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They Are Thriving After Years of Persecution but Fear a Taliban Deal

Persecuted for more than a century, Hazaras have carved out a thriving urban enclave in west Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, since the Taliban government was overthrown by an American-led coalition in 2001. But they say peace talks have put those gains at risk, especially with Hazaras already bloodied by persistent attacks from Taliban insurgents and Islamic State suicide bombers.

The graves of those killed in a double suicide bombing in 2016 at a Hazara protest rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. Members of the ethnic minority worry what will happen to them if a peace deal brings the Taliban back into government.Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Daoud Naji was a student in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif during a massacre of members of his ethnic Hazara minority in 1998. He remembers digging tunnels to hide terrified families during a Taliban killing spree that left as many as 2,000 civilians dead.

Mr. Naji, now 45 and a leader of a Hazara political movement, fears more mass killings if peace talks between the United States and the Taliban produce a deal that brings the insurgents back into government. He and many other Hazaras worry that the negotiations will deliver oppression rather than peace.

Persecuted for more than a century, Hazaras have carved out a thriving urban enclave in west Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, since the Taliban government was overthrown by an American-led coalition in 2001. But they say peace talks have put those gains at risk, especially with Hazaras already bloodied by persistent attacks from Taliban insurgents and Islamic State suicide bombers.

Some Hazaras describe a sort of living death — mourning the loss of loved ones killed by the Taliban or the Islamic State while forever bracing for the next blow even as peace talks proceed.

“If the Taliban get back, the Hazaras will be massacred,” said Maryam Tofan, 45, a Hazara mother of three whose husband was killed by the Taliban in eastern Ghazni Province.

One of the niches that once held the ancient Buddha statues of Bamian Province. Hazaras were forced by the Taliban in early 2001 to dangle from cliff faces to drill holes for the explosives that destroyed the statues.
One of the niches that once held the ancient Buddha statues of Bamian Province. Hazaras were forced by the Taliban in early 2001 to dangle from cliff faces to drill holes for the explosives that destroyed the statues.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

American and Taliban negotiators have agreed on the framework of a deal in which American troops would withdraw in return for a Taliban pledge that Afghanistan will not be used by terrorists. But many Hazaras say the Taliban cannot be trusted — and that any peace deal would do little to prevent continued Islamic State bombings of Hazara mosques, shrines and rallies.

“This Taliban is the same Taliban who ruled us so brutally in the past,” Mr. Naji said. “Who can guarantee they will not come with guns and stage a coup? Would the United States be here to stop them?”

Hazaras, most of whom are Shiite Muslims, are considered heretics by the Taliban and the Islamic State, two Sunni Muslim groups. They have been persecuted since Afghanistan’s Pashtun emir targeted Hazaras for mass killings and forced removals in the late 19th century. Some were sold as slaves.

Although Afghanistan has no national census, Hazaras are believed to make up roughly 10 to 20 percent of the country’s 35 million people.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they orchestrated mass killings of Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 and in central Bamian Province in 2000 and 2001. Hazaras were forced in early 2001 to dangle from cliff faces to drill holes for explosives the Taliban used to topple the ancient Buddha statues of Bamian, carved from sandstone cliffs more than 1,500 years ago.

The bodies of commandos lined up outside the governor’s office in Sang-e-Masha in Ghazni Province in November. Hundreds of Hazara families were driven from their homes during Taliban offensives last fall in the provinces of Ghazni and Uruzgan.
The bodies of commandos lined up outside the governor’s office in Sang-e-Masha in Ghazni Province in November. Hundreds of Hazara families were driven from their homes during Taliban offensives last fall in the provinces of Ghazni and Uruzgan.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

More recently, hundreds of Hazara families were driven from their homes during Taliban offensives last fall against government forces and Hazara militias in the provinces of Uruzgan and Ghazni, part of a traditional Hazara homeland known as Hazarajat.

Hadi Noorzad, a Hazara from the Jaghori district in Ghazni, said he and his neighbors fled a Taliban assault in November that he said killed 50 people, including his 22-year-old cousin. Many families returned after government security forces retook the area, Mr. Noorzad said, but they still live in fear.

“The Taliban believe Hazaras are not Muslims and so it is fine to kill Hazaras,” he said.

Over the past three years, hundreds of Hazaras have died in suicide bombings, most of them claimed by the Islamic State. Among the deadliest was a double suicide bombing during a Hazara protest rally in Kabul in 2016 that killed more than 80 people. Less than a year earlier, Islamic State militants beheaded seven Hazara civilians kidnapped in Zabul Province.

