In the autumn of 2001, less than four weeks after Taliban fled Kabul, the Park guesthouse opened its doors to expatriate experts and aid workers who were coming in to help rebuild the country. Up the road from India’s old diplomatic mission, the guesthouse was home to many Indians for months.
But the Taliban attack on Wednesday night that killed 14 people, including four Indians — two auditors, a consultant for Afghan government projects and an NGO worker — has raised fears that the hope that Park represented may be ending.
Officials have identified the Indians killed in the attack that started at 9 pm as Mathew George, R K Bhatti, Satish Chandra and Martha Farrell. George and Bhatti were private auditors while Farrell represented Delhi-based Participatory Research in Asia.
Among the others killed in the five-hour assault were an Italian, his Kazakh wife, a US national, an Afghan holding a British passport and two Pakistani nationals.
The attack targeted a concert by the eminent Hindustani classical virtuoso Ustad Eltaf Ahmad Sarahang who, at just 18, had been appointed court musician to Afghanistan’s last king Zahir Shah.
The concert was an effort by Indian and Turkish expatriates in Afghanistan, as well as their friends, to signal their commitment to Afghanistan. Most of those killed were waiting for the concert to begin later that evening.
Early speculation, fuelled by comment from Ahmad Zia Masood — an aide to President Ashraf Ghani and brother of slain anti-Taliban leader Masood Ahmad — led to reports that the attack may have targeted India’s Ambassador to Kabul.
However, Ambassador Amar Sinha told The Indian Express that while he had been invited to the concert, he had not confirmed his attendance and may not have been able to attend because of other work commitments.
“It’s hard to say if there was one specific target, there were so many expatriates at the Park from all over the world,” he said.
Sinha said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “called to express condolences and appreciate the valuable work Indians are doing here, as well as their contributions”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is currently on a visit to China, also spoke to Ghani and “offered condolences”.
In the aircraft I got news about the attack in Kabul. Am concerned about the situation & I pray for everyone’s safety.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 13, 2015
Spoke to President @ashrafghani & offered condolences on loss of lives due to the Kabul attack. We are one when it comes to fighting terror.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 14, 2015
An IAF spokesperson later said it would be “known by Friday” when they would fly home the bodies of the Indians killed.
“In spite of the risks, Indians are involved in critical sectors of the Afghan economy, in skill development and empowerment. Indians will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Afghan friends,” Sinha said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement that it “was planned carefully to target the party in which important people and Americans were attending”.
Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi said security forces rescued 54 people from inside the guesthouse.
The attack came a day after a visit to Kabul by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had assured Afghanistan of Islamabad’s full support in its fight against Taliban.
An Indian diplomat in Kabul told The Indian Express that “living with alertness” was a “way of life” in the Indian Embassy in Kabul.
“The threat always exists… but we take precautions,” the diplomat said.
Ever since it was attacked in 2008, the Indian Embassy in Kabul has been one of the most heavily guarded missions in Kabul.
Over 200 personnel of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) guard the embassy after security was stepped up. “We are a close-knit community. The moment security forces were called in last night, we knew that something was wrong. We all were awake all night trying to provide whatever cooperation possible to the Afghan security agencies,” the diplomat said.
The attack was the second on the Park guesthouse — the earlier one, which simultaneously targeted two guesthouses in February 2010, killed 18 people, including nine Indians.
In spite of the tragedy, the Park reopened, calling itself the Park Palace in a statement of resilience and hope.
(With inputs from agencies)