A suicide bomb attack on a group of teenagers studying for university exams shocked Afghanistan but was the latest in a series of attacks on schools which proved an easy target for militant groups.
More than 1,000 schools across Afghanistan remain closed for security reasons and at least 86 were destroyed by militant attacks this year alone, according to UN figures.
“Attacks on educational institutes by hard-line Islamic groups are one of the most horrific issues facing our nation today,” said Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak after Wednesday’s attack on the Mawoud Academy, a private study institute in west Kabul.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed at least 34 people, mostly students attending an English class.
Most of the recent attacks on schools were outside Kabul in provinces like Nangarhar, a stronghold of Islamic State, whose tactics have become notorious since it first appeared in Afghanistan some four years ago.
Malikyar Hotak high school, in Nangarhar, was attacked twice in past weeks. The first time, a remote-controlled bomb failed to go off, the second time gunmen beheaded three guards and left the main hallway spattered with blood.
“Unfortunately, schools and educational institutions have become an easy target and a means of pressuring government for any group,” said Kabir Haqmal, a spokesman at the ministry of education.
The Taliban, once notorious for attacking schools and forcing girls and women to stay at home, now seek to influence schools by negotiation with local education officials and do not oppose schooling for girls.
Its rival Islamic State has stepped up attacks on schools.
‘NO HOLDING BACK’
Before the attack on Malikyar school, Islamic State, also known as Daesh, issued warnings through radio broadcasts and letters to schools they would attack in retaliation for pressure their fighters were facing.
“Daesh were saying, ‘if we are not safe in the mountains, if our children are not safe in their houses, then we will not hold back from attacks on children’,” said Allah Nazar Amini, principal of Malikyar.
It is a view shared by US commanders in Afghanistan, who said Islamic State, while based in Nangarhar, sought to extend influence in other parts of Afghanistan by hitting soft targets like schools and mosques.
UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said the agency was “gravely concerned” about growing violence across Afghanistan.
There is concern about more violence with the approach of parliamentary elections on October 20, with 1,000 schools set to be used as polling stations, said UNICEF communication officer Alison Parker said.
For children, the risk of violence is a grim part of getting an education.
“I saw things in our school you wouldn’t expect to see on a battlefield,” said 19 year-old Wasiullah, a 12th grade student at Malikyar.
“It hurts to see books that give a message of peace and Islam, burnt by so-called Muslims.”