World

They Built Libraries to Honor Loved Ones, Women Felled by Bombings

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KABUL, Afghanistan — When his soon-to-be fiancée, Najiba Hussaini, was killed in a Taliban suicide bombing in Kabul, Hussain Rezai didn’t know how to grieve for her.

“I had lost my love, but I wasn’t allowed to mourn,” said Mr. Rezai, a 33-year-old government employee. Though they had traveled to Daikundi Province to seek her parents’ approval to marry, they weren’t officially engaged, and he felt pressure to simply move on after her death.

It was July 2017 when a Taliban bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives, killing at least 24 people, including Ms. Hussaini, who was 28.

Thirteen months later, on the other side of the city, 40 students were killed when an Islamic State bomber detonated himself at a university entrance exam preparation center. Among those killed was Rahila Monji, 17, the youngest of nine siblings.

These women didn’t know each other, but their lives were snuffed out by the same uncompromising violence that has killed thousands and left gaping holes in the lives of countless Afghans.

Yet Ms. Hussaini and Ms. Monji’s loved ones were inspired to fulfill the same dream: to build public libraries memorializing the women they had lost.

Today, those libraries — one in Kabul, the capital, and the other in Daikundi Province — stand as symbols of the progress made toward gender equality and access to education in Afghanistan, where as many as 3.5 million girls are enrolled in school, according to a recent U.S. watchdog report, and where, as of 2018, one-third of the nation’s teachers were women.

But those gains have also been overshadowed by violent resistance. Education centers are routinely the targets of terrorist attacks and more than 1,000 schools have shut in recent years, according to UNICEF.

Now, as negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban slowly move forward in Qatar, many worry that a peace deal could mean that the progress Afghan women have made the last two decades will be lost. And the Taliban’s potential return to power is a grim reminder to the families of Ms. Hussaini and Ms. Monji that the legacy they created could soon unravel.

“I never want the Taliban ideology to govern my people again,” said Hamid Omer, Ms. Monji’s brother. “Where I was born, my village had to burn all the school textbooks available in our school. I am afraid we will face the same situation again.”

As a student, Ms. Hussaini was so determined to succeed that she walked an hour and a half each way to and from her high school while also teaching part time, said her sister Maryam.

She did extraordinarily well, an impressive accomplishment for a person from Afghanistan’s poorest province, Daikundi, in the central highlands — especially in a country where women and girls are marginalized by an education system often closed off to them by their families and Afghanistan’s patriarchal society.

They also face a constant threat from the Taliban, who in past years have burned down girls’ schools, threatened to kill female students and splashed acid in their faces.

After getting her bachelor’s degree in computer applications in India, Ms. Hussaini completed a master’s degree in Japan. She then quickly landed a prestigious job in the government’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, where she was commuting in a minibus with several of her colleagues the morning they were hit by the suicide bombing.

For years, Mr. Rezai said, he cried whenever he thought of Ms. Hussaini. “It took me three years to change the shape of my grief into a positive thing,” he said.

Ms. Hussaini had always said that Daikundi Province should have a library — a bold ambition in a country of roughly 38 million people and only 100 public libraries, according to a spokesman for the Ministry of Education.

In July 2019, he opened the Najiba Hussaini Memorial Library in Nili, Daikundi’s capital.

At first, the entire collection comprised only Ms. Hussaini’s 400 textbooks. But today it has more than 12,500 books, magazines and research reports — most of which were donated.

The library is popular with young people, many of them students who are chronically short of educational resources, especially books.

“Najiba is not dead, she breathes with all the girls and boys who come to her library and study,” Mr. Rezai said.

Taliban negotiators in Qatar have said they support women’s rights, but only under their interpretation of Islamic law, and any specific conditions of a power-sharing agreement have so far not addressed the rights of Afghan women in any detail.

A growing narrative has emerged that the country can “either have women’s rights at the cost of peace, or peace at the cost of women’s rights,” according to the watchdog report.

But some activists see a permanent cease-fire as a catalyst for furthering women’s rights.

“Women have been change makers not only for inclusivity of the peace process, but also for paving ways for reconciliation at the local level,” said Metra Mehran, an organizer of the Feminine Perspectives Campaign, a social media initiative advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

She added, “A cease-fire will give them the space to fight for their representation in the process and ensure their perspectives are reflected on policies and decisions.”

In Kabul, Ms. Monji had similar ambitions to Ms. Hussaini. A voracious reader, especially of novels in Persian and English, Ms. Monji had always been full of strange ideas and strong ambitions.

When she told her brother, Mr. Omer, that she had placed fifth in her class in a practice run of annual exams, he offered her $1,000 if she placed first, half seriously saying they would use that money to open a free library in their community. Then she surprised him with her results: She was at the top of her class and insisted he keep their bargain.

The next day, in August 2018, the Mawoud Academy, where she was studying to prepare for college, was destroyed by an Islamic State suicide bomber. She was among the dozens killed.

Learning of the bombing, Mr. Omer and her other siblings began the frantic search known so well to families whose loved ones cannot be located after a deadly attack.

In the forensic department of the Kabul Police Department, Mr. Omer found a badly burned body wearing a watch like the one Ms. Monji owned. Another sister recognized the tattered dress — it was their youngest sister.

Back at home, Ms. Monji’s books were lined up on her desk, and Mr. Omer found the one she most recently had been reading: “And the Mountains Echoed” by the Afghan novelist Khaled Hosseini.

Then he found her diary. “It was just full of her simple wishes for peace and a better future,” Mr. Omer said.

Normally for an Afghan funeral, a family slaughters several sheep and stages a feast for everyone they know, but as the siblings grieved together, Mr. Omer had a different idea.

“At that moment I decided I would not feed people,” he said. “I would provide the money for a memorial library. It is what Rahila would have wanted.”

Ms. Monji’s family soon found a room on the upper floor of a mosque in their neighborhood in Kabul. As they built the library’s social media following, book donations poured in. The family went on to establish the Rahila Foundation, which gives scholarships to needy children and organizes personal development and skills training programs.

“Now my sister saves the lives of hundreds of others,” Mr. Omer said. “Her soul is inside each of them.”

After she was killed, Mr. Omer was so furious that he wanted to take up arms and kill some of the extremists himself. “But when I calmed down, I thought, if I take up a gun like that, what is the difference between me and the terrorists?”

He added, “Establishing a library was a strong slap in the face to all the terrorist groups in Afghanistan.”

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