On Thursday evening the news came out that Kabul's Serena Hotel had come under insurgent attack and Afghan National Security Forces were battling four gunmen inside the luxurious hotel in the center of the city. Humayoon Shoib, a Kabul-based Afghan journalist who works for Voice of America’s Afghan service, picked up his phone and called Sardar Ahmad, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter, to cover the developing story. For the first time, Ahmad did not answer, said Shoib.
Shoib worked with Ahmad for many years. Their history dates back to 2003, when both covered International Security Assistance Force press conferences for their respective news organizations at Bagram Airfield. He said it was very unusual to not receive a phone call from Sardar Ahmad on occasions like the Serena Hotel attack, because they would always tip each other off about major events in the capital and around the country.
“The first call that I made was to Sardar at around 9 p.m. [Thursday,] Shoib said. "I continued to call him until 9:55 with no luck, and unfortunately in the morning we learned that he, along with his wife and two young children, a boy and a girl, have been killed in the attack and his 3-year-old son has been severely injured,” Shoib said.
March 21st coincided with the Afghan New Year and the beginning of spring in Afghanistan. Afghan families traditionally go out for dinner or visit a relative’s home to celebrate on New Year's Eve.
Waheed Masood, who worked with Ahmad in AFP’s Kabul bureau for many years, told VOA’s Afghan service that Sardar had promised his wife and kids that they will celebrate the New Year out this year.
“Unfortunately Sardar, along with his two young children aged 4 and 6 years old and his wife, were targeted by the insurgents and killed,” said Masood, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the U.S.
Masood said Ahmad's 3-year-old son is struggling to survive the injuries he sustained in the attack.
Reports suggest that Ahmad and his family were shot at point blank range by the insurgents. A survivor account indicated that the mother pleaded with the insurgents to spare her children and take her life instead, but the attackers shot her and then turned their guns on the children.
Afghan officials said nine civilians were killed in Thursday’s attack, including four foreigners dinning at the hotel. The insurgents also died in the attack.
"The attackers were killed in three hours by the Afghan security forces," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said.
Sediqi said Afghan authorities are investigating how the gunmen entered the premises of the hotel despite its tight security. Surveillance camera footage revealed that attackers passed through personal search and metal detectors with pistols hidden in their shoes.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and said about 20 people were killed inside the hotel before their attackers were gunned down.
Sediqi said recent attacks, including the one at the Serena Hotel, are part of the Taliban campaign to disrupt the Afghan elections. Afghans will vote on April 5th to choose a new leader for the country. The elections are considered crucial for the future stability of the country, as it will mark the first democratic transfer of political power from one elected president to another.
Shoib said Ahmad was a dedicated husband and father in addition to being a committed journalist who worked tirelessly to give a human face to the conflict in Afghanistan and be objective in his reporting.
“Whenever I would cover an event in Kabul or elsewhere where there would be innocent lives lost because of an explosion or a suicide attack, I would be very angry and emotional about it," he said. "Sardar always told me that we were journalists and our job was to tell the world about what’s going in Afghanistan and be as objective in our work as possible.”
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan issued a statement condemning the attack on Serena hotel, saying the targeting of civilians installations is considered a direct attack on civilians.
As fighting escalated between the government and insurgents across the country, the war took an increasing toll on Afghan civilians in 2013, with a 14 percent increase in the total civilian casualties.
A recent U.N. report attributes three quarters of the civilian death toll to Taliban attacks.