K By Pamela Constable
ABUL, Afghanistan – Abdul Rahim was the most promising of his siblings, a bright and diligent student of 21. His father, a respected Islamic judge from the southern Afghan city of Ghazni, sent him off to study law at Kabul University six months ago, hoping the young man would one day follow in his footsteps.
Instead, on Nov. 11, Rahim’s life ended violently in a confused, after-dark clash between Kabul police and a crowd of students, who had taken to the streets to protest the lack of electricity, food and water in their dormitory. Rahim and Abdul Ghaffar, a second-year medical student, were shot dead; a dozen other students were wounded.
“That boy was my light, and now he is gone,” Rahim’s father, Qazi Abdul Hakim, said in an interview in his home, 100 miles southwest of the capital. “I sent him to Kabul to study, and instead he was killed. Not by the communists or the Taliban, but by the police of a democracy,” he said, weeping. “I have been a judge for 30 years, but there is no law or justice in this country.”
The incident – the first violent clash between students and police in the capital in more than a decade – has mortified the transitional government, which is strongly backed by the United States. President Hamid Karzai immediately ordered two separate, cabinet-level commissions to investigate the police actions and the causes of the student protest.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy organization, said it was “seriously concerned” about the shootings. “If the government can’t handle a protest by unarmed students,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement, “it raises serious questions about the government’s ability to provide security in the rest of the country.”
The incident has also highlighted the ease with which religious politics can be injected into any volatile situation in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where Islamic extremism remains both a threat to stability and a convenient tool with which to discredit opponents, even on a normally placid college campus.
Government officials, while acknowledging that the police were poorly trained and used excessive force, charged that Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers among the students deliberately goaded their indignant classmates to violence, provoking the fatal confrontation. They alleged that some students carried pistols and shouted, “Long Live, Osama!” as they threw stones and smashed police car windows.
“We believe there was an unseen hand behind it, that provocateurs were waiting to exploit youthful emotions and disrupt security for their own purposes,” said Hussain Ishrak Hussaini, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
Numerous students who joined the demonstration said their only motive was to draw attention to poor conditions in the overcrowded central dorm, which had worsened steadily during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that began Nov. 7. That night, they said, the electricity went off again, leaving them without light to read or water to wash, and the food being distributed to break their day-long fast ran out.
A medical student named Rahman said he was studying for an exam when the power failed. Fed up, he rushed out of the building and joined hundreds of other students who began marching toward central Kabul, vaguely planning to take their complaints to Karzai.
“It was the last straw. People were hungry, and we were all upset,” Rahman said. “I didn’t see any weapons or hear anyone shouting Islamic slogans, but some students behind us did become violent. We wanted to negotiate with the police, but they wanted to attack them. We tried to stop them, but then the shooting started, and everyone ran.”
Many students and faculty members – as well as relatives of the slain students – were furious that the government had raised the specter of Taliban and al-Qaida infiltrators on campus. They dismissed the allegations as a ruse to deflect criticism of police excesses and abysmal living conditions for student boarders.
“There is no al-Qaida at Kabul University, just official neglect,” said Faizullah Jalal, a law professor and critic of the Karzai government. “Only once students were killed and wounded did these charges of religious and political motives suddenly come out. It was irresponsible and insulting.”
Rahim’s family was especially bitter, saying the accusations had hurt them even worse than his death. Abdul Alim, his older brother and a medical student who also lives in the central dorm, said his classmates supported the Karzai government, but that their persistent complaints about living conditions had fallen on deaf ears.
“None of us have anything to do with the Taliban; we just wanted our rights,” Alim said. “The dorm was really awful. The bathrooms smelled terrible because there was no water, and the employees were stealing our food. We went to the authorities again and again, but nothing happened.”
But university officials said the apparent hijacking of a peaceful student demonstration was only one example of a deeper political problem on the Kabul campus, where the student body of 13,000 is a potentially volatile mix.
There are groups of rival ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras. There are hip urbanites in jeans and devout rural students in Muslim robes. There are brilliant students and barely literate boys from Islamic academies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan who were enrolled by the Taliban.
Officials said some of these religious students are affiliated with Islamic anti-government groups – not only holdovers from the defeated Taliban movement, but also followers of Islamic factions headed by still-influential leaders.
“I can’t say whether these groups were responsible for what happened that night, but I know they are active on campus, and they have elements in the dormitories that manipulate the other students,” said Sharif Fayez, the minister of higher education. “Some of them have no academic qualifications, but they have powerful connections, and to remove them would be a very sensitive issue.”
Fayez, who is accompanied by bodyguards because of threats to his life, said his efforts to modernize the university had antagonized Islamic groups, especially after he dismissed several senior officials from their camp. But he also said he had tried to de-politicize the campus and encourage students to focus on their careers.
“I had to bring in reforms, and I had to bring in a professional team that wanted change,” said Fayez, who wept as he described seeing Rahim and Ghaffar’s bodies in a morgue several hours after the protest. “But I warned the students over and over to avoid political activism, because in Afghanistan, unfortunately, that still means violence.”
One indication of disturbances on campus was the discovery of a bomb in a medical school classroom the morning of the protest. Police said they had found a handwritten letter with a Taliban stamp outlining detailed plans for the bomb and accusing the class professor of being an “infidel.” One student in the class was arrested, and the professor was assigned two uniformed bodyguards.
But several sources suggested the letter and bomb might have been planted by the intelligence services, possibly to tar ethnic Pashtun students as pro-Taliban saboteurs. The sources also said plainclothes intelligence police may have been shouting extremist slogans at the nighttime protest to agitate or discredit the students.