When They Leave: The Fate of Hazaras in Afghanistan

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I clearly remember one of my first conversations concerning international military involvement in Afghanistan. It was 2011, and I was an anthropology PhD student conducting initial fieldwork on Hazara ethnic identity in the central province of Bamyan. One day, I was sipping tea with my host mother, a Hazara, when she suddenly turned to me and asked: “When are the Americans leaving? Why are they leaving? Don’t they know that as soon as they leave, the Taliban will come and kill us?”1 Her questions stuck with me, and worried me. While I did not imagine that my host mother was in imminent danger, I also knew the Hazaras had experienced a past that gave them good reason to express such a fear.

The Hazara people, Shia Muslims whose homeland lies in the central highland region of Afghanistan, arguably had the most to gain of any ethnic group in Afghanistan when American-led international intervention began in 2001. Thus, most fully supported it. As Shias, Hazaras had suffered under the extremist Sunni Taliban: Their distinctive Central Asian somatic features made it impossible for them to mask their identity, as is allowed in the Shia faith (Shias are allowed to pretend that they are Sunnis in order to survive, a practice known as taqiya). While the years since 2001 have paved way for an increase in social mobility and a decrease in violent attacks, the Hazaras’ future is dubious. Their supposed American allies, who wonder about links to Iran and potential similarities to groups like Hezbollah, continue to harbor distrust of the group despite their lack of involvement in the current insurgency. In addition, radical Sunni ideas around Daesh, or the Islamic State, have recently been taking hold in Afghanistan, and have reignited sectarian violence. Many Hazaras fear that the possible entrenchment of Daesh ideas in Afghanistan could result in the worst situation for them yet.


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The Hazaras’ relationship with the Afghan state has always been troubled. Starting in 1888, the ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Abdur Rahman, set out on a centralization campaign. Abdur Rahman subjugated many autonomous and semi-autonomous groups during this time, but the campaigns against the Hazaras were particularly severe, likely because of their status as a Shia minority. They were forcibly expelled from their lands, sold into slavery, and massacred in large numbers. Hazara activists claim that at least 60 percent of Hazaras were killed, enslaved, or forced to leave their homeland for Pakistan and Iran as a result of the campaign. In subsequent years, Hazaras occupied a sort of second-class social position, generally managing to only procure jobs as laborers and servants, a situation which kept them far down on the social ladder for decades. This history is retold and stressed by Hazara activists today, presented as a chain of unbroken events that began with Abdur Rahman’s campaign and continues even now.

The Taliban era marked another low point in Hazara history. The regime conducted several mass killings of Hazaras, including three hundred people in the Yakawlang district of Bamyan in 2001, thirty-one people in Baghlan in 2000, and seventy people in 2000in the village of Sarao-e-Syob, where I lived for a portion of my research, in the center of Bamyan Province. A family I knew in Yakawlang told me the difficulties they faced after five out of seven brothers were murdered by the Taliban. Neighbors in Sarao-e-Syob remembered hiding their men in root cellars as the Taliban came door to door while fearing that the children might reveal the hiding place of their father, which would mean that the entire family would be killed. These memories are still fresh.

It is no surprise, then, that many Hazaras believed that 2001 marked a turning point in their history. And indeed, the last decade has seen a marked increase in numbers of Hazaras gaining an education and seeking prominent political positions. As a result, Hazaras I spoke with expressed gratitude to the United States, and believed that the main purpose of American and international involvement around the world is to help the downtrodden. They also praised the actions of George W. Bush: He was, after all, the man who drove the Taliban from power. When I pressed them on other policies of the Bush presidency, such as the legitimacy of the war in Iraq, or of the Obama presidency, such as an increase in drone warfare in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, my questions fell on unsympathetic ears. Pashtuns were often the leaders in Abdur Rahman’s state and made up most Taliban members, they explained. They saw Afghanistan’s troubles through an ethnic lens, and Pashtuns as the constant persecutors. This perspective has a wide reach; when Hazaras sense discrimination in a scholarship competition sponsored by Americans – say, Fulbright – they often lay the blame not with the Americans, but with the Pashtuns. I have heard Hazaras say that Pashtuns hold positions that allow them to serve as gatekeepers in the US Embassy. These Pashtuns, according to some, supposedly speak badly about the Hazaras to their American employers, and as a result, Hazaras are given fewer opportunities. Between these exaggerations, there is likely some truth.


