Ethnic division and violence against Hazaras: What can be learned from twelve years data on targeting Hazaras in Afghanistan?

Yesterday, a twin-bombing at a wrestling club in district 6 of western Kabul killed 26 people, including two journalists, and injured 91 others, almost all belonging to the Hazaras.

Three weeks ago, on August 15th, 2018, a suicide attacker targeted a Hazara private school in western Dasht-e Barchi of Kabul and killed 48 students and injured 67 others.

Since February 2006, which marked the first outbreak of violence against Shia Hazaras in post-2001 Afghanistan, 97 subsequent attacks have been directed against Shia Hazaras in the country, which as result thousands Shia Hazaras were killed and injured, including women and children.

Future Outlooks’ twelve years data shows that violence against Hazaras has been rapidly increasing in recent years, and target-killing and massacre of Hazaras became a new normal under president Ghani and his CEO Abdullah’s Unity Government.

Background: ethnic division in the 1990s

The 1990s lines of ethnic division between Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pashtuns allowed Taliban to easily capture Kabul in 1996. Ethnic conflicts further increased with the Taliban capture of Mazar-e Sharif and Bamyan provinces, where the group massacred Shia Hazaras in their thousands. The situation further deteriorated with the Taliban blockage of food supply lines to central Afghanistan, also known as the Hazaristan/Hazarajat, resulting in over one million people becoming on the verge of starvation.

The Taliban rule of Afghanistan was based on Sunni fundamentalism and Pashtun tradition and the group gained control over 90 percent of the country before being overthrown in 2001.

Ethnic division in post-2001 Afghanistan

Ethnicity has remained a dividing line in post-2001 Afghanistan too. Currently, the political power and all government positions are distributed on the basis of ethnicity. Ethnic division and alliances became evident during the presidential and parliamentary elections. Both Afghan presidents, Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, survived two full-fledged civil wars in 2009 and 2014 presidential elections by the help of US mediation. In 2014 election, a telephone conversation of the Secretariat head of the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC), Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, broadcasted that Amarkhail asked his staff to hire election workers based on their ethnicity, demanding for more Pashtuns supporters and ordered them to “bravely” stuff all the ballot boxes in favour of his Pashtun candidate Ashraf Ghani, using code words.

Amarkhail’s telephone conversation with English translation can be found here

There are also widespread concerns among ordinary people, particularly the Hazara community, about the day-to-day deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan. Ordinary people seldom rely on the Afghan government to protect them. They are more likely to choose to live in homogenous areas than ethnically mixed neighborhoods in Kabul and other cities. For example, Kabul is ethnically divided with the west being predominately Shia Hazara; the north mostly Tajik; and the east, a primarily Pashtun area. Today, a Pashtun student is more likely to go to a Pashtun-run school or university, become friends with a Pashtun than with people of other ethnic groups, and marry a Pashtun of their own tribe. A similar tendency is found among other ethnic groups as well.

Hazaras in Post-2001 Afghanistan

After the overthrown of Taliban in 2001, Hazara people became extremely pro-government and all Hazara militant groups of the 1990s willingly handed over their armaments to join Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) and the subsequent Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) processes for smooth transition from war to peace.

The Hazaras have been actively participating in the nation-building and reconstruction projects. They send their children to school, enthusiastically participate in elections, and actively advocate for equality and unity in the country. They are the only ethnic minority with no member having joined Taliban, Daesh (IS-K) or other insurgent groups in post-2001 Afghanistan war.

Currently, the Hazaras (both Shia and Sunni Hazaras) comprise 15-22 percent of the country’s total population, living mainly in central highlands and north-west provinces of Afghanistan.

Persecution of Hazaras in post-2001 Afghanistan

The target-killing of Hazaras has reached a record level in 2017. In 2018, more than 500 Hazaras were killed or injured in Kabul. While Taliban and its affiliated groups have claimed responsibility for the target-killing previously, the IS-K has been behind most of the brutal attacks against the Shia Hazaras since 2014.

