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Hazaras in Afghanistan

  • Profile

    The size of the Hazara population, as with other communities in Afghanistan, is highly uncertain as the country’s authorities have never conducted a national census of the population. However, it is broadly recognized that none of the country’s ethnic groups form a majority, and the exact percentages of each group as part of the national population are estimates and often highly politicized.

    The size of the Hazara community has also declined significantly as a result of forced migration, land grabbing and persecution. They were once the largest Afghan ethnic group, constituting nearly two-thirds of the total population of the country before the 19th century. Some estimates suggest that more than half of the Hazaras were massacred, forced to flee or taken into slavery during the 1891-93 Hazara War when the Afghan King Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901) led a genocidal campaign of violence against Hazaras.  Many of the Hazaras who fled the persecution by Amir Abdur Rahman Khan settled in the Indian subcontinent or Iran, laying the foundation of the Hazara communities that now live in the Pakistani city of Quetta and various districts in Iran’s eastern provinces. These communities have increased in size as more Hazaras who fled from Afghanistan over the past four decades have settled within them, especially in Quetta.

    The origins of the Hazara community are much debated. Although a common myth suggests that Hazaras originated from a contingent of the army of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, there is no historical evidence to support these claims. Other more plausible theories suggest that Hazaras are more likely to have descended from communities that inhabited the region well before the advent of Genghis Khan.

    Hazaras speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi dialect) called Hazaragi and the majority of them follow the Shi’a (Twelver Imami) school of Islam. As a result, Shi’a Hazaras constitute a religious minority in a country where the majority practice Sunni Islam. Significant numbers of Hazaras are also followers of the Ismaili Shi’a school of Islam or are Sunni Muslims. Within Afghanistan, Hazaras are known for their distinctive music and literary traditions with a rich oral history, poetry and music. Hazaragi poetry and music are mainly folkloric, having been passed down orally through the generations.

    In Afghanistan, the majority of Shi’a Hazaras live in Hazarajat (or ‘land of the Hazara’), which is situated in the rugged central mountainous core of Afghanistan with an area of approximately 50,000 square kilometres. The region includes the provinces of Bamyan and Daikundi and several adjacent districts in the provinces of Ghazni, Uruzgan, Wardak, Parwan, Baghlan, Samangan and Sar-e Pul. There are significant Sunni Hazara communities in the provinces of Badghis, Ghur, Kunduz, Baghlan, Panjshir and other areas in the northeast of Afghanistan. Ismaili Hazaras live in the provinces of Parwan, Baghlan and Bamyan. In addition, Shi’a as well as Sunni Hazaras are based in substantial numbers in several urban centres of Afghanistan, including Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat.

    Traditionally, the majority of the Hazara community were involved in subsistence farming or working as peasants and artisans. In Afghanistan’s cities, Hazaras traditionally engaged in unskilled labour as they faced discrimination in education and public sector employment. This has contributed to their further stigmatization, reflected in the low rate of intermarriage between Hazaras and members of other groups. Systematic discrimination, as well as recurrent periods of targeted violence and enforced displacement, have led the Hazara community to lose much of their population and standing in the social hierarchy of modern Afghanistan.

    Historical context

    Shi’a Hazaras are historically the most discriminated ethnic minority group in Afghanistan and have long faced violence and discrimination. Partly, this is to do with religious faith; historically, the Shi’a minority, regardless of ethnicity, has faced long-term persecution from the majority Sunni population. During the reign of Amir Abdul Rahman (1880-1901), Hazaras suffered severe political, social and economic repression, culminating in a state-backed declaration of jihad or holy war against Hazaras from 1890 to 1893.  Abdur Rahman Khan, a Pashtun, mobilized large contingents of government forces as well as ethnic and tribal militias in the war against Hazaras, promising them Hazara lands and men and women as slaves.  Thousands of Hazara men were killed, their women and children taken as slaves, and their lands occupied and redistributed to Pashtun tribes. To strengthen the forces against Hazaras, he appealed to Sunni religious sensibilities to mobilize Tajiks and Uzbeks (both Sunnis) to help Pashtuns fight against the Shi’a Hazaras. Those Hazaras who survived the initial period of raids managed to escape to the north, while a significant number fled to then British India. Apart from Pashtuns, Uzbeks are also thought to have conducted slave raids on Hazaras in Bamyan and elsewhere.

    Hazarajat was occupied by Abdur Rahman’s forces in 1893. Subsequently, he instituted a system of rule that systematically suppressed Hazaras. This repression ranged from issuing unwarranted taxes to assaults on Hazara land and harvests, massacres, looting and pillaging of homes, enslavement of Hazara children, women and men, and replacement of Shi’a clerics with their Sunni religious counterparts.

