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Though their exact number is uncertain and as with other communities are contested, relatively recent estimates have suggested that Hazaras make up around 9 per cent of the population. They were once the largest Afghan ethnic group constituting nearly 67 per cent of the total population of the state before the 19th century. More than half were massacred in 1893 when their autonomy was lost as a result of political action. The origins of Hazara community are much debated, the word Hazara means ‘thousand’ in Persian but given the Hazaras’ typical physical features, current theory supports their descent from Mongol soldiers left behind by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

The majority of Hazaras live in Hazarajat (or Hazarestan),’ land of the Hazara’, which is situated in the rugged central mountainous core of Afghanistan with an area of approximately 50,000 sq. km., with others living in the Badakhshan mountains. In the aftermath of Kabul’s campaign against them in the late 19th century, many Hazaras settled in western Turkestan, in JauzJan and Badghis provinces. Ismaili Hazaras, a smaller religiously differentiated group of Hazaras, live in the Hindu Kush mountains. The most recent two decades of war have driven many Hazaras away from their traditional heartland to live on the fringes of the state in close proximity to Iran and Pakistan. There is also a large cross-border community of Hazaras who make up an influential ethnic group in the Pakistani border city of Quetta.

Hazaras speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi dialect) called Hazaragi and the vast majority follow the Shi’a sect (Twelver Imami) of Islam. A significant number are also followers of the Ismaili sect while a small number are Sunni Muslim. Within Afghan culture, Hazaras are famous for their music and poetry and the proverbs from which their poetry stems. The poetry and music are mainly folkloric having been passed down orally through the generations. In 1880, the Hazara community comprised of landed nobility, peasants and artisans. The social class structure was that of the ruling and the ruled classes, which itself was based on ownership of the means of production (animals, land and water).

Systematic discrimination, as well as often repeated targeted violence and resulting displacement, has led the Hazara community to lose much of their standing in the social hierarchy of modern Afghanistan. Their engagement in unskilled labour has resulted in further stigmatization, with a clear indicator of this being the low rate of inter-ethnic marriages with Hazaras. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Hazaras have been relatively isolated from other cultural influences, and their identity has remained relatively static.

Hazaras are reported to have nuclear families with the husband considered the head of the family except in the case of husband’s death when the woman becomes the head. In the latter case, the older wife in polygamous marriages succeeds the deceased husband until the eldest sun reaches maturity. At national level, Hazaras tend to be more progressive concerning women’s rights to education and public participation. Educated Hazara women, in particular, those who returned from exile in Iran are often as active as men in civic and political arenas. Hazara families are eager to educate their daughters. UN officials in Bamyan, the largest town in Hazarajat (as well as the name of the province surrounding it), have reported that since the collapse of Taliban rule in late 2001, aid agencies have scrambled to build schools and have succeeded in attracting qualified female teachers to meet the demand.

Historical context

Hazaras are believed to have settled in Afghanistan at least as far back as the thirteenth century. The Shi’a Hazaras are historically the most discriminated ethnic minority group in the state and have seen little improvement in their situation despite the recent changes. While President Karzai did appoint six Hazaras to his cabinet, there appears to be no reduction in the discrimination facing the majority of the Hazara population of Afghanistan. Forced to migrate to Kabul in the second half of the 20th century due to persecution, their low socio-economic status has created a class as well as an ethnic division between them and the rest of urban Afghan society.

Economic pressures and social and political repression have resulted in Hazaras combining with other Shi’a minority groups during the 1960s and 1970s and playing a prominent role in the prolonged civil war for the past two decades. During the resistance in the mid-1980s, Hazaras maintained their own resistance group, some of which had ties with Iran.

As an ethnic group, Hazaras have always lived on the edge of economic survival in Afghanistan. The recent persecution of Hazaras was not instigated by the Taliban but had existed for centuries – during which Hazaras were driven out of their lands, sold as slaves and lacked access to the essential services otherwise available to the majority of the population. One of the main factors in Hazaras’ continued persecution is their Shi’a religious faith, their distinctive ethnic origins, as well as their having separate economic and political roots.

Historically, the minority Shi’a, regardless of ethnicity, have faced long-term persecution from the majority Sunni population. From the 1880s onwards, and especially during the reign of Amir Abdul Rahman (1880-1901), they suffered severe political, social and economic repression, as Jihad was declared by Sunni leaders on all Shi’as of Afghanistan. As the Pashtun Rahman started to extend his influence from Kabul by force to other parts of the country, the Hazaras were the first ethnic group to revolt against his expansionism. Pashtun tribes were sent to the central highlands to crush the revolt. Thousands of Hazara men were killed, their women and children taken as slaves, and their lands occupied. To strengthen the forces against the Hazara rebellion that followed, Rahman played on Sunni religious sensibilities and even attracted Tajiks and Uzbeks (both Sunnis) to help the Pashtuns against the Shi’a Hazaras. Those who survived the initial period of the 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 the Hazaras in Bamyan and elsewhere.

Rahman’s suppression of Hazara ranged from issuing unwarranted taxes to assaults on Hazara women, massacres, looting and pillaging of homes, enslavement of Hazara children, women and men, and replacement of Shi’a clerics with their Sunni religious counterparts. Hazarajat was occupied by Rahman in 1893 and it is estimated that 60 per cent of the Hazara population was wiped out by him.

