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Afghanistan's Hazara minority increasingly fearful under Taliban

Al-Monitor spoke to members of the long-persecuted Hazara Shiite minority group in Afghanistan as restrictions on women increase and verifiable information becomes scarcer. 
Members of the Taliban security forces arrive as Afghan women march during a demonstration they call Stop Hazara genocide a day after a suicide bomb attack at Dasht-e-Barchi learning centre, in Kabul on October 1, 2022. - (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

KABUL — As the Taliban introduce greater restrictions on women and much of the local media have left or been forced to self-censor in Afghanistan, concerns have grown about the future of the Afghan Shia Hazara minority group despite assurances from the authorities. 

While deeply distrustful of the current government’s pledges to protect their long-persecuted community, many Hazaras told Al-Monitor while reporting from the country in late 2022 that their greatest concern for the moment is the future of their daughters and other women — and that it is unclear who is carrying out some of the attacks on them.

Over the past year, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the branch of the Islamic State operating in Afghanistan, has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks targeting the Taliban and other groups, including one on the Kabul military airport on Jan.1.

BBC Persian reported this week that ISKP carried out at least 260 attacks in several different provinces of Afghanistan over the past year and a half.

No one has yet taken responsibility for a major attack last September that killed over 50 mostly teenage girls at a private tutoring center in a Hazara neighborhood in western Kabul.

A November raid by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s mostly Hazara central province of Daikundi reportedly left dozens of “armed rebels” dead. The families of the those killed claimed to foreign media outlets, instead, that many were actually civilians including children.

Within the Hazara community, there seems to be a growing sense of fear. During an interview in late 2022 in the same area of the Afghan capital where the dozens of girls and young women were killed in September, a Shia Hazara former government official told Al-Monitor that anxiety levels were high among his community.

“In this area, everyone is afraid — always.”

He noted, however, that despite concerns about how the Taliban would treat the Shia Hazaras after their takeover of the country in August 2021, thus far there did not seem to be more targeting of the minority group than there had been prior to the ascent to power of the extremist group.

The Dast-e-Barchi district of western Kabul where he lives still has multiple commemorative billboards of a historic commander of the country’s Shia Hazara minority ethnic group, Abdul Ali Mazari. 

An estimated 4 million Hazaras resided in the country as of 2020, mostly in central parts of the country. 

During the early 1990s, Mazari had negotiated with the Taliban but clashed with them when they attempted to disarm his fighters in this western part of Kabul. He was later killed by the Taliban and is revered as a hero among much of the Hazara community, which is believed to account for about 20% of the overall population in the country. 

Mazari was posthumously awarded the title "Martyr Of National Unity" in 2016 by the Ashraf Ghani government at that time. The Taliban destroyed a statue of him in the Hazara-majority province of Bamiyan shortly after their return to power in August 2021. He was also the head and co-founder of Hezbe Wahdat, a Shia political party formed in 1989. Iran is widely believed to have played a major role in the party’s formation. 

The Taliban, who refer to their government as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), had in the years leading up to the August 2021 takeover of the country received growing support from Shia-ruled Iran.

Iran has long been close to the Taliban for diverse geopolitical reasons and counts on its eastern neighbor for vital water resources.

Though the Taliban had persecuted the Hazara Shia during their 1996-2001 rule over most of the country, the group actively tried to assuage fears in Iran and other foreign countries, as well as among the local population, that the same would not happen this time. 

Many brutal attacks in the western Hazara-dominant part of the capital happened prior to the Taliban takeover. In the spring of 2020, for example, armed men attacked the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) maternity wing in the Dast-e-Barchi hospital, killing 24 people. Among the dead were 16 mothers, a midwife and two young children.

An MSF investigation into the attack noted a year later that some had blamed the Taliban. "No one has claimed responsibility for this attack. Immediately after it, Afghan authorities publicly blamed the Taliban — or Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — who refuted and condemned the accusation, while in the media representatives of foreign governments accused Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP). However, no evidence was made public to support those claims,” the statement read.

Some Afghans cautiously opine that parts of the Taliban may be working alongside ISKP in mutually beneficial areas, partially in order to enjoy plausible deniability for unpopular actions.

Attacks that seem to target the ethnic minority may actually intend to frighten women and girls into greater submission, some claim. 

One Pashtun former government official — from the same ethnic group as the vast majority of the Taliban — claimed to Al-Monitor in an interview in Kabul that many are holding the Taliban responsible. “Many Afghans think the Taliban may in some way be facilitating these attacks” on Hazaras and women, though he said he doubted they were actually behind them.

In speaking to Al-Monitor at his home in October, the Hazara former government official in western Kabul stressed that many in the country were spending their time and effort to try to ensure girls can get some sort of education after the Taliban “temporarily closed” secondary schools for girls over a year before.

The man noted that since the Taliban takeover, he too had been confined to his home and unable to work due to his association with the previous government. He said, however, that he had met with members of the IEA and that they had spoken “amicably.”

The man, who Al-Monitor is not naming for security reasons, denied that there continue to be problems between the local Pashtun and Hazara communities in the Ghazni province southwest of the capital, which in the past has seen unrest due to problems between the two. 

On a trip to the Ghazni province in late October, Al-Monitor spoke to a Hazara woman about the situation there. At that time, the Taliban presence and tension levels seemed less in the provincial capital city than in Kabul, where armed men are ubiquitous — and often nervous. 

Streets were bustling in Ghazni and a local restaurant had both men and women in it, with many women wearing their headscarves loosely inside buildings. 

Despite having made several references to the "Hazara genocide" on social media, the woman said that she was most concerned about the steadily encroaching restrictions on women’s rights to work and move around alone in Afghanistan.

The woman, who had received a university education in Kabul before returning to her native province for work, said she wanted to work with humanitarian organizations in the future. In late December, the Taliban banned women from universities, educational centers and nongovernmental organizations

In a message to Al-Monitor this month, the woman said simply that she didn’t have a choice any longer. “I will stay home like everyone else," she wrote.

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