    Although slavery was formally abolished by King Amanullah Khan in 1923, the persecution of Hazaras continued. Hazaras faced political, economic and social marginalization and the stigmatization of Hazara culture and identity. In Hazarajat, Pashtun nomads who participated in the conquest of the region in the 1890s progressively took control of the region’s pasturelands and dominated its trade and other economic activities with the rest of Afghanistan. The government also collected exorbitant taxes and kept the region economically undeveloped, with no investments in roads or other infrastructure.  To mitigate the impact of this discrimination, many Hazaras concealed their identities to obtain state identification. As late as the 1970s, some Sunni religious teachers preached that the killing of Hazaras was a key to paradise. As a result of these policies, many Hazaras lived on the edge of economic ruin in Afghanistan.

    Since the 1960s, Hazaras have actively campaigned against policies that discriminate against them, demanding equal rights as citizens of Afghanistan. Hazaras have formed their own political parties and participated in alliances with other parties to exert their influence over state policies in the country. The most significant Hazara political groups emerged during the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. Several groups that appeared during this decade merged to form Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Afghanistan (The Party of Islamic Unity of Afghanistan) in 1989. Following the collapse of the last pro-Soviet government in April 1992, the former anti-Soviet resistance groups, known as Mujahedin, were unable to agree on a new national government. These groups fought bloody civil wars over the control of Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. Between 1992 and 1995, Abdul Ali Mazari led Hezb-e Wahdat to speak out at the international level for, and on behalf of Hazaras, putting their case to the UN and the international community. He unified the Hazara people by bringing together the many sections, forces and classes within Hazara and Shi’a society. Hezb-e Wahdat found itself in bloody conflicts with other mainly Sunni groups, including Jamiat-e Islami led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ittehad-e Islami led by Rasul Sayyaf. Jamiat, under Rabbani’s chief commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, launched retaliatory artillery attacks on Hizb-e Wahdat, killing many Hazaras. Amnesty International subsequently reported the killing of many unarmed civilians and the rape of many Hazara women. In February 1993, hundreds of Hazara residents in the Afshar district of western Kabul were massacred by government forces under the direction of Rabbani and Massoud, joined by Ittehad-i-Islami. The fighting saw the utter devastation of large areas of Kabul, particularly those inhabited by Hazaras.

    Mazari was killed in mysterious circumstances while in Taliban captivity in March 1995, and Hezb-e Wahdat under the leadership of Karim Khalili joined a coalition against the Taliban until 2001. In the years that followed the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in 1995, Hazaras faced particularly severe repression and persecution, including a series of mass killings in several provinces, leading to the deaths of thousands of Hazaras and forcing many to flee their homes. The largest massacres of Hazaras took place in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif where the Taliban massacred several thousand predominantly Hazara residents in the city after it took control from the opposition groups.

    A key moment in recent Hazara history is the destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues by the Taliban in March 2001. The giant Buddha statues had long been central to the identity of the Hazara community. Hazaras celebrated the Buddha statues as heritage of a past civilisation in the heart of their homeland and had their own myths associated with the statues, unrelated to Buddhism. In some Hazara folklore, the statues are of a star-crossed couple Salsal and Shahmama, whose doomed love ends tragically in their deaths. The two remain forever separated, petrified in stone, looking out across the Bamyan valley.

    In much of the international media this wanton destruction has been characterized as an assertion of the Taliban’s extreme reading of Islam that forbids representations of human features in art. What was missing in this media reporting were the views of local Hazaras who saw the targeting of the statues as an assertion of Taliban dominance over their culture and homeland.   The destruction was, in fact, part of a larger campaign by the Taliban to suppress the rights and identity of Hazaras. In a private order to his commanders in 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar specifically instructed that Hazara cultural heritage be destroyed and the celebration of Persian New Year, Jashn-e Nouroz, be prohibited. The order also included forced land dispossession, anti-Shi’a propaganda and restrictions on Hazara women, who generally maintained more freedom in their society than other Afghan groups. After the fall of the Taliban, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the remains of the destroyed Bamyan Buddhas a World Heritage Site. International debate has raged regarding whether the statues should be reconstructed or not. However, the discussions often disregard the fact that the sculptures are an integral part of Hazara culture and do not always consider the need to involve local communities in any future decisions concerning them.

    Shi’a Islam was also recognized by the 2004 Constitution. Yet the influence of Shi’a personal laws has threatened that freedom. In 2009, the controversial Shi’a Personal Status Law was passed, stripping Shi’a women, many of whom are Hazara, of some of their basic rights enshrined in the Constitution, including allowing a husband to withhold basic sustenance from his wife for not having sex with him, restricting women from working without permission from their husbands, and denying women custody over their children. The law was reportedly drafted by a powerful Shi’a cleric and pushed through by conservative Shi’a community leaders, who did not adequately consult or protect the rights of Shi’a women.

