By the morning of the wedding, Mohammad Azim had grown more anxious.
A few months earlier, he had agreed to marry his 28-year-old son, Mohammad Ullah, to a bride from a neighbouring village. He had committed a princely sum of 300,000 afghanis ($3,300) for a tent, generator and food. He had settled on a date, August 14, and informed relatives and friends as well as his fellow villagers. Now the appointed day had arrived, and the 55-year-old father with grey eyes to match his long beard felt he had to proceed.
Dost Kol, a verdant hamlet in the arid, caramel hills an hour west of Kabul, is a typical Afghan village, a collection of mud-walled compounds, each housing a dozen or more people from extended families. It is perched above tiered orchards bursting with grapes, apples and apricots that descend into the valley below. Dost Kol overlooks the highway that connects southern Afghanistan to Kabul, the capital. From a nearby hilltop an abandoned Russian tank, left behind by government forces retreating when the Taliban first took power in 1996, overlooks Dost Kol.
The villagers knew about the Taliban’s sweep across the country. Fighting had already arrived in Maidan Shahr, the capital of Maidan Wardak province, a couple of miles down the highway. Like many rural Afghans, war had long defined their lives. Now, numbed by decades of fighting and eager to seal his son’s union, Azim and the other men in the village began to prepare the festivities.
They mounted the tents, one for the men, one for the women, maintaining the village’s strict gender segregation. They fetched water from nearby wells for cooking. Large vats along the wall of Azim’s compound bubbled with beef stew and kabuli pulao, aromatic rice flavoured with raisins and hunks of red meat. Sardar Mohammad, Azim’s neighbour, helped. The lanky 46-year-old was in a good mood, watching as his children played in and around the tent. There was Basla, Mohammad and Basmeena, his eight-year-old daughter, wearing an emerald dress.
Some guests, alarmed by the approaching threat of violence, decided not to attend. Nooria, 25, had to persuade her husband and mother-in-law to let her come. “I can’t not participate in my cousin’s wedding,” she told them. They relented and set off for Dost Kol, Nooria wearing a beaded, navy blue dress her father had brought her from Pakistan. Soon, taxis and battered Toyota Corollas began arriving from nearby villages. By the afternoon, a couple of hundred people had shown up. Groups of boys danced in the tent to folk music. The women painted henna on each others’ hands.
A few people couldn’t shake the feeling that the wedding was a bad idea. Haji Mashooq, a squat and energetic 37-year-old, was unhappy about Azim’s decision to proceed even before he spotted the Taliban that afternoon. Driving up the winding, bumpy approach to the village, Mashooq had seen about a dozen fighters resting in his orchard a few hundred metres away.
The residents of Dost Kol were no strangers to the Taliban. Local men, members of Afghanistan’s large Pashtun ethnic group from which the Taliban emerged, had joined the militants over the years. Others quietly supported them however they could. In the eyes of many foreign and Afghan troops, the line separating them was blurred.
Despite the area’s proximity to Kabul, the Taliban maintained a robust presence, using dirt tracks to move in and out of Dost Kol undetected by military checkpoints on the highway. Militants would stop at the village for food and rest, spending the night at its modest mosque or sleeping under the stars. They stayed at Mashooq’s orchard so often that some would leave blankets underneath the apple trees. The fighters’ presence had only increased of late.
Now, Mashooq lost patience. Along with Amin Khan, Azim’s 42-year-old relative, he approached the hosts as they prepared to fire up the generator that would power lights to illuminate the party through the evening. Mashooq and Amin pleaded with Azim not to go ahead, worried the crowd and light would draw even more attention to an area already teeming with Taliban fighters.
They well knew the long and tragic history of rural Afghan weddings turning into collateral damage. The Taliban had also shown itself willing to use the villagers as human shields. The men argued and even exchanged insults. “Please don’t do that,” Khan said. “You’ll put everyone at risk.”
This account of what followed the disagreement is based on about 10 eyewitness testimonies, gathered on multiple visits to Dost Kol and surrounding areas last month. Testimonies were cross-checked with a dozen independent experts, including former Afghan and western military officials, weapons experts and human rights investigators. While it is impossible to independently verify every detail of their accounts, key elements are corroborated by satellite imagery, video and photos reviewed by military specialists.
As the evening set in, some of the men were relaxing on the terrace of the mosque, overlooking the folds of parched earth and bursts of irrigated green in the valley. A series of explosions bellowed out from a few hundred metres below the village. Many of the guests were accustomed to the sounds of war. But casualties had risen recently, and these explosions were too close.
Mashooq, who thought the sounds had come from the same orchard where he’d seen the Taliban hours earlier, ran up to his compound, several two-storey buildings and sheds arranged around a central garden. Between his and his brother’s families, 18 people, mostly children, were staying with him. He ordered them all inside.
The music and dancing died down as the guests debated what to do next. Those with the shortest journeys decided to go home, families cramming into cars to make the bumpy trips along dirt roads back to their villages. Those who lived farther away had little choice but to stay put. Driving along the highway to nearby towns or back to Kabul was deemed too dangerous.
Bound by his duties as host, Azim set about trying to finish serving whatever food he could to the remaining guests. In their eyes he could see they regretted their decision to come. With darkness falling and the sound of fighting growing more intense, dozens of people continued to mill about the village, trying to figure out where to stay. About 20 men started trickling into the mosque, collecting blankets to lie on. The women and children retreated into the compounds to attempt to sleep.