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While Hazaras have goodwill towards Americans and US foreign policy, the American government views the Hazaras much more coolly. The Americans assume Hazaras to be sympathetic to Iran, if not puppets of the Iranian regime. I once had a conversation with a US official working in Bamyan about the open-minded nature of Shiism. The official responded with disbelief, saying, “But Shias are Iran, they are Hezbollah. I have never equated Shias with open-mindedness.” Hazaras certainly have ties to Iran – many were refugees or have studied there – but the reality is much more complicated. During the Soviet era in Afghanistan, Iran helped to build a new, unifying Hazara political party in Afghanistan called Hizb-e-Wahdat. This heralded a shift in politics away from religious affiliation towards ethnicity. This shift, however, was not endorsed by Iran, who harbored religious-based interests. Subsequently, Iranian funding to Hazara parties dwindled, which lead to resentments that continue to this day. Moreover, Hazaras who went to Iran in the past thirty years as refugees often complain of the poor ways in which they were treated by their co-religionists. According to these Hazaras, Iranians seemed to care more about ethnicity than they claimed. And lastly, most Hazaras are aware that supporting the United States means turning away from Iran. While there are likely some Hazaras who are sympathetic to Iran, I did not meet any. Despite this, the United States is still wary. My encounter with the US official in Bamyan exemplifies that while Hazaras hope to show themselves as the most flexible, forward-thinking Afghan group, they remain categorized by many first as Shia. No matter how much they profess to admire George W. Bush, it is difficult shake this association.

Yet, despite the improvements that Hazaras have seen in social and political life since the US invasion, it was clear even in my first trip to Bamyan in 2011 that the security situation was growing worse. That is why my host mother’s comments worried me. When I had arrived, Bamyan had been in a state of panic; the head of the Provincial Council, Jawad Zuhak, had just been beheaded by the Taliban while traveling back from Kabul. Also in 2011, during the Shia holiday of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of the religious figure Hussein, a mostly Hazara mosque in Kabul was attacked by a suicide bomber. Seventy people were killed. On the same day, there was a similar attack on a mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, killing another four. When I returned to Bamyan in 2012 to begin my year-long dissertation fieldwork, people were again panicked; the Taliban was encroaching on the edges of the province, and it seemed just a matter of time before open persecution of Hazaras began again. In 2013, the withdrawal of New Zealand troops and the full closure of the New Zealand base only made the situation worse. Road travel, which had always been unsafe for Hazaras in many parts of the country, grew more risky. People I knew told stories of friends who were stopped, robbed, and sometimes kidnapped by the Taliban. In July 2014, masked gunmen stopped a minibus on the road between Kabul and Ghazni and separated out the Hazaras from the rest of the passengers. Reports stated that initially, the gunmen intended to spare the women and children, but as the women could not stop screaming, they too were killed along with their children. The gunman murdered a total of fourteen.


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As part of my research, I was interested to know whether Hazaras, who were one of the first groups to disarm after 2001 under the United Nations’ Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) Programme that aimed to return various mujahedin groups to civilian life, were rearming themselves in response to these rising threats. Indeed, Hazaras have historically been fighters. Hizb-e-Wahdat, the Hazara political party, was one of the main mujahedin factions during the Soviet War from 1979-1989 and the civil war from 1992-1996. However, when I spoke to Hazaras in Bamyan, they told me that while they were interested in obtaining weapons for the added security, the community had been so thoroughly disarmed during the process of DDR that procuring anything had become extremely difficult. Besides no longer having the proper resources to purchase weapons, Hazaras told me that their only current channel for weapons was through Iranian agents, whose motives they did not trust. In addition, a large portion of Hazara activists were actively pursuing peace as a means of justice for past human rights abuses. These activists frequently marched in Bamyan and Kabul, and modeled themselves on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights movement. These activists in particular were staunchly committed to peaceful methods.