In March 2018, a suicide bomber killed 33 people in a Hazara area of Kabul on Nowruz, a Persian New Year holiday celebrated by Hazaras. In September, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed up to 30 people at a Hazara wrestling club in Kabul. A second bomber killed 26 more, including journalists reporting on the first bombing.

In the Qala-e-Nazir area of west Kabul this month, six Hazara men in combat fatigues and flak vests, bearing Kalashnikov rifles and ammo pouches, searched visitors to Al Zahra mosque one snowy morning. Another guard was posted on the mosque’s roof, his assault rifle aimed at the street.

Haji Khalil Dare Sufi, an elder at Al Zahra mosque in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said Hazaras would never give up the weapons he said they needed to defend themselves.
Haji Khalil Dare Sufi, an elder at Al Zahra mosque in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said Hazaras would never give up the weapons he said they needed to defend themselves.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

In 2017, the Shiite Muslim mosque was shattered by a suicide bomber who killed four people, including a Hazara community leader who had built the mosque. Enhanced security precautions have become common at shrines, schools and shopping centers in Hazara areas.

Haji Khalil Dare Sufi, an elder at Al Zahra mosque, said Hazaras would never give up the weapons he said they needed to defend themselves. Mr. Sufi said many Hazaras do not trust the Afghan government or security forces to protect them.

“We are a vulnerable people — a very soft target for the Taliban and Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

After a mortar attack on a Hazara gathering in Kabul killed 11 people and wounded 95 on March 7, Hazara politicians again accused the government of failing to protect the ethnic minority.

Some Hazaras say they will have added justification to arm themselves if a peace deal brings the Taliban back into government. The insurgents have recently proclaimed that they are not anti-Hazara or anti-Shiite, but Mr. Sufi and many other Hazara political leaders say they do not believe them.

A university preparatory course in Kabul this month, with mostly Hazara students. Last August, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a similar course in an attack claimed by the Islamic State.
A university preparatory course in Kabul this month, with mostly Hazara students. Last August, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a similar course in an attack claimed by the Islamic State.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“The Taliban will always be the Taliban,” Mr. Sufi said as he squatted on a carpet inside the chilly mosque. “They have been brutal to the Hazara people.”

Many young Hazaras, born after the Taliban regime was toppled, have heard harrowing stories from their parents and are wary of any peace agreement based on Taliban promises.

Every time Shams Yusefzai, 17, leaves home for his part-time job at a shoe store in a mall guarded by armed Hazaras, he said, “I worry that someone will have to bring my body back home to my family.”

The possibility of a peace deal with the Taliban raises troubling questions for the teenager. “If they come back, will they prevent me from going to school? Will they kill my family?” he asked.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the private Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, said of Hazara anxieties: “There is good reason for them to be afraid.”

Hazara students outside a school in Kabul this month. Enhanced security precautions have become common at shrines, schools and shopping centers in Hazara areas.
Hazara students outside a school in Kabul this month. Enhanced security precautions have become common at shrines, schools and shopping centers in Hazara areas.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

When Hazara civilians were killed and forced from their homes during Taliban offensives last fall, Mr. Ruttig said, the attacks were not motivated solely by hostility toward the ethnic group. The Taliban were extending their so-called emirate, under which they tax residents, including Hazaras. The insurgents also improved their military position for leverage at peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

Even so, Mr. Rutting said, “We need to see proof from the Taliban that they do not have an anti-Hazara or anti-Shiite policy.”

Mr. Naji, the Hazara political leader, also cited what he said had been pervasive neglect of Hazaras by the Pashtun-dominated Afghan government. He said the authorities had provided few public services to west Kabul, where Hazaras have no hospital but have built their own private schools, computer academies and successful small businesses.

Hazaras exhibit more liberal attitudes toward women’s rights than other Afghan groups, and many Hazaras serve in the police and the army, Mr. Naji said. Women would be subjected to punitive restrictions and Hazaras would be purged from the military and government if the Taliban returned, he said.

“The new Taliban generation is even more fundamentalist than the old one,” said Mr. Naji, who arrived for an interview in an armored vehicle accompanied by a bodyguard.

At Al Zahra mosque nearby, Mr. Sufi held court as a cluster of Hazara men and women sat cross-legged on the floor, listening intently as he cataloged the perils of negotiating with the Taliban.

“They can talk all they want in Doha,” Mr. Sufi said of the peace talks. “But there can be no good result.”

Source The New York Times

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