Hazaras, Afghanistan's most persecuted ethnic group
15 August 2021 marked a turning point in Afghan society. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban also sent shockwaves through the international community. People all over the world watched from their television sets as the Islamist movement regained power in Afghanistan. The two decades of US presence in Afghanistan ended with the Taliban occupying the presidential palace in the capital. Meanwhile, chaos gripped Hamid Karzai International Airport, where hundreds of Afghans were trying to leave the country. Twenty years and thousands of deaths later, Afghanistan was back to 1996.
However, this return to the past, to the years under the Taliban's fearsome fist, reached several parts of the country before 15 August. As the US finalised the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan over the summer, key cities such as Kandahar and Herat fell to the Taliban. For their inhabitants, darkness and repression returned, especially for women and members of ethnic minorities who have been discriminated against and attacked by different groups for decades.
The Hazara community, one of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan that have suffered the most persecution throughout its history, stands out in this regard. Life for the Hazaras has never been easy due to their differences with the rest of the Afghan communities, in particular with the Pashtuns, one of the main ethnic groups in the country.
Within Afghanistan's large and complex ethnic mosaic, the Hazaras stand out for their religion, ethnicity and way of life, aspects that underlie the discrimination to which they are exposed. The majority of Hazaras belong to the Shia branch of Islam, although this ethnic group also includes Sunnis, Ismailis, Christians and even seculars.
On the other hand, this community is characterised by liberal values based on education and reason. As Harun Najafizada, journalist and director of the Afghanistan International news channel, points out, "Hazaras have focused in the last two decades on education and knowledge".
While Hazaras are also discriminated against for their perceived religious affiliation, it’s important to note that there are atheist, Shia, Sunni, Ismaili and secular Hazaras. Note - the majority of population in Afghanistan are Sunni Muslims. #StopHazaraGenocide pic.twitter.com/2T5KDhjk8Q— Huma Media (@Huma_Media) October 5, 2022
This tolerant view extends to other issues, such as equality between men and women. "Hazara women are free and independent," says Homira May Rezai, chair of the Hazara Committee in the UK and head of planning and strategy for the Hazara International Council. All these aspects have been used to justify their persecution and discrimination, as well as to "dehumanise and demonise them", says Rezai.
Also, hazaras are being targeted and subjected to persecution and genocide due to their ethnicity. There are other minority Shia Islam groups living at the heart of Pashtun tribes in Qandahar, for example, who are not subject to genocide. The fact that Hazaras are looking oriental make them easy targets.
The climax of this persecution came under Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901), who issued a decree against the Hazaras as infidels. He also urged the rest of the Afghans to wage holy war against the Hazaras, allowing thousands to engage in genocidal campaigns against the community.
The Amir's hordes attacked and occupied Hazarajat, the historical land of the Hazaras, the region where the famous Buddhas of Bāmiyān were also located before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Subsequently, they gave this land to other Afghan tribes who supported the war against the Hazaras.
In June 9, 2021, the masked gunmen shot dead 10 Hazara mine clearers working for Halo Trust in Baghlan. This eyewitness says“The gumen came to our camp & asked is any Hazara here among you? They sought out the Hazaras and murdered them”#StopHazaraGenocide— Ali Folladwand, MD (@DrFolladwand) October 5, 2022
Two-thirds of the Hazara population -approximately 60%- were executed. Meanwhile, thousands of children and women were turned into slaves. Hazaras were sold as slaves in the cities of Afghanistan and British India until 1924, when Abdur Rahman's grandson officially banned the sale of Hazaras. However, as Hazara rights activist Ali Folladwand points out, "ideas of hatred against the community grew deep in the country, all subsequent rulers continued Abdur Rahman's policy of persecution".
زنان پیشتاز هر راه برای مبارزه؛ دیوارنویسی هشتگ #StopHazaraGenocide توسط زنان در افغانستان. pic.twitter.com/3bIzp9EP6m— Taqi Daryabi (@DaryabiTaqi) October 6, 2022
"My mother told us that the Taliban had three slogans: Tajiks belong in Tajikistan, Uzbeks belong in Uzbekistan and Hazaras belong in the cemetery," says Zarifa Adiba, an Afghan student and refugee.
Centuries later, Hazaras are once again facing hatred, attacks and discrimination. This time, at the hands of the Taliban. However, this is not the first time the Islamist movement has been involved in massacres against the ethnic group. In August 1998, during his first term in office, the Taliban killed 15,000 Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif.
"My mother's first concern was my sister's education and my brothers' lives. She told us about her experience with the Taliban from 1996 onwards, assuring us that they would torture the Hazaras to the bone," Adiba recounts. For this reason, her mother asked her to take her brothers out of the country. "They should not go through what I went through".
The Taliban and their violence are not new to the Hazaras. This is why this ethnic group is asking for international help to stop the new genocide that threatens them.