In recent months, however, violence against Hazaras has increased even more. Thirty-one Hazaras were kidnapped in February in the southern province of Zabul. Nineteen were released, and of the remaining, several are believed to have been killed, and the whereabouts of the rest remain unknown. On March 15, eight Hazaras were kidnapped in Ghazni, and two days later, six Hazaras were kidnapped on the Farah-Herat highway. Then, on March 25, eighteen Hazaras and three Baluch Shias were kidnapped in Daikundi; on March 29, another five Hazaras were kidnapped in Mazar-e-Sharif. At the moment, no one seems to know exactly who the kidnappers are (some say Daesh, others say the Taliban) and what exactly their motive is. Those who point to Daesh surmise that the fighters are Pashtuns who are disillusioned with the Taliban but also opposed to the government, and who have taken on Daesh ideals as their own. As a result, the categories of ethnic and sectarian violence in recent months have increasingly bled together. Hazaras might be targeted because they are Shia, or because they are considered ethnically inferior. Baluch might be kidnapped because they are Shia, or because they tend to vote in line with Hazaras, as one informant told me.

Whatever the case, many are worried by the reports of Daesh in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, a spokesman of Daesh announced that the group was expanding their Caliphate into Khorasan, the ancient name for Afghanistan and adjoining areas, and footage has surfaced of fighters displaying the black flags of Daesh in Afghan territory. It is likely that many Daesh associates are local rather than foreign fighters, though the development is still a serious cause of concern: Ideology is harder to remove than foreign fighters. To many Afghans, Daesh seems all the more frightening because it adds a purely sectarian element to a struggle that has historically been much more complex. If Daesh’s use of spectacle and horrifying methods of killing spread to Afghanistan, then Hazaras and other Afghan Shias may face new, unprecedented danger. A purely sectarian movement could mean that Afghanistan might start to look more like Iraq, with thousands displaced or dead.


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It seems that this increase of violence may be incentive enough for some Hazaras to find ways to rearm themselves. Murg (meaning “death” in Dari) is a newly formed, mainly Hazara group – although it claims not to be defined by ethnic identity – in the north of the country that vows to fight Daesh. There have also been reports of other Hazara armed groups forming in Sheikh Ali, a district of Parwan, and in Jaghouri, a district of Ghazni, and carrying out Pashtun retribution killings in response to the recent Hazara kidnappings.

Hazaras have, up until this point, served as a post-2001 success story due to their rapid advancement in spheres such as education and their peaceful means of voicing their grievances. However, because they never really stopped feeling vulnerable in the years following the US invasion, their success story is now prone to slippage as violence begins to escalate. In the coming years, Hazaras could find themselves at the center of a sectarian war that has its roots in the wars and imperialist projects that have ravaged the post-9/11 Middle East. One hopes this not to be the case, but the evidence is there.

Last week, I was at home in Massachusetts, trying to get work done after my infant daughter had gone to bed when a friend in Bamyan called me over Skype. I was pleased to receive the surprise call, but the conversation was grim. “Things are getting so bad here, Melissa,” my friend said. “I need to get out. I don’t know how, but there is the Taliban, and now there is Daesh. I can’t even go to Kabul. I would stay if it was only me, but I can’t raise my daughter her. What should I do?”

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Melissa Kerr Chiovenda is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. She has a MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University and a MA in anthropology from University of Connecticut.


  1. I found it was common for people in Afghanistan to refer to all international troops as Americans, assuming (not completely incorrectly) that all soldiers in Afghanistan ultimately take orders from US authorities. Hence, my host mother spoke of American military when the coalition country tasked with providing security in Bamyan at the time was actually New Zealand. []

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