Mashooq, who had been lying awake while his children slept alongside him, jolted up as a boom rattled the compound. Others around him began shouting. His garden lit up, glowing red like hot coals. Chickens began to crow in panic, as he rushed outside to see what had happened. The timber roof of his house was on fire. Mashooq thought it had been hit by some sort of projectile; another witness thought a bullet had hit a nearby gas canister. He watched the flames spread across the rooms.
Mashooq and the others hurried across the courtyard, packing into a livestock shed that doubled as a bunker, its walls lined with bags of animal dung. A burst of gunfire ripped across the village, smashing into walls, doors and windows like a hailstorm. From their hiding places, Mashooq and several others thought they could make out helicopters in the sky.
At Azim’s house, Nooria was hiding with other women in an upstairs room when she felt something hit her shoulder. She touched the spot; her fingers felt wet. She grabbed her son and ran, in pain as if she were walking on thorns, before tumbling into the corridor. As the other women crowded around, all she could hear was children shouting.
Sardar Mohammad, the helpful neighbour who lived in the adjoining compound, had been crammed into a room with one of his wives and some of his 15 children. His daughter, Basmeena, slept to his left. Before he could understand what was happening, a bullet had sliced through the window. Beside him, Basmeena barely stirred. Turning, he saw a gash on her right knee, where the bullet had hit her. He pulled her away from the window as another burst of gunfire rattled around them.
Mohammad carried her to his compound’s livestock shed, whose thick, windowless mud walls made it the safest place to hide. Blood was gushing from Basmeena’s leg. In the dark, Mohammad and his mother tried to stem the bleeding, the green shawl from her outfit soaked red as they attempted to tie it around her leg. Basmeena pleaded for water.
“I feel heavy,” she said, repeating herself before falling silent.
The shooting was over in moments, but hours passed before Dost Kol’s villagers felt it was safe to come out. They struggled to make sense of what exactly had occurred. Had the Afghan military struck the wedding party, mistaking it for a gathering of Taliban preparing to reinforce the battle in Maidan Shahr or to attack the highway? Had the Taliban used the area to attack retreating forces, prompting retaliatory fire? Or had it been one of many other possibilities?
Men called out to each other and darted from house to house to see who was still alive. The village continued to glow, bullet holes seemingly everywhere. They found Mashooq and his family safe in their shed. In Azim’s compound, Nooria wasn’t the only one wounded. Rubina, a teenager, had been struck in the ankle as gunfire cut through the window of the room where she had been hiding.
Relatives patched their wounds with whatever they could find. As they strapped up Rubina’s ankle, her mother Zewar thought she’d lost as much blood as a slaughtered sheep. When the sky began to lighten, they bundled the injured into a car, its back window blasted out. A cousin drove while Nooria’s husband accompanied them to Kabul, where the nearest hospital was located. They drove with the headlights off to avoid attracting attention.
At Mohammad’s house, they found Basmeena’s body. Her grandmother wept next to her; her father appeared to be in shock. Together, Mashooq and Mohammad lay Basmeena’s body facing west towards Mecca and began preparing a funeral as the sun rose. The women washed the girl’s body before wrapping her in a funeral shroud, tying her head with cloth to keep her jaw shut, according to custom. The men dug a grave at the village burial ground, across a narrow ravine from their houses. Someone contacted an imam from a neighbouring village. Residents there, having heard the attack in Dost Kol, were surprised to learn there were survivors. “We thought no one would be alive,” one of them said.
Around 8am, a couple of dozen villagers and remaining guests said funeral prayers for Basmeena, decorating her grave with the embroidered flags used for unmarried women. Afterwards, several families began packing whatever they could, preparing to flee a village they were sure would again become a frontline of a battle for Kabul.
Mashooq railed at the wedding party: “If you’d waited, would the bride have run away?” He called his brother, asking him to come with as many vehicles as he could. They loaded one truck with their belongings and another with his cow. Cars crammed with people set off for Kabul, uncertain of what they would find along the way.
As the village emptied, Azim stayed behind to salvage what he could. He needed to complete the wedding ritual, receiving the bride’s family as they formally dropped her at her new home. But as the day went on, rumours spread, astonished villagers phoning from their cars on the highway to Kabul. Taliban trucks were rumbling down the road, military checkpoints abandoned, they said. Some claimed the militants were at the city gates. Others said they were already in Kabul. By the afternoon, the message was unequivocal: “The government is finished.”
Azim, Mohammad and a few others who had stayed behind slept in a half-deserted Dost Kol that night, one of the loneliest of their lives. The wind howled along the mountain face. For decades they had lived with war, in fear of being caught in the crossfire while tending their fields. They had been harassed at checkpoints. They went to bed wondering if they’d be woken by troops on a raid. That night Mohammad felt he had been dealt 20 years’ worth of pain in one day.
On August 15 2021, the Taliban retook Kabul and the country, reimposing their ideology. Afghan and foreign officials fled; teenage girls were barred from attending school; the economy collapsed. Mashooq and the other villagers returned to Dost Kol to try to rebuild their lives in the new Afghanistan.
A couple of weeks after the attack on the village, Mashooq travelled to the local government headquarters to file a complaint and request compensation for the damage, a familiar ritual for rural Afghans over the past two decades.
The officials asked how he expected the new Taliban regime, which was so cash-strapped they barely had enough to eat, to pay up. “We don’t even have money to feed ourselves,” one said. It didn’t matter. Mashooq insisted they accept his submission, which listed what had been lost: rugs, cooking gear and other belongings, all incinerated in the fire. The two wounded women, Nooria and Rubina, stable but traumatised. And Basmeena.
Benjamin Parkin is the FT’s south Asia correspondent.
Fazelminallah Qazizai is a journalist based in Kabul
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