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University Beat

USF Grad Still Recovering From Afghanistan University Terror Attack

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Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghan security forces rush to respond to an attack on the campus of American University of Kabul on August 24, 2016.

In 2003, Raj Chandarlapaty graduated with his PhD in English from the University of South Florida.

While the teaching career that followed took him all over Florida and Texas, he maintained a close relationship with his mentor at USF, Phillip Sipiora. That included writing a number of articles for The Mailer Review, an annual collection of works about author Norman Mailer that Sipiora edits.

Chandarlapaty also wrote two books, including one about beat generation writers Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.

Four years ago, Chandarlapaty and his wife, an assistant professor of business, both took jobs at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul. It was a job he loved – until Aug. 24, 2016, when suspected Taliban terrorists attacked the school.

At least 16 people were killed, including eight students, two professors and six policemen and university security guards. Three terrorists were killed by Afghan Special Forces.

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Credit Glenn Nickerson / WUSF TV
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WUSF TV
Raj Chandarlapaty, who received his PhD from USF in 2003, hid for 10 hours in a classroom with 30 students to survive a terror attack at the American University of Afghanistan in August 2016.

The semester had just begun. Chandarlapaty was about 10 minutes into the second class of what he called "a normal teaching day" when he heard an explosion outside the building. He and about 30 students escaped the second floor classroom and hid in a nearby room.

"There was total chaos, we did not know if we could escape," he said. "Many of the boys especially jumped off the building and they broke their legs and they laid there until the early morning when the medics picked them up." 

"There was a very real, lingering sense that we would not come out alive," Chandarlapaty said. "We sat in that room for about 10 hours and there was a gunfight every 20, 30 minutes - grenades, machine guns. I did hear them take out students from one of the room and kill them right there and there were other students who tried to escape and they killed them, too."

While some of those trapped inside sent out pleas for help via Twitter, Chandarlapaty thought his cellphone's battery was dead. 

"I went home and my wife picked (the phone) up, turned it on, 'Your cell phone is still working,' (she said)," Chandarlapaty said. "I admit that I skipped that responsibility because I thought that I couldn't talk to her. But if you use the cell phone, anybody can intercept that call, it's like saying, 'Hey, we're here.' I did not want to do that." 

That concern for his wife, who escaped the campus shortly after the attack started, stuck with Chandarlapaty throughout the ordeal.

"I'm not a person with a good understanding of death, and I asked myself at the age of 46, 'Are you ready to die?' and I said, 'Well, you don't have a choice. Have you lived your life as you wished you would have lived it?' and I said, 'Yes. Have you accomplished the things you needed to? Yes.' But I was very torn apart because I couldn't tell my wife my thoughts at that moment," he said. 

After Afghan Special Forces raided the building and killed the attackers, Chandarlapaty and the students finally exited the room they had been trapped in. 

"There was blood everywhere, there was broken glass everywhere," Chandarlapaty said. "When I saw (my wife), I was very relieved that at least there'll be another day and at least we'll be able to try to make it in this world again."

"For approximately 24 hours, I didn't know if (Chandarlapaty) was alive or dead," said USF Professor Phillip Sipiora, who said he talked to Chandarlapaty in Afghanistan a few times a week via email and phone calls. "The longer it took for me to hear from him, I thought he might be dead."

"But he did contact me the next day, he both called me and emailed me telling me that he and his wife were safe and he basically gave a short synopsis of what happened," Sipiora added. "I was very much relieved at that because I knew that people had been killed and fortunately, he wasn't one of them."

During the four years Chandarlapaty worked at AUAF, there had been signs that such danger was possible. 

In 2014, two University employees were killed in a Taliban attack at a Kabul restaurant, and a pair of University professors, one American, one Australian, were kidnapped in Kabul about two and a half weeks before the August attack. The fate of those two remain unknown.

However, even with the warnings, Chandarlapaty still had harsh words for American University officials.

"I believe that the security was caught sleeping, they were just not prepared to field a full-scale terrorist attack with 700 students at the mercy of the forces," he said. "That shows a high degree of irresponsibility on the part of (the University) administration." 

Chandarlapaty and his wife have since returned to the U.S. and are currently living with his parents in Miami. He'd like to make plans for the future, but at the moment, the events of those twelve hours in August still haunt him.

"I am going to teach the online classes for the AUAF this term, but otherwise, I'm depressed. That's, in a nutshell, how I describe myself - I'm depressed. I have the temptation to quit teaching and work on writing for the rest of my life," Chandarlapaty said. 

You can hear more from Chandarlapaty on University Beat on WUSF TV, at 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6.