Edrees Kakar has lived a life few people in America can imagine: He has walked through war zones, lived as a refugee for 10 years, and survived a terror attack that killed more than a dozen people.
Kakar, who is 27, was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. He lived in Pakistan for most of his childhood and teenage years and returned to Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
On Thursday, Kakar spoke at Bristol Public Library about his experiences. The event was sponsored by the Bristol Rotary Club and the nonprofit Youth Journalism International, a locally based, donation supported organization that mentors and publishes young journalists around the world. YJI currently have about 200 students from 40 countries on six continents.
Kakar first started writing for Youth Journalism International 10 years ago when he was living in Pakistan. Since then, he’s gone on to become a board member of the organization and now works at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.
Kakar was at the school during the terror attack last month that killed 13 people and left nearly 50 wounded.
Four militants attacked the fortified compound with a suicide bomb and automatic weapons and held students hostage for 10 hours. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but most suspect it was organized by the Taliban.
Kakar happened to be speaking to Youth Journalism International co-founder Jackie Majerus on the phone when he heard the first gun shots. He didn’t think much of it because the University is near a bank, hospital, and a museum.
“Because of the volatile situation, we sometimes hear gun shots on that road,” he said. Then, he said he turned around and saw a “flame covering the whole sky.” A few seconds later, there was a massive blast that knocked him off his feet.
Militants had come through the less-fortified School for the Blind adjacent to the university and used a car bomb to blast a hole in the wall where they could enter the compound.
“They were shooting indiscriminately, all around the campus,” Kakar said. The militants also threw grenades into classrooms, trying to cause as much structural damage as possible.
Kakar said he was able to escape, but the militants held two classes hostage overnight, for more than 10 hours.
“The pain of this incident is immense and it will continue to be with us, especially our community at the university. It has left a big impact and will take a long time to recover,” he said. However, he said students had shown a “great commitment to come back to the school.”
Kakar said about 70 percent of Afghanistan’s population is younger than 30, in part because so many middle aged people have been killed during the wars, so the desire for education has never been higher. Ten million of the country’s 30 million people are currently in school and hundreds of thousands more now attend college, up from just a couple thousand during Taliban rule.
Education was one of the areas Kakar said the U.S. should focus on trying to develop in Afghanistan. Making sure the sizeable youth population has access to education and employment would go a long way toward stabilizing the country. Kakar also said the U.S. should focus on supporting and strengthening Afghanistan’s existing institutions.
He also said that conditions would certainly worsen if the U.S. military were to leave the country altogether. There are currently about 10,000 U.S. troops still in the country. In July, President Obama announced that 8,400 would remain through the end of this term, up from the 5,500 troops called for in the original draw-down plan.
Afghanistan is currently ruled by a unity government that came into power after contested elections in 2014. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October, although a major overhaul of the electoral system was supposed to be completed beforehand.
The title for the evening’s talk was “Is There Hope for Afghanistan?” — a difficult question that both Kakar and the audience felt they couldn’t fully answer.
With political gridlock and a worsening security situation, Kakar said he was still hopeful for Afghanistan, but knows the country has a long road ahead. “It is difficult for young people to be hopeful,” he said.
However, he said that Afghans are resilient and despite their challenges, “Life is still going on.”