Written by Zabihullah Ghazi, Mujib Mashal and Fahim Abed
Just a few hundred residents remain in Jawdara, a small village in eastern Afghanistan struggling to survive after Islamic State militants cut off their water supply early this year. With only 70 families hanging on, the cost to this tiny, trapped community was grievous when 73 lives — basically the men of each family — were torn away in an instant.
“The village is ruined,” said Mawlawi Sadaqat, a local religious leader who led prayers as the bodies were buried. “Each house is left with orphans.”
The massacre took place when a suicide bomber walked into Jawdara’s mosque on Friday, where men had gathered for the weekly congregational prayer. In addition to the dead, at least 30 others were seriously wounded. Women desperately worked to dig bodies from the rubble, eventually aided by people who came in from neighboring areas in Nangarhar province.
This is the lot of Afghanistan’s towns, far from the tenuous security that the main cities provide. As the war has worsened, and with civilian casualties hitting a new level this month, life in places like Jawdara has increasingly come to feel like slow death punctuated by sudden massacre.
“I was standing in queue for prayer when I first felt a flame in my face and then the roof collapsed and I screamed,” said one of the wounded, Riazullah. “Women and children came to pull me out. But one of my brothers was martyred.”
By early Saturday, a small apricot orchard had been turned into a cemetery, with rows of graves already filled. Two men had spread out a shawl, collecting donations from visitors to cover the funerals for families left without men. Each grave had a small piece of paper tucked next to the headstone with the victim’s name. The notes on three graves simply read “Unidentified.”
Among the victims were the village’s only doctor, Mohammed Aref, and his two brothers and two sons. Two of the village teachers were also killed. At least 23 of the 73 killed were teenagers or younger.
“We have a bigger cemetery a little higher up, but we chose to turn this orchard into a new cemetery because the soil here is softer,” said Khan Mohammed, a villager who survived because he had been late for prayer. “The dead were too many, and digging graves in hard soil would have taken a lot of time.”
The massacre in Jawdara is the latest example of mass casualties that wipe out large parts of a family or even a village. Suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted mosques, gyms, educational centers and protests. In August, a bomber walked into a wedding hall in Kabul just as the vows were being exchanged, leaving more than 60 people — mostly cousins and neighbors of one family — dead.
The United Nations said this month that civilian casualties in the Afghan war had reached a record high in the year’s third quarter, with a 42% increase compared with the same period last year. The organization has verified 1,174 civilians killed and 3,139 wounded between July and September. July was the deadliest month on record — with 425 deaths and 1,164 wounded — since the mission started tracking civilian harm in 2009.
Nangarhar has faced particular cruelty in recent years. In addition to Taliban violence and abuse from a local strike force backed by the CIA, the Islamic State’s local chapter has established a stronghold in the province since 2014, where it has unleashed its gruesome brand of violence.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the latest massacre, locals suspected the Islamic State. They said the group cut off their water upstream eight months ago, leaving them to survive on seasonal rains. The militants also have kept threatening the villagers for siding with the Afghan government.
The massacre in Jawdara fell around the anniversary of another similar bout of carnage just 30 miles east, in the Momand Dara district. There, a year later, the village still has the feel of a ghost town.
That tragedy unfolded after the Islamic State gained a foothold in the southern part of Nangarhar province, prompting hundreds of families to flee to neighboring areas. About 200 families settled in a vast desert called Daka in Momand Dara, starting a makeshift village. But soon, the families realized their land back home was being taken over by an abusive militia commander who had sided with the Afghan government promising to push back the Islamic State.
The villagers complained repeatedly to the government about the militia commander, but when their concerns went ignored hundreds gathered in a public protest. Last September a suicide bomber walked into the demonstration, detonating his explosives. About 100 men from the displaced settlement in Daka alone were killed in the explosion.
“Even if 100 chickens are slaughtered, there will be so much blood that no one can stop the blood flow,” said Esmat Momand, a resident of Momand Dara. “Here we are talking about 100 humans from one village.”
This month residents of the displaced settlement held a memorial service to mark the tragedy’s anniversary. On such occasions, guests are usually served food. But there was nothing to serve; the memorial was just a prayer at the cemetery, which had filled overnight. Many of the victims were bricklayers or day laborers.
“The area is still covered with sorrow,” said Abdul Rahman, a resident of Daka who lost four cousins in that bombing. “The streets are empty at dusk time. You can’t hear children playing; they are all working as street vendors, or out begging, and they don’t come home.”
Rahman added, “At night, I still hear people crying.”