One friend was known for his guitar skills, strumming his instrument during late nights of student life. A second worked for a local television station part time. A third had left the university and his friends for a semester, trying to escape the war through the migrant route to Europe — only to be deported halfway, returned to his studies in an Afghanistan in flames.
Reunited, the friends sat in the middle section of a packed bus early Wednesday morning, occupying seats 25 to 28. The coach made its way from the western city of Herat to Kandahar in the south. They were taking advantage of a brief summer break to attend an engagement ceremony of a fourth friend, also travelling with them.
But for civilians caught in Afghanistan's spiralling conflict, the road between life and death is narrow — and often mined. When the bus arrived in a desert in restive Farah province, barren and quiet in the dawn light, it struck a roadside bomb.
In an inferno of fire and blood, 35 passengers were killed and most of the 27 remaining were badly broken and bloodied. There are no shops, homes or even trees for miles. When the first witnesses arrived, some of the wounded were wailing and others were trying to escape through the broken windows of the flung bus. Soon, the asphalt was strewed with bodies — young and old, in jeans and burqas, all in blood.
"The bus hit an improvised explosive device planted by the Taliban," said Farooq Barakzai, a spokesman for the governor of Farah, where the incident happened.
The Taliban, in a statement, said they had sent a team to the area to investigate.
The explosion was the latest involving mass civilian casualties in a spiralling war that the United Nations says has killed nearly 1,400 civilians this year alone.
On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that in the first six months of the year, compared with the same period last year, there were fewer mass-casualty explosions attributed to the Taliban and other insurgents that targeted civilians.
During the same period, the number of civilian deaths caused by Afghan forces and their US-led international allies increased in a worrying recent trend, the report said. Many of the casualties caused by pro-government forces resulted from greater reliance on airstrikes, which are particularly deadly for civilians.
The war has also resulted in the deaths of thousands of combatants from both sides this year, as jockeying for battlefield advantage before peace negotiations intensifies. Officials say the casualty rates of the Afghan forces, which are kept secret, are not sustainable. The Taliban are believed to be dying at the same rates as the Afghan forces, if not more.
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Efforts to bring a political end to decades of conflict — the latest chapter coming after the US invasion in 2001 — have been slow. But on Wednesday, there was a glimmer of hope that peace negotiations could pick up momentum.
For months now, U.S. diplomats have negotiated with the Taliban over a schedule for the withdrawal of the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops in return for insurgents' agreement that they would not allow terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies from Afghan soil.
Although the two sides have been close to a deal, the diplomats have struggled to move to the next step of the peace process — direct negotiations between the Taliban and other Afghans, including the country's government — over the political future of the country after US troops depart.
On Wednesday, after 10 days of talks with Afghan officials in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran United States diplomat leading the peace efforts, said he and Afghan officials had agreed on the next steps. Soon after, the Afghan government announced that they had settled on a 15-member team for direct negotiations with the Taliban.
Khalilzad said he was leaving for the Qatari capital of Doha, where he has held seven rounds of negotiations with the Taliban, in the hopes of completing a preliminary agreement between the Americans and the Taliban that will formally unlock direct Afghan negotiations.
"In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on," Khalilzad said.
For Afghan civilians, it's not just travel by road in the largely contested countryside that has become deadly due to mines and ground fighting. The fighting is also so widespread, and localised, that in their villages the civilians could become casualties of airstrikes. In urban centers, suicide bombings are frequent.
The passengers on the bus were traveling a particularly hazardous route. That stretch of road faced several other explosions in the subsequent hours Wednesday, taking the lives of at least six security personnel, officials said.
The scene of the bus bombing was described as heart-wrenching by survivors and eyewitnesses.
"The screaming of a woman and child was really killing me," said Ali Juma, who survived with wounds to his head, neck and back. He was brought to a hospital in Herat. "She kept shouting, 'Someone help my children.'"
Juma said at first he was "warm" and didn't know the full extent of his own injuries, so he went to help the wailing woman.
"I reached out to take her hand and help her, but she said her hand had been cut off," Juma said. "Someone else helped me and we carried her."
The woman, however, kept calling for the two young children traveling with her on the bus. At this point, Juma said, Taliban fighters had arrived on six motorcycles to help. They stopped other vehicles and asked the travelers to help load the wounded into those vehicles to be taken to hospitals. The Taliban fighters also helped peel open the bus' jammed doors.
The woman's 5-year-old was found alive, but she kept crying and searching for her toddler, who was later found dead, the body badly damaged, Juma said.
"She was holding the baby with one hand and wailing so loud that I thought the whole world could hear her," Juma said.
Most of the wounded and the dead from the incident were transferred to the main hospital in neighboring Herat.
An old man, covered in blood and still in shock and pain, tried to get a nurse to search one of his vest pockets. The nurse found a piece of paper that looked like a prescription with two phone numbers written on the back.
The old man gestured for her to call, and the nurse rang the numbers to inform whomever was on the other end that their loved one was wounded.
Zakria Behzad, a friend of the university students, was at the hospital.
He said he had picked up the bus tickets, about $11 each, for them the day before.
Three of the four friends — Enayat Fekrat, the guitar player; Najib Ibrahimi, who worked for a TV station, and Shah Mahmood Shayan, who had failed the migrant route to Europe — were studying journalism.
The fourth, Ali Hussain Shewa, had recently graduated with a degree in economics. It was his engagement party in Ghazni province that the four were headed to, Behzad said.
Classmates who could afford plane tickets always avoided the road, instead flying to Kabul and other cities — about $100 round trip.
"I have never flown in a plane — it must be great," Ibrahimi had once told Behzad.
Ibrahimi and Fekrat were killed. The other two friends were badly wounded. Shayan, who is roommates with Behzad, may have to have one of his legs amputated.
After Behzad heard news of the explosion, he spent much of the day searching for his friends, finally finding them dead or wounded at the Herat hospital. His own mourning was delayed by the need for informing the families of each.
Late in the afternoon, as his roommate was taken to the operating room, he was crouched in the hospital hallway.
"What can I say," he said of his friends who were killed. "Their dreams will be buried with them."
Written by: Asadullah Timory, Mujib Mashal and Taimoor Shah
Photographs by: Ivor Prickett
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES