In this analysis, Sofya Shahab shares how concern over how much longer the Hazara community as an ethnic and religious minority will survive in Afghanistan with the Taliban back in power.
When the last military flights left Afghanistan tens of thousands of Afghans were left behind, fearing for their lives and with no clear way out of the country. While the UK government has said it will take up to 20,000 Afghan refugees and that it will prioritise those most in need, including women, children and religious minorities in danger from the Taliban, for the Hazara Shia community such limited assistance may not come fast enough.
The Hazara community in Afghanistan are a religious and ethnic minority. They are commonly thought to trace their origins in the country to the 13th century, arriving with the Mongol campaigns in the region under the rule of Ghengis Khan. While they were once estimated to be about 67% population (making them the largest Afghan ethic group) more than half of all Hazaras were massacred in 1893 under the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan.
Hzaras have been targeted throughout history because of their status as predominantly Shi’a
Today, they are thought to make up between 9% -15% of the population. Their status as a predominantly Shi’a religious group has meant they have been subject to mass atrocities throughout their history. This was especially the case after the Taliban claimed control of Kabul and prior to the arrival of international forces in the wake of 9/11. As just one example, in January 2001 in Yakaolang district about 300 Hazara men were detained by the Taliban and shot by firing squad with approximately 170 confirmed as having been killed. Sadly, there are many other examples of the Taliban’s extreme hatred for Shi’a Hazaras and violence towards them.
Alongside such direct attacks, the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas (considered “one of the world’s worse cultural crimes”) also had a specific effect on the Hazara community.
Standing at over 170 and 115 feet high the two Buddha statues towered over the landscape of the Bamiyan valley, the centre of the Hazarajat homeland. Although the Hazaras did not build the statues themselves, they were intimately connected to their identity and they were seen as representing their ancestors. As members of the Hazara community explained to me while living and working in Kabul from 2012-2015:
‘When they [the Taliban] destroyed the Buddhas, they were wiping away our faces from the landscape’.
This destruction was part of a campaign to eviscerate the rights and identity of the Hazara people, which also included orders to suppress the Hazara celebration of the Persian new year, forced land dispossession, anti-Shi’a propaganda and restrictions on Hazara women, preventing them from engaging with aspects of their tangible and intangible heritage: a concern that may increasingly be revived as the Taliban consolidate their rule in Kabul.
The arrival of NATO troops and the ousting of the Taliban from government in 2001 did not prevent the targeting of Hazara people. While the ongoing conflict and insecurity in Afghanistan has led to an estimated 71,000 civilian deaths overall, Hazaras are the only group who’ve been specifically targeted because of their ethno-religious identity, by both the Taliban and also by the newly established ISIS-Khorasan, a Daesh affiliate. According to Wadood Pedram, executive director of the Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Organization, 1,200 Hazaras have been killed in attacks and a further 2,300 have been injured since 2015.
Shi’a mosques, festivals and sites of worship have endured multiple attacks and in May, a devastating series of explosions outside a school in Dasht-e-Barchi – a predominantly Hazara neighbourhood in Kabul – killed 85 and wounded over 165, many of them schoolgirls. Just as recently as July, nine Hazara men were murdered by the Taliban, 3 of whom had been tortured.
While reports of attempted forced marriage of Hazara women and girls to Taliban fighters are also starting to emerge, echoing similar attempts of ethnic and cultural cleansing through forced marriage in Iraq and elsewhere.
Such targeted persecution is causing the Hazara community to fear for their lives as they go about their employment, education and religious rites. As a result, many are left with no choice but to seek to leave Afghanistan in any way they can, putting them at increased risk of human trafficking. There are reports that 10,000 Hazaras have already fled to the Pakistan city of Quetta, describing it as a ‘do or die situation for Hazara Shia; whether to leave and live, or stay and die.’
These attacks and the resulting fear and displacements erode Hazara identity and belonging as they are unable to engage in the practices that sustain their community through an inability to access and practice their cultural heritage.
The hashtag StopHazaraGenocide has been gaining ground on Twitter, as they seek to raise awareness of the physical and existential threats they are facing. As the Taliban consolidates its victory and establishes its government, it is unclear how much longer the Hazara community as an ethnic and religious minority will survive in Afghanistan.