    The formal inclusion of a small number of Hazaras in positions of government did not address the structural discrimination and violence that ordinary Hazaras faced. Hazaras were discriminated against in public sector jobs as well as in the allocation of national budgets and international aid. These grievances led to the emergence of several waves of protest movements among Hazaras that demanded equitable allocation of resources, especially at the subnational level. In 2016, these protests led to the Enlightenment Movement (Junbesh-e Roshanaye), which was galvanized by a decision of the government of President Ashraf Ghani to divert a previously planned national electricity transmission line from the Hazarajat region.

    Furthermore, Hazaras also became the targets of waves of violence by extremist groups, including the Taliban and the regional affiliate of the so-called Islamic State, known in this context as Islamic State – Khorasan province. For several years, the Taliban targeted Hazaras who were travelled along the roads that connected Hazarajat with Kabul and other urban centres. The main road between Hazarajat and Kabul became known as ‘Death Road’ due to the frequency of kidnappings and other deadly Taliban attacks on Hazaras that took place there in recent years. This violence on the main roadway further isolated and thereby stalled the development of Hazarajat, which requires labour and materials from Kabul to build facilities such as schools and clinics. These factors contributed to the large numbers of Hazara currently residing in Kabul, with many concentrated in one overcrowded area of Dasht-e Barchi, a vast informal settlement with limited public services.

    The wave of extremist violence also hindered the Hazaras from peacefully protesting in the cities. On 23 July 2016, a rally of the Enlightenment Movement at Deh Mazang Square in Kabul was targeted by a suicide bomber, which killed 85 protesters and injured more than 400 others. It was the deadliest attack on civilians since 2002 and targeted Hazaras on the basis of their Shi’a religious identity. Other attacks include a December 2017 bombing that left at least 41 dead and another 80 injured in a Hazara neighbourhood of western Kabul and an assault in March 2018 that resulted in the deaths of at least nine people. As the Taliban gained control of Hazara areas, they also engaged in summary executions of Hazaras in the district of Malist in Ghazni and in Daikundi.

    Current issues

    Well before the Taliban took control of Kabul on 15 August 2021, Hazaras faced an escalating campaign of violence by the Taliban and Islamic State – Khorasan as well as structural discrimination by the government in Kabul. A wave of violence that deliberately targeted Hazara mosques, cultural and educational centres in Kabul and other provincial centres claimed the lives of several hundred Hazara civilians. Since coming to power, the Taliban have dismantled the constitutional order that provided the basic rights of the citizens of the country and have re-established the Islamic Emirate, which institutionalizes sectarian and ethnic discrimination towards Hazaras. Hazaras have lost virtually all influential posts in the government in Kabul, and the Taliban have appointed Pashtuns in positions of authority across Hazarajat.

    Hazaras also suffer particularly seriously from other Taliban policies such as their restrictions on civil society, women’s rights and freedom of expression. Some minority women, including Hazara women, have traditionally enjoyed more freedom in their society than other ethnic groups and benefited considerably from post-2001 political and educational reforms. Civil society and independent media also provided important opportunities for Hazaras to voice their concerns against policies that discriminated against them.  These channels are now largely unavailable to them.

    Furthermore, the Islamic State – Khorasan have continued a campaign of violence to cause maximum casualties among Hazaras. After the Taliban came to power, the group claimed responsibility for attacks on Shi’a mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar that killed scores of predominantly Hazara worshippers.  Several attacks on passenger vehicles in Hazara neighbourhoods of Kabul have claimed the lives of many others.

    A key issue for the Hazara community is the general climate of impunity, whereby those who committed atrocities – both past and present – can evade justice. Hazaras are deeply concerned about the return of the Taliban to power, who they feel pose a direct threat to their community. The Taliban’s sectarian tendencies towards Hazaras are also likely to be reinforced by increasing ethnic tensions and incidents of violent clashes between Hazaras and nomadic tribes who, like the Taliban, are Pashtuns and claim rights to pasturelands throughout the Hazarajat region. Local Taliban have forcefully displaced hundreds of Hazara families from districts in the provinces of Daikundi and Helmand and have threatened Hazara communities with similar mass evictions in the provinces of Ghazni and Balkh. Pashtun nomads, who relied on government support since the late 19th century to claim the pasturelands of Hazarajat, have also returned to Hazara areas in large numbers.

    Updated December 2021.

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