Hazara hazards: Afghanistan’s most oppressed people

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Derek Barry/ Roma-based journalist, blogger and researcher at QUT.

In a new study, the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG) have identified those groups most targeted for killing by virtue of their religious or ethnic heritage. Their Peoples Under Threat report lists those peoples or groups that are most under threat of genocide, mass killing or other systematic violent repression in 2008. The worst four countries for minority treatment are Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. While many groups such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkomans, and Baluchis all face persecution in Afghanistan, it is the Hazaras which face the most threats.

The Hazaras are a three million strong Shia Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in Afghanistan’s central highlands. As Asiatic looking Shias in a mostly Sunni country, the Hazaras are the most oppressed minority in Afghanistan. Hazaras speak Farsi (Persian) and claim descent from Genghis Khan. The name derives from the Persian word haz?r, which means “thousand”. The term originally referred to the Mongol military unit of one thousand which was later applied to distinct groups of people.

Hazaras have faced persecution at the hands of the ruling Pashtun since the 18th century. Under the brutal rule of the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan in the mid 19th century, the highland Hazaras were subjugated under his central authority in Kabul. After an unsuccessful revolt, many Hazaras fled to Quetta in Balochistan and to Mashhed in north-eastern Iran. Rahman forced those that stayed to attend Sunni mosques and abandon Shiism. He also imposed tougher regulations and heavy taxes. In 1901, his successor Habibullah Khan granted amnesty to the Hazaras but the seeds of distrust were already laid too deep. As a result Hazaras continued to face severe social, economic and political discrimination through most of the 20th century.

The majority of the Afghan boat people who arrived in Australia in the last ten years are Hazaras. They were particularly targeted by the Taliban government who considered them as “infidels”. It didn’t help that most Hazaras united with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime. In 1998, Amnesty International reported killings, village burnings and confiscation of lands from Hazaras, as well as a major massacre of thousands of Hazaras at the city of Mazar e-Sharif in August that year.

The two monumental Buddhas of Bamyan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, were in Hazara heartland. The statues were built by Kushan and Indo-Hephthalite peoples in the 6th century and these people are believed to be the ancestors of the Hazaras. Physical features of the frescoes found in the relics and nearby caves greatly resemble the features of modern Hazaras. In order to destroy the monuments, Taliban militiamen tied ropes around local Hazara men before lowering them down the cliff face. Once in place, the men were forced to put the explosives into holes in the Buddhas. Locals described the thunderous boom and the cloud of dust that erupted from the alcoves when the Buddhas were destroyed.

Nine months later, the Taliban were defeated by the American-led alliance. The situation has improved greatly for the Hazaras since then. Hazaras are allowed to enter universities, can work as public officials and are able to fulfil successful careers. Dutch group blog Poligazette says 9/11 was a lifesaver for Hazaras and Hamid Karzai’s government lets them participate in public life. “One of Afghanistan’s Vice Presidents is a Hazara, as is the most popular member of Afghanistan’s Parliament,” they say. “The country’s only female Governor is a Hazara. This was impossible only 6 years ago.”

Yet the new MRG report suggests there is still a long way to go before they are fully accepted into Afghan society. Hazaras continue to have grievances, including desiring greater political control in their region, greater economic opportunities, freedom of religion, freedom to promote their culture, and protection from other communal groups. The renaissance of the Taliban is another concern. In 2004, 16 Hazaras were pulled from their vehicle by Taliban forces in south-central Afghanistan and executed. There remains a long way to go before Hazaras can lively safely without the tag of “infidels”.


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