In 2015, 20 incidents were directed against Hazara people in eight different provinces of Afghanistan. A significant number of incidents occurred on the roads, where the transportation buses and cars were stopped by the IS-K or Taliban-affiliated groups. The Hazaras were identified and separated from other groups, and either taken hostage to be brutally beheaded later, or shot dead on the spot. In October 2015, seven Hazaras, including two women, two boys, and one girl, were kidnapped on the Kabul-Qandahar highway on the way to Jaghori, Ghazni Province. By November, all the victims (hostages) had been brutally killed and the victims had their throats slit.

While the kidnapping of Shia Hazaras continued through to the first-half of 2016, they became the victim of more deadly attacks in the second-half the year. In July 2016, two suicide bombers attacked peaceful Enlightening Movement protesters at Deh Mazang Square, Kabul, killing 97 and injuring 413, all Hazaras.

By 2017, kidnapping, beheading, bomb attacks and target-killing of Shia Hazaras became a new normal and on the front page of daily newspapers on a day-to-day basis.

Post-2001 sectarian conflicts

After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Shia Hazaras were able to celebrate their festivals openly and on a larger scale. On the Ashura day, Shia Hazaras across the country have been able to confidently take part in processions and services to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson. However, the more widespread the commemoration of Ashura became in the country, the more it created nervousness among Sunni hardliners and Taliban groups.

The 2006 incident in Herat marked the first sectarian clash in post-2001 Afghanistan On February 9th, a three-day fight between Shia and Sunni groups erupted on Ashura due to a rumour. Seven Shia Hazaras were killed, hundreds were injured, and two mosques and dozens of buildings and motorcars were set on fire.

On December 6th, 2011, a series of coordinated suicide attacks and bombings were conducted, aimed at Shia Hazaras who were taking part in Ashura in three provinces, Kabul, Balkh (Mazar-e Sharif) and Qandahar.  As a result, 67 people were killed and 219 were injured, including women and children.

Related image

Suicide bombing at Abul Fazel Shrine in Kabul on Dec 2011. Credit Massoud Hossaini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In October 11and 12th, 2016, similar attacks were carried out against Shia Hazara on the eve of Ashura. 19 people were killed in Kabul and 14 Hazaras were killed in Balkh province.

In 2016, the numbers of casualties as a result of sectarian conflicts increased ten times compared to 2015. UNAMA documented 899 civilian casualties compared to 82 casualties in 2015.

In 2017, the numbers of sectarian incidents increased by 32 percent, double in numbers of death and three-time more in numbers of incidents compared to 2016. According to UNAMA report, in 2017, 37 attacks were directed against places of worships and people worshipping.

A list of major incidents directed against Shia Hazaras between 2006 and 2018 can be found here.

Overall, the UNAMA and numerous other reports provide enough evidence to show that sectarian conflict, in addition to ethnic division, is real and true, and atrocities against the Hazara minority are increasing in the country. The Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan are largely being targeted because of their religious and ethnic difference.

Despite the fact that the threat of ethnic division and sectarian conflict is widely discussed by the media, and the vulnerabilities of Hazara people were long ago recognised in Afghanistan, no initiatives have been taken by the Afghan government to prevent violence against Hazaras in the country and protect Hazara people from massacre and daily target killings.

Conclusion

With president Ghani taking power in 2014 and the IS-K’s foothold in Afghanistan, violence and target-killing of Hazaras based on their religious belief and ethnic difference became the new normal in the country. Today, Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan cannot celebrate their festivals, cannot raise their voices, cannot attend school or make a movement within their own country with confidence.

While the target-killing and vulnerability of Hazaras have been identified long ago, the Afghan National Unity Government under the presidency of Ashraf Ghani lacks a strategy for responding to any act of violence against its Hazaras citizens.

With the IS-K having a sectarian agenda in Afghanistan, it is highly likely that targeting of Shia Hazaras will continue in future years unless the National Unity Government admits the existence of target-killing and sectarian conflicts in the country and takes necessary steps to prevent its spread.

Overall, the data and evidences collected in the last twelve years prove that: a) the target-killing of Hazaras are real, based on evidence and unfortunately surging; b) ethnic division and sectarian conflict is at forefront of IS-K and Taliban agendas in post-2014 Afghanistan with Shia Hazara as their main and soft targets; and c) the Ghani administration had been skeptical/unable to save them and lacking a strategy to deal with the rapidly growing violence and daily massacre of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan.

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