Few have heard of the Hazara, an ethnic group native to Afghanistan.
For over a century, the Hazara community has suffered from targeted discrimination, persecution, and massacres because of their ethnicity and Shi’ite faith in a predominantly Sunni-Muslim country. In the 1890s, 60 per cent of the Hazara population was killed, and those who survived were dispossessed of their land, displaced from their homes and sold as slaves.
Oppression continued throughout the 20th century as Hazaras were denied access to education and political rights. Despite progress since 2001, Hazara areas in Afghanistan remain among the poorest in the country and they are reported to face continuing societal discrimination. More recently, Hazaras are concerned about the increasing influence of extremist groups in Afghanistan. The rising trend of sectarian attacks against civilians belonging to this specific ethnic and religious community has forced thousands of Hazaras to flee as refugees once more.
Who are the Hazaras?
The Hazaras constitute one of the many ethnic groups in Afghanistan, that primarily inhabit the mountainous region of central Afghanistan called Hazarajat. They are Dari (Persian/Farsi) speakers with Central Asian facial features which set them apart from other ethnic groups. They predominantly follow the Shi’a sect of Islam, with smaller populations who are Sunni.
There has not been an accurate census in over forty years due to the ongoing war, so there is no consensus on the exact population of the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. However, Hazaras are believed to represent the third largest ethnic community, after the Pashtuns and Tajiks, with estimates ranging from ten to twenty-five percent of the overall population.
A History of Oppression
In the history of the modern Afghan state, Hazaras have been marginalized both economically and politically. They have been subjected to systematic oppression, widespread discrimination and exploitation by the Afghan state due to their ethnic, linguistic and sectarian identity. Further, Hazaras have faced genocidal campaigns, land dispossession, and displacement, particularly during the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901), who campaigned for the ‘Pashtunisation’ and ‘Islamisation’ of Afghanistan.
During Abdur Rahman Khan’s rule (1880 to 1901), Hazaras were subjected to discriminatory policies, massacred, and dispossessed of their land. Many were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam, hence, a small number of Hazaras are Sunni Muslims. Those who refused to convert were either killed or shipped to be sold as slaves to other parts of the country. Historians such as Thomas Barfield estimate that Abdur Rahman killed more than 100,000 Hazaras during his rule (constituting more than 60% of the entire Hazara population) in an attempt to make Pashtuns the hegemonic group both politically and economically.
This anti-Hazara and anti-Shia sentiment continued and increased during the Taliban era, when the Taliban carried out many violent attacks that directly targeted Shi'a Hazaras. One of the most horrific campaigns against Hazaras was the Mazar-e-Sharif massacre in August 1998 when Taliban troops were spreading northwards and were “shoot[ing] at anything that moved” in what is described by witnesses as a “killing frenzy”. They also carried out house-to-house searches, arresting and executing Hazara men and boys whilst raping and abducting women and girls. Eyewitnesses have reported that the troops demanded civilians to recite Sunni prayers to prove that they were not Hazaras. The Taliban slaughtered over 8,000 Hazara civilians in Mazar-e-Sharif, with thousands of others missing or never accounted for.
Similar attacks were carried out elsewhere in Hazarajat where many Hazara men were taken to the centre of the district to an assembly point and shot in public by firing squads. The Taliban also burnt over 4000 houses, shops, mosques, public buildings and clinics in Yakawlang district of Hazarajat. Notably, the Taliban also destroyed the famous Giant Buddha statues in 2001, the historic treasures of Bamiyan, in the cultural homeland of the Hazaras in central Hazarajat.
Their situation since 2001
Since the defeat of the Taliban from government by NATO/US forces in 2001, the Hazaras have offered the most potent example of transformation from violent conflict to peaceful civilian politics, which has been proclaimed as ‘Afghanistan’s Success Story: The Liberated Hazara Minority’ by The Economist magazine.
Pen over gun
After the international intervention and 2004 Bonn Agreement, the Hazaras have embraced and flourished in many aspects of social, economic and political life. This revival of Hazaras has been based on education described as “their choice of qalam over shamshir, or pen over gun”. This has led to an unprecedented number of Hazara youth rushing to schools and universities in both cities and remote villages in Hazarajat, hence why the Hazaras constitute a substantial part of the rapidly expanding educated class in the country, who are at the forefront of civil society and peaceful activism.
The New York Times reports (2010) that “in a country that has one of the world’s lowest female literacy rates, just one in seven women over age 15 can read and write, the progress of Hazara women is even more stark” in comparison to other groups in the country. Shamsia Alizada, who survived a deadly suicide bombing two years ago, recently achieved the highest national grades in Afghanistan’s university entrance exam, demonstrating Hazaras’ progress and commitment to education.
It is clear that since the US invasion in 2001, the Hazaras have made significant progress. Both their activism and participation in civil society as well as their representation in government and public offices have increased, all of which are threatened by the prospects of a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. This is because regardless of how much Hazaras have gained since 2001, they continue to face ethnic and religious persecution at the hands of the Taliban.
On 17th of August 2018, a targeted attack on a Hazara wedding in Kabul left 68 people dead and more than 180 wounded. Similar attacks have targeted Shia mosques, Hazaras protests, demonstrations and political gatherings. Even after the US-Taliban peace deal in February 2020, in which the Taliban agreed to end violence in return for the withdrawal of US troops, attacks have only intensified against the Hazaras. On 6th March 2020, a ceremony gathering which marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Abdul Ali Mazari; an ethnic Hazara leader who was killed by the Taliban in 1995, was attacked that left 32 people dead and more than 81 wounded.This was the first major attack since the peace deal, though the Taliban have denied involvement whilst ISIL has claimed responsibility.
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