Serena Hotel Attack Highlights Rising Violence in Afghanistan

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KABUL — Abuzar grabs the thumb of his aunt and looks up at her. Sitting in a wheelchair built for an adult, the two-year-old seems lost. His head is wrapped in thick bandages; a wound is visible on his right cheek. Four gunshot wounds are spread over the young boy's body.

On March 20, four teenage gunmen slipped through security checkpoints at Kabul's Serena Hotel and opened fire in the restaurant. They shot Abuzar four times: in his thigh, his arm, his shoulder and his head. And they killed his entire immediate family and five other diners.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, but according to a statement by his office, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said recent attacks in Kabul were the work of "foreign intelligence agencies."

Violence in Kabul has become increasingly brutal as insurgents have stepped up attacks to disrupt upcoming elections and have focused on targeting both foreigners and Afghanistan's elite. Abuzar's family is part of that elite.

His father, Sardar Ahmed, was a prominent Afghan journalist who worked for the French press agency AFP and had started his own media company.

The family — his father, mother, brother, and sister — went to the restaurant at the Serena Hotel that evening to celebrate the Afghan New Year. The dining room was packed and live music played as the attackers opened fire.

Abuzar's survival was miraculous, according to doctors at Kabul's Emergency Hospital. They told NBC News that Abuzar would probably not be alive had he been brought to the hospital 10 minutes later than he was. He spent three days in a coma.

The hotel was heavily guarded. But it was also a high-profile target; in 2008 a suicide bomber and three armed men entered the hotel compound and killed six people.

Shah Mohammed Rais, widely known as the "Bookseller of Kabul", minds his shop in Kabul, Sunday, March 31, 2014. Rais, is the uncle of two-year old Abuzar, who survived the Serena Hotel attack.Carlo Angerer / NBC News

Abuzar's uncle Shah Mohammed Rais, who became known widely as "the bookseller of Kabul" after an international bestseller was written about him, said he had warned family members not to go to restaurants where foreigners go.

"In this country, you should put your feet very carefully," Rais said.

"Every bad thing has a limit, and we are over the limit," he said. "We should do something for Afghanistan and uproot these thorns and cultivate again flowers."

Reconstruction in Afghanistan has become increasingly difficult — foreign troops and foreign aid are leaving, and the departure of foreigners, including international election monitors who had planned to oversee the upcoming election, is accelerating.

Kim Motley, an American lawyer who has worked in Kabul since 2008, witnessed the attack at the Serena Hotel. She said security has worsened, and that foreigners are receiving more threats.

At the time of the attack, Motley had just checked into her second-floor room. She lives in a house in Kabul, but stays at the Serena Hotel to take a break from the war-torn city and relax.

"Go to the gym, get a massage, get a pedicure, get a manicure, go to the spa, chill out. That's what I was going there to do," she said.

When she heard gunshots ringing out from downstairs, she locked the doors, turned off the lights and hid.

"I basically barricaded myself within my room," she said.

She left the room three hours later and saw the full effect of the attack.

"When I went to the restaurant, I saw, you know, glass on the floor, everywhere, I saw blood, I saw bullet holes in the ceiling, in the walls," she said. "It was the closest I've ever come to thinking that I was going to die."

Kim Motley, witness to the Serena Hotel attack, in Kabul Sunday, March 30, 2014. Motley had just checked into the Serena Hotel in Kabul when insurgents launched an attack killing nine people. She hid in her room as she heard gunshots and fighting downstairs.Carlo Angerer / NBC News

NBC's Fazul Rahim contributed to this article.