در همین ویدیویی ۱۵ ثانیهی میشود شجاعت، جسارت، ایستادگی و خواست برای تغییر را دید و آموخت.— Samsama Sirat (@samsamasirat) October 4, 2022
هرات. اول اکتوبر. pic.twitter.com/lsLsfBwXHR
The community is calling for a fact-finding mission to analyse and study the various targeted attacks against the Hazaras, as well as more pressure on the Taliban to include Hazaras in the government and to respect them.
New video of #Hazara forcibly displaced by Taliban from Daykundi.— Basir Ahang (@basirahang) October 7, 2021
“They took everything from us, they took our agricultural products Wheat and Almonds. Now we are here without shelter, food & water”.
2000 families are living in this situation while the cold winter is arriving pic.twitter.com/zvqjzEJyog
Nasir Kaihan, a Hazara activist, proposes that Hazara territories be placed under their own protection or under UN protection in order to survive. He also raises the possibility of a special envoy or delegation to monitor from the ground.
Mujahid Andarabi, an Afghan journalist, considers it necessary for the international community to recognise the Hazara genocide and for a specific committee to be set up to document the crimes and identify the perpetrators. However, Andarabi acknowledges that "the prevention of genocide and violence against the Hazara is not a priority of the United Nations". "The UN is currently more focused on addressing the hunger crisis in Afghanistan". Andarabi adds that the different Afghan ethnic groups - including the Hazaras - who have been fighting for the past 20 years feel that the US has abandoned them and are "very angry".
Najafizada agrees, saying that the Hazaras feel "abandoned and ignored" by the international community. Also, as a journalist, he notes that the international media's interest in Afghanistan has waned and "their coverage of the Hazaras has been limited".
In this regard, Rezai notes that many of the atrocities and crimes against the Hazaras are not reported because the Taliban will not allow it. Reporting is especially difficult in remote regions of the country without internet access.
According to Human Rights Watch figures, since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, IS-K (Islamic State of Greater Khorasan) has committed 13 attacks against Hazaras - three more attacks are also linked to the terrorist group - killing at least 700 people.
The Taliban, while condemning these attacks, do not investigate them. "Many see no difference between the Taliban and Daesh," says Najafizada, who complains that the current regime has taken no practical steps to end discrimination and attacks.
Moreover, they themselves participate in the annihilation campaigns against the community. Since 15 August 2021, Amnesty International has documented three massacres of Hazaras by the Taliban in Malistan, in Khadir and in Gaur province. "The Taliban now are the same as they were in 1996," says Folladwand.
The Taliban have not included any Hazaras in the government, despite the international community's demands for an inclusive executive. Nor are there any Hazaras in the civil service or the armed forces. Forced displacement has been another measure taken by the Taliban against the Hazaras.
The jihadists, for their part, have attacked Shiite mosques on several Fridays - the holy day for Muslims - as well as educational centres. The latest major attack occurred on 30 September in the Hazara neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in Kabul.
On that day, hundreds of students, mostly young Hazara girls, came to the Kaaj examination centre to take the university entrance exams, a major achievement in a country that has severely restricted education for women. Despite the misogynistic measures adopted by the Taliban, Afghan girls and young women have continued to study and train, overcoming enormous barriers every day in order to fulfil their goals.
However, the dreams of dozens of students were shattered on Friday. An IS-K suicide bombing killed 53 young people, most of them Hazara girls. After hearing several gunshots, a gunman entered a classroom through the girls' door and blew himself up among the students, witnesses told EFE. More than 100 people were injured in the attack, and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has warned that the death toll is likely to rise further.
Female protesters on the streets of #Herat chanting, "Education is our right."— Mohammad Natiq | محمد ناطق (@natiqmalikzada) October 2, 2022
Dozens of female protesters in Herat took to the streets today to protest the killing of Hazaras, 2 days after the explosion in Kaj Institute, which killed dozens of #Hazara students.#Afghanistan pic.twitter.com/G1FaEDK28V
Among those killed in the attack was 16-year-old Marzia Mohammadi. The young Hazara girl wrote a wish list in a notebook that was recovered after the attack. The list includes everyday activities such as 'riding a bicycle', 'listening to music' or 'walking in a park at night', simple acts that girls are not allowed to do under the Taliban government.
My heart hurts… Her name was Marzia. #StopHazaraGenocide https://t.co/M4MEwtFY4i— Elif Shafak (@Elif_Safak) October 3, 2022
Mohammadi's wishes reflect the wishes of thousands of Afghan girls who have been prevented by war and extremism from growing up in freedom. The Taliban have tightened laws against women, perpetuating inequality and erasing all the gains made in previous years.
