'I dream about that day. I try not to but it keeps coming back': Tarana Akhbari, the girl in the 2011 Afghan bombing photograph

The photo won a Pulitzer. But what of the victims of the blast?


The image was shocking and haunting, summing up the suffering and despair of Afghanistan’s brutal war: a young girl in a green shalwar kameez standing alone amid the bloody carnage of a suicide bombing, her mouth open in a scream. Around her lay dead bodies, seven of them close members of her family, including that of her nine year old brother.

Seventy people were killed in the blast carried out by a group linked to al-Qai’da in December two years ago.  The victims were worshippers gathered at a Shia shrine in Kabul. It was first major sectarian attack in the country. The photo taken of Tarana Akbari won the Pullitzer prize. For a little while she was presented by the Afghan government and international agencies as the symbol of the innocents targeted by insurgents, promises were made that she and her family would receive all the help they needed.

Tarana, now 13, and surviving members of her family are living in poverty in a run-down neighbourhood of the capital. She limps, her injuries make it difficult for her to walk far. Two of her sisters were also injured. Fifteen year old Sunita, who was hit with shrapnel on her head, can no longer attend school. Surita, six, had to spent 40 days in hospital and lost one of her kidneys. She bears terrible scars covering her stomach and has pains in her legs which were also badly cut and she needs urgent treatment.

“I have knocked on a hundred doors to get help, but no one does anything, I do not really know where else I can go” said their 35 year old father Ahmed Shah Akbari. “I pull a cart all day, I get about 300 Afghanis ($ 6) I cannot afford to pay for medicine and operations after I had fed the family. A lot of big people came to be seen with my daughters after the bombing, but they are not interested.”

The family say the treatment offered by free clinics they have been to have been ineffective, building up hope among the girls that they would get better, only to be disappointed. Things were different in the aftermath of the attack, when they did receive attention, they say. Sunita was taken to Turkey for life saving surgery, but such access has long ceased.
Tarana, whose arms and legs bears the marks of laceration, said “After the bombing I thought I would be a doctor and help people. I still want to do that, but now I see it is all about money. It is very hard for poor people to get the services they need and that is not right. I know they used my photograph in the newspapers, they said it was all over the world. But that is not helping my family now and it has not helped other people in the same situation.

“But I suppose we are lucky that we are alive. We lost aunts, cousins. It is Shoaib I think about all the time. We used to play togethe, I used to look after him. After the bomb I saw him lying on pavement, he was still alive. He was trying to breath and there was blood coming out of his mouth and nose. I dream about that day, I try not to, but it keeps coming back.

“My mother still cries all the time. The other day she found a pair of new shoes which had been bought for him and he was going to be given after Ashura. He never got to wear them, she was very upset, she is finding it very difficult.”

“I feel angry about what happened, very angry. How could someone blow themselves up to kill other people? I feel angry at the people who sent him. They have sent other men like him, we have seen many dead here because of these bombings.”

A Pakistani Sunni group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for the attack. It had also declared carrying out other sectarian attacks inside Pakistan, murdering 29 Shias in Baluchistan after taking them off a bus and an attack on an Ashura procession in Karachi which killed 30 people. The group had bases inside Afghanistan during Taliban rule and has been accused of sending other suicide bombers across the border in recent years.

The man who carried out the Ashura attack had tried to get into the shrine saying he was an organiser for the ceremony, but had been stopped by a watchman. The aim would have been to destroy a venerated Shia place of pilgrimage. Having failed in that, he decided to go for the families outside.

Sunita said: “I was watching him because he was behaving strangely. He was quite young with a thin beard. His hair looked wet as if he had just washed himself. He sat down and then there was the explosion. That was the last thing I remember and then when I woke up there was very bad pain everywhere.”

Tarana was the only member of the family to attend the Ashura ceremony last November; the Afghan police announced they had arrested two men who were plotting to attack the ceremony.

She chose to wear a Salwar of the same green as at the time of the attack. “I thought doing that would show that we are not afraid” she said. “I also thought it would remind people of the picture and remind them of people who have been hurt by the bombs. So I went there and afterwards I went to pray at the graves of my brother and other members of the family. I felt very sad.”

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