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Who are the Hazaras?

Historical Past

The Hazaras are one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan and are estimated to comprise 20 to 25 per cent of the total Afghan population. However, there are no official statistics gathered so far. The Hazaras are predominantly Shia Muslims but a minority of them are Ismaili and Sunni Muslims. The Hazaras reside mainly in the central region of Afghanistan called the ‘Hazarajat’, simply meaning the ‘land of the Hazaras’. During the course of the last three centuries due to an influx of state-sponsored invading neighbouring ethnic groups and oppression over local pastoral lands, the Hazarajat has become much smaller geographically in comparison to the past. As a result of these events, the Hazaras have lost a great deal of their fertile land. To elaborate, most parts of the Hazarajat with fertile land were seized by coercion, mass killings, and forced displacements during the years 1890 to 1900. The arrogated lands were then distributed amongst Pashtun tribes, who were in power at the time. The Hazaras were pushed back to the current location of Hazarajat, which is geographically impassable with mountainous, cold and harsh climates. Some of the Hazaras were forced to seek refuge in Iran and Pakistan. They are now citizens of Iran and Pakistan with a population of about one million in Iran and around half a million in Pakistan.

Today, many Hazaras have migrated out of Hazarajat and into bigger cities like Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Heart. Each year, more and more students are leaving Hazarajat, thus risking their lives and travelling through insecure roads, in order to pursue higher education in the capital. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, a large number of the Hazara population fled to Iran and Pakistan. Although they live in difficult circumstances and experience first hand the day-to-day acts of discrimination and violence against them, the Hazaras of Iran and Pakistan have decided to remain in those countries due to a lack of security within Afghanistan. Since 1997, as a result of the suppression and mass killings carried out by the Taliban regime, many Hazaras have sought refuge in the West. Currently, there are approximately 200,000 Hazara migrants and refugees living in Europe, North America and Australia.

The native language of the Hazaras is ‘Dari’ Persian, which is considered to be one of the Indo-European languages. It is still unclear whether their native language was Dari from the beginning or whether it changed throughout time. Nonetheless, it is estimated that there is still around 10 per cent of foreign vocabulary or terminology within the Hazaragi dialect that are believed to be Turkic, Mongolian, and some that have not been identified yet.

The ethnic origin of the Hazaras is not clear yet. Their physical features may represent a link to the Mongoloid ethnic groups, but it has not been confirmed to how they are related ethnically and racially to ethnic groups in and outside of Afghanistan such as Central Asia, Mongolia, China and Tibet. Today, most historians believe that Hazaras are Turkic-Mongolians. Bamiyan, which is in the heart of Hazarajat, was one of the great centers of Buddhist teachings around the world before the arrival of Islam in the region. It is believed that thousands of Buddhist monks prayed and worshiped in Bamiyan at the time. There is not a consensus on how the Hazaras converted to Islam or how and why they chose to be Shias. According to some historians, the Hazaras played a very significant role in creating the civilisation of Kushan, Hephthalite, Ghorian, Gaznawian, and the Mughal Empire (1529-1857).

The land that is now called Afghanistan has been repeatedly fought over throughout its history by the great powers. The Persian Empire, Alexander the Great, the Kushan of Mongoloid ethnicity or White Huns, the Hephthalite, Turks and Mongols and the Arab Muslims ruled the land and created civilisations like the Kushan and Bactria. The current Afghanistan had different names in the past and has experienced various civilisations such as Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Afghanistan consists of a diverse range of ethnic and linguistic groups, which has made the country beautiful and colourful.  In fact, this country has a very ancient history and its inhabitants have witnessed civilisations, wars and many hardships. The country is abundant with natural resources and is considered an area of strategic importance, which is also close to the major countries like China, Russia, India, Iran and other Central Asian countries enriched by natural gas resources. The former Soviet Union military forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the people of Afghanistan fought for 10 years against this invasion.  After the defeat of the former Soviet Union forces, the Afghan communist government became vulnerable and subsequently collapsed in April 1992. Shortly after, Afghanistan witnessed an ethnic civil war as well as the devastating emergence of the Taliban. In 2001, the United States and other Western countries, in cooperation with the Afghan Northern Alliance forces removed the Taliban regime and played a key role in the current Afghan government and post-2001 statebuilding. In terms of social and cultural progress within the Afghan people, one can state that they are still in the process of modernisation, slowly breaking away from traditionalism. It is a challenging pathway. Western democracy is a relatively new phenomenon for Afghans and has certainly increased hope for justice, peace and stability. However, the totalitarians, tyrants and radical Islamic fundamentalists such as the Taliban have dramatically threatened this perception.

For more than a century, the Hazaras of Afghanistan have repeatedly experienced human rights violations. They have been massacred several times for the purpose of ethnic cleansing. The largest mass killings of the Hazaras took place during 1890-1900 by Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, a Pashtun king. In 1888, most Hazaras rose against the Emir, leading to a larger rebellion against the state. The Hazaras were defeated in 1891 and were brutally massacred.

With the promise of handing over the pastoral lands of the Hazaras to ethnic Pashtuns as well as the support of Sunni religious scholars issuing the fatwa that Hazaras are infidel, Abdur Rahman managed to mobilise a large number of people against the Hazaras.  According to authentic historical documents and books, 62 per cent of the Hazara population was brutally exterminated [1, 2, 4]. The Hazaras’ lands were dispossessed and the majority of them experienced cultural and racial genocide in one way or another. The government officials forced them to migrate from their birthplace and most of their properties were coercively taken from them. With the support of the government the Hazaras were enslaved and sold as slaves and servants in Afghan markets for almost a century. The Afghan government received 20 per cent of the purchase as tax. During the massacre, thousands of women and children were subjected to sexual abuse and harassment. The Hazaras were systematically deprived of their fundamental human rights; the right to life, human dignity, the right to freedom of religion and culture, the right to have social relations with other people, the right to an education, and the right to work in government agencies.

