohib is the director of the Enabled Children Initiative and the former chief of staff at the American University of Afghanistan.