WASHINGTON - A suicide bomber targeted a group of Sikhs, an Afghan minority group, in Jalalabad city, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province, on Sunday, killing nearly 20 people.
“They brutalized us. They have martyred 15 and wounded 15 other Sikhs. We are not aligned with any group or party. Why would anyone attack us? We never harmed anyone,” Tarlok Singh, a member of the Sikh religious minority, told VOA.
However, an Afghan health official told VOA the death toll was higher, with 19 people killed — at least 17 from the Sikh community — and at least 20 others injured.
The Sikhs reportedly were on their way to attend a gathering led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the provincial governor's office when a suicide bomber on foot detonated his explosive device.
Islamic State through its media wing, Amaq, took responsibility for the attack in Jalalabad city, however, the militant group claimed to have targeted a “medical compound.”
It is believed to be one of the first times a suicide bomber has targeted members of the Sikh minority group in Afghanistan.
WATCH: Video of the aftermath of the attack
“Unfortunately, it is the first time that our Sikhs become the victim of suicide bombing. The leaders of the group and their active community members were all killed or injured today,” Zabihullah Zimaray, a former provincial council secretary of Nangarhar province, told VOA.
Avtar Singh Khalsa, a longtime leader in the Sikh community, was among those killed in today’s suicide attack, an Afghan official told VOA.
Khalsa was an unopposed candidate running for the only seat for Afghan Sikh and Hindu minorities in Afghanistan's parliamentary election in October.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC) condemned the attack and called the attack on minority groups “… an obvious example of a war crime,” and asked the Afghan government to bring those responsible to justice.
“The Afghan armed oppositions must respect the international humanitarian laws and human rights values and refrain from targeting specific groups or individuals,” IHRC spokesperson Mohammad Bilal Sidiqi told VOA.
The Afghan Sikh and Hindu populations totaled about 220,000 in the 1980s. That number dropped sharply to 15,000 when the Mujahedeen were in power during the 1990s and remained at that level during the Taliban regime. It is now estimated that only 1,350 Hindus and Sikhs remain in the country, according to an investigation conducted by TOLO news, Afghanistan’s most viewed private television station.
Discrimination is one the many reasons Sikh and Hindu minorities are fleeing Afghanistan, Anar Kali Hunaryar, an Afghan Sikh senator, told VOA in a previous interview.
“Discrimination has caused our children not to attend the mainstream schools and that is why most of our kids in Afghanistan remained illiterate and could not actively participate in their communities,” Hunaryar said during the interview.
Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim country, but the constitution spells out equal rights to the followers of other faiths.
“The sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rituals,” reads Article Two in Chapter One of the constitution.
However, Rawinder Singh, a member of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu Union, who spoke to VOA previously on the topic, named “social discrimination” as the No. 1 problem religious minorities face in the country.
The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of the Sikh faith, and India is home to the world’s largest Sikh population.
“Our fellow Afghans call us Indian and we are being told to go back to India. We are Afghans just like any other resident of this country. Yes, we follow the same religion as Indians, but it’s not rational to say that we do not belong to Afghanistan,” Singh told VOA.
Sikh and Hindu minorities mostly dwell in the south and eastern Afghanistan, and their numbers continue to fall.
“We were being treated ill and discriminated in the past, but today they badly brutalized us,” Tarlok Singh said, referring to the suicide bomber attack.