Female #students of Talim wa Tarbia University staged protest with the slogan "Security is our right" on Saturday Oct 01.— Reporterly (@Reporterlyaf) October 1, 2022
In their slogans, these students wanted to stop the #genocide of #Hazaras in #Afghanistan. They also chanted slogans against the "enemies of knowledge." pic.twitter.com/Vgu04s00Cz
Women are the main victims of the Taliban's return. Child marriages, forced marriages, killings, mistreatment, sexual abuse are some of the problems faced by women in Afghanistan. However, if the situation of Afghan women is already horrible, the situation of Hazaras is much worse. Because of their gender and ethnicity, Hazara women and girls face double discrimination.
"The figures for abduction and torture are higher for Hazara women than for any other ethnic group," says Rezai, who also points out that, because of their facial features, they are easy to identify and therefore easy to attack. Journalist Nilofar Moradi also adds that Hazara women are more exposed to violence and forced marriages.
At the same time that Iranian women are fighting against the Islamic Republic, women of Afghanistan are also fighting against the Taliban. We have a common enemy & we fight together to get rid of our religious dictatorship.#مهسا_امینی#StopHazaraGenocide pic.twitter.com/yf8xA5mfCo— Masih Alinejad ?️ (@AlinejadMasih) October 6, 2022
"There were always attacks against the Hazaras, although they were classified as attacks within the Afghan war," Rezai explains. Violence against the Hazaras has intensified with the return of the Taliban, although their situation with the previous internationally recognised governments and NATO troops was not favourable either.
Persecution of the community continued, as did uninvestigated attacks on schools, educational establishments and mosques. "There were never any protection programmes," says Rezai, who admits that the silver lining is that Daesh and the Taliban were then focused on defeating the Americans.
All governments, including Ashraf Ghani's, failed to protect the Hazaras. They have even, Folladwand notes, perceived them as a threat. The activist recalls how special forces sent by Ghani violently suppressed demonstrations in January 2021. Eleven Hazaras were killed and 33 injured.
Nevertheless, Najafizada highlights the political participation of Hazaras during these years. "They had almost 20% participation in the government and parliament. The first female governor in the history of Afghanistan came from the Hazara community, Habiba Sarabi from Bamyan," he explains.
Afghan women have been protesting in several cities across the country following an attack on an education centre in Kabul. The suicide bombing on Friday killed mostly female Hazara students aged between 18 to 24 years. #StopHazaraGenocide pic.twitter.com/6KRZwpCErJ— Goodluck קהלת ג, א-ח (@RealHauleGluck) October 6, 2022
Due to the continuing violence and persecution, thousands of Hazaras have chosen to flee to other countries such as Pakistan or Indonesia. Their situation there is worrying, although as Kaihan points out, at least they are not targeted by the government, as is the case in Afghanistan.
Although they are not directly targeted by the Pakistani authorities, they are not helped by them. Hazaras in Pakistan have no access to healthcare or other basic rights. In Indonesia, on the other hand, there are an estimated 8,000 refugees, many of whom have been away from home for more than 20 years.
Iran is another country hosting a large number of Hazara refugees. "Around 1.5 million Hazaras live in Iran as refugees in a very miserable situation. Some of them were born and raised in Iran, but they can't even buy a SIM card," says Folladwand.
Today, protest against the historically-long ongoing Hazara Genocide, in Malistan, Ghazni. Their slogan is #StopHazaraGenocide.— Ali Folladwand, MD (@DrFolladwand) October 6, 2022
The Hazaras agree that if the international community does not act soon in some way, their situation will worsen dramatically. Numerous NGO reports warn that the ethnic group faces genocide at the hands of the Taliban. "If no action is taken, it could happen sooner than expected," warns Rezai.
The UK House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence, Amnesty International, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Genocide Watch are among the international institutions that have warned of the plight of the Hazaras.
After Kabul, Bamyan and Herat; Protests spread to Mazar-i-Sharif. Dozens of women are protesting against the targeted killing of #Hazaras. #StopHazaraGenocide pic.twitter.com/gfmAcqrrwO— Deepa. K. Parent (@DeepaParent) October 3, 2022
Yet, according to Andarabi, "the world has forgotten about Afghanistan and seems to be interacting with a terrorist group called the Taliban", something that, in the journalist's words, "emboldens them to continue discriminatory policies against Hazaras and other religious minorities".
Hazaras have begun to raise their voices against injustice and discrimination. The latest attack on the school has sparked numerous protests in Afghanistan. These demonstrations have managed to focus attention on the community, which has garnered a lot of support on social media through the hashtag #StopHazaraGenocide. However, there is no change in sight in the country. The Taliban continue to repress, imprison and torture Hazara protesters.
Despite the difficult situation, there is also room for hope and optimism. "The Hazaras will prove that education, books, notebooks and pens are stronger than guns," says Adiba, alluding to his community's great respect for education, knowledge and culture. "We may be broken and wounded, but we will fight with more strength and wisdom than before," he concludes.