The persecution of Hazaras continued throughout the 19th century and during the Monarchy (1929 onwards) when during the process of ‘Pashtunization’ Hazaras were made to conceal their identities to obtain state identification. It is suggested that until the 1970s some Sunni religious teachers preached that the killing of Hazaras was a key to paradise.

Economically Hazarajat was kept undeveloped with no roads, schools or clinics. The Hazaras have typically voiced their dissent to the policies of overt discrimination against them since the 1970s through a unified opposition movement; the main Hazara party, Hizb-e Wahdat (Party of Unity), was established in 1988. In 1992, after the Mujahidin took power, fighting between the various groups broke out. Violent attacks occurred in Kabul between Mujahidin leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittehad-i-Islami and Hizb-e Wahdat. Some of the other parties joined the fighting, intensifying the conflict and at one point leading Hizb-e Wahdat also to attack President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami positions.  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 West 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.

Between 1992-1995, Abdul Ali Mazari became the first political leader 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. Mazari signed an agreement with the Taliban leadership in 1993 but was brutally murdered by them in 1995. In the same year, Hizb-e Wahdat joined the new anti-Taliban Shura-ye Ali-ye Difa under the leadership of Abdul Rashid Dostum. During this period, schools (including a new girls’ school) were reopened in 1996, and the University of Bamyan was established.

After the Taliban seized power in 1996, they declared Jihad on the Shi’a Hazaras. In the years that followed, Hazaras faced particularly severe repression and persecution, including a series of mass killings in northern Afghanistan, where thousands of Hazaras lost their lives or were forced to flee their homes. Consequently, Hazaras formed part of the Northern Alliance forces that opposed the Taliban and took power after the Taliban fell in 2001.

A key moment in recent Hazara history is the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001. The giant Buddha statues had long been central to the identity of the Hazara community. Although not built by the Hazaras themselves, who only came to have an ethnolinguistic identity based in the region some centuries later, they have their own myths associated with the statues, unrelated to Buddhism. In Hazara folklore, the statues are of a star-crossed couple Salsal and Shahmama, whose doomed love ends tragically in both their deaths. The two remain forever separated, petrified in stone, looking across the Bamyan valley.

However, the statues, long celebrated internationally, achieved less welcome attention in 2001 when the Taliban dynamited them, leaving behind little more than empty voids. While in international media this wanton destruction has been characterized as an assertion of the Taliban’s extreme reading of Islam, whereby representations of human features in art is forbidden, the targeting of the statues was also an assertion of Taliban dominance over Hazaras and their 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 the Hazaras’ cultural heritage be destroyed, and the Hazara 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 continues to rage 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.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan has improved considerably. Hazaras are one of the national ethnic minorities recognized in the new Afghan Constitution and have been given full right to Afghan citizenship. Only two Hazaras gained seats in President Hamid Karzai’s initial cabinet, and the only representative of their main political party, Hizb-e Wahdat gained the position of vice president. But in the most recent parliamentary election Hazaras (who make up around 9 per cent of the population) gained 25 per cent of seats. However, Hazaras still face persistent discrimination in many areas of the country.

Current issues

A key issue for the Hazara community is the general climate of impunity, whereby those who committed atrocities – both past and present – to evade justice. Hazaras also remain concerned about the resurgence of the Taliban, who they feel pose a direct threat to their community. There have also been increasing ethnic tensions and incidents of violent clashes between Hazaras and nomadic Kuchis over access to land in recent years. Due to the severity of their persecution under the Taliban, Hazara leaders have insisted, along with leaders of other minority groups, to be included in all negotiations with the Taliban.

With the increasing presence of foreign Islamist groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), active in the country for a number of years, attacks against religious minorities have been on the increase.  Being Shi’a and therefore both a religious and a visible ethnic minority, Hazaras are particularly vulnerable. Suicide bombings targeting Hazara public events have taken place with increasing regularity, most of which have been claimed by groups stating allegiance with ISIS. These include, in July 2016, the killing of 85 people at a peaceful protest comprised of mostly Hazaras. It was the deadliest attack on civilians since 2002 and targeted the Hazara 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. However, the Taliban too is thought to be responsible for the increasing kidnappings of Hazaras, particularly on remote highways, with some of the victims killed while others have been held for ransom.

Some minority women, such as the Hazara women, have traditionally enjoyed more freedom in their society than other ethnic groups.  In the post-Taliban period, they have benefited considerably from political and educational reforms.   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.

Poverty and insecurity drive many Hazaras to migrate to cities such as Kabul. However, the journey to Kabul from Hazarajat in the centre of the country has proven dangerous. The main roadway between the two areas – dubbed ‘Death Road’ – has been the site of kidnappings and other deadly Taliban attacks on Hazaras in recent years. As a result, having successfully arrived in Kabul, Hazaras have often been unable or afraid to return to their previous homes. This violence on the main roadway has further isolated and thereby stalled the development of Hazarajat, which requires labour and materials from Kabul to build facilities such as schools and clinics. Both these factors have contributed to the high numbers of Hazara currently residing in Kabul, with many concentrated in one overcrowded area, Dasht-e Barchi. Although life in Kabul is relatively improved for Hazaras since 2001, they have continued to occupy lower-status jobs and face harsh discrimination, including in access to facilities and provision of essential services.