Nobody really knew what to do with the pile of shoes left outside a Kabul mosque targeted by a suicide bombing a few days earlier.
The shoes were both trivial and haunting.
Worshipers take their shoes off before entering the main hall of a mosque to respect the sanctity of the space. When Islamic State suicide bombers attacked this Shiite mosque in Kabul during crowded Friday prayers on Aug. 25, the lucky ones rushed through the back doors or jumped out of windows, running for their lives barefoot on warm asphalt.
About 40 people were killed, two dozen of them now buried in the mosque’s rose garden, and nearly 100 were wounded in the attack.
During the cleanup effort, a pile of more than 150 pairs of shoes was formed in a corner of the mosque’s yard. A lone pedestal fan, its front grill gone and its wires charred by the explosion, overlooked the pile, as if keeping watch.
In the pile were a variety of shoes: A pair of cream-colored women’s flats, two drops of blood dried on the label inside. A young girl’s glossy black shoes, with sparkling buckles. A pair of green boy’s sneakers, with straps that read “Sport” and “Kids.” A pair of sandals with wasps clinging to the human remains in the toes.
About eight pair were children’s sneakers and sandals, and another two dozen were women’s. The rest were men’s, mostly plastic and leather sandals.
Away from the pile, on a piece of torn-up rug, sat a pair of women’s plastic jelly shoes, their bows bent. The plastic spoke of modest means, the bows of taste.
Some of the shoes were crushed and crumbling, as if discarded after years of wear but in fact speaking of the economic status of the victims. Others, like a pair of navy loafers, were freshly polished for Friday prayers.
While mosques are known as a place where good shoes sometimes disappear during prayer, the pile of victims’ shoes was respected days after the attack.
“Some came and took their shoes, some didn’t find theirs, and some returned the ones they had taken,” Shah Agha, a police officer stationed at the mosque, said on the third day after the attack. His right ear and part of the back of his head bear scars from a rocket from a previous war.
He stopped to look at the shoes for a minute, sighed, and then slung his American gun over his shoulder and went back to his duties.
“God bless them,” he said.
One man, Ghulam Sakhi, returned a pair of leather sandals in a plastic bag to the pile. He had come earlier in the morning looking for his nephew’s shoes, and had taken the wrong pair. The nephew, Abas Ali, 17, had survived the attack and was at home recovering from a bullet wound in his leg.
“These weren’t my nephew’s,” Mr. Sakhi said, as he dropped the shoes back into the pile. “It must be some other poor dead or alive person’s.”
On the fourth day, Mohammed Reza, 15, came looking for his shoes. He had bought the pair of hiking sandals for a little over $5. He tiptoed around the pile and found only one of them. The straps were burned, the tip was gone.
“I will take this as a souvenir,” he said, picking up the burned sandal.
But minutes later, he returned to the pile and tossed the sandal back. His parents, who were praying at the graves of the dead in the mosque’s yard, already turning into a shrine, frowned on their son taking such a souvenir.
On the fifth day, scaffolding was in place inside the mosque’s hall, which still smelled of smoke. Painting was underway. Outside, the pile of shoes remained, but had been shifted away from a wall, which now had a fresh coat of white paint.
“We will keep these for another few days, so people can have a chance to come get their shoes,” said Haji Khan Mohammed, one of the mosque’s elders. “After that, what are we going to do with these? We can’t take them to people’s homes, we can’t sell them. We will just take them to the garbage and dump.”