Since the defeat of the Hazara uprising in 1891 until the Communist government in 1977, heavy taxes were applied only to Hazaras. On the other hand, non-Hazaras were not obliged to pay those taxes. These taxes included: tax on number of population, tax on number of animals as well as tax on war ransom. This type of extreme economic pressure accompanied with systematic social, cultural, economic and political discrimination and marginalisation, coerced millions of Hazaras to struggle for their survival. In fact, in order to survive and pursue a better life, many Hazaras were pressured into denying their ethnic identities, thus giving up their religious beliefs and officially registering themselves as Tajik or Ghezelbash. This situation continued for decades and still has not been completely demolished. Having looked at the history of Afghanistan, one can notice that a very few defeated communities have experienced such level of devastation and hardship during war. Moreover, with the support of the central government, Pashtun Kuchis (nomads) as well as Pakistani Kuchis would pass through Hazarajat every summer and loot the Hazaras’ farms and pastures, therefore causing terror, fear and casualty in the region. This conflict remains a serious concern to this date. As the climate improves each year, armed Kuchis invade Hazarajat and enter into conflict with defenceless Hazara farmers, leaving them devastated and harmed.  The Kuchis claim that they are the owner of these pastoral lands under the command of Emir Abdur Rahman Khan. Even today, the people of Hazarajat are pressured to dislocate continuously in order to survive; yet the international community is silent. In fact, there are some influential people within the current Afghan government, who support the invasion of the Kuchis into Hazarajat.

During the Communist regime, discrimination against the Hazaras decreased and their quality of life improved to an extent. After almost a century of extreme racial discrimination, doors to educational centers were opened and appointments to administrative posts became possible for the Hazaras. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1992, Afghanistan fell into chaos and Islamist groups started fighting with each other.  In 1994 the fundamentalist Taliban group, with the majority of its members from the Pashtun ethnic group, entered Afghanistan from Pakistan and declared their existence officially. With the support of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, the Pakistani government, and the political and financial support of some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Taliban managed to gain control of 90 per cent of Afghanistan. For the purpose of ethnic cleansing, suppression of freedom fighters, and the disappearance of opposition, the Hazaras were massacred several times by Taliban forces. In March 1995 Abdul Ali Mazari, the political leader of the Hazara people, was invited for a political dialogue, but he was arrested and brutally killed by the Taliban. Today, Mazari is viewed as the Father of the Nation for the Hazaras and some other ethnic groups. In 1998, more than eight thousands Hazaras were massacred systematically in four days in Mazar-e-Sharif. Such killings were repeated in various locations of Afghanistan such as Yakawlang, Bamiyan and Kabul. Additionally, the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan and hundreds of historically important artefacts within Hazarajat.

As it is widely known, the Taliban violated the human rights of many Afghan people, especially women and children; and these inhuman atrocities continued until September 11, 2001. The Hazaras suffered the most damage in terms of casualty, and financial and cultural aspects during Taliban regime. With the arrival of NATO military forces in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and Taliban were temporarily pushed back into Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban, the Hazaras, amongst other ethnic groups, enjoyed a new life in an atmosphere of democracy and freedom. During this period, with the support of the international community the people of Afghanistan strived for peace, stability, democracy and the promotion of human rights, especially women and children’s rights. The Hazaras were amongst the first ethnic groups who surrendered their weapons to the government to support the peace process. In the early stages of post-2001 statebuilding, Hazarajat was one of the safest areas of Afghanistan. Although the Hazarajat region faced poverty, the people did not allow the cultivation of opium. They were actively involved in the democratic process to a larger extent in comparison to other ethnic groups; Hazaras’ presence was remarkable in most of the elections since 2001. Hazara women have found and enjoyed more freedom compared to other ethnic groups in Afghanistan and are now playing key roles in social, economic and political positions within the country. In the last two Presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, more than 35 per cent of the female vote was from the Hazara regions. Afghanistan’s first female governor and first female mayor are Hazara women. In fact, this ethnic group has paid remarkable attention to education and obtaining knowledge, and the avoidance of violence has been institutionalised as one of their main principles.

In the last ten years, less attention has been given to the reconstruction of the Hazara regions. Hazaras are convinced that the central government has carried out discriminatory policies against them, as their share in the enjoyment of hundred millions of dollars of international community’s aid has been very small in comparison to the rest of Afghanistan. For instance, Bamiyan province, which is located at the centre of Hazarajat, and also considered as a touristic region of the country, suffers from lack of electricity, access to safe drinking water, effective health care and educational facilities. It is evident that the situation in remote areas of Hazarajat is even inferior. Lack of proper roads in the region has deprived the people from being able to travel easily to all parts of Hazarajat as well as other parts of the country. The situation further worsens during winter when heavy snow falls. Despite the fact that the regions where the Hazara people reside are much safer and secure in comparison to other parts of Afghanistan, the Afghan government has shown less interest to the reconstruction and progress of these regions.

At the Bonn conference, which was held immediately after the fall of the Taliban regime for establishing an inclusive interim government under the supervision of the United Nations, the Hazara population was estimated to be 19 per cent. It was agreed that the interim government should consider this estimation for staff recruitment in police, army and other governmental departments. Up to now, Hazaras hold less than 5 per cent of governmental positions and are still facing a lot of difficulties to be employed. More surprisingly, the Afghan government officially claims that the population of the Hazaras is about 9 per cent. This raises a question; how has the Afghan government come up with this figure? How has the figure reduced from 19 per cent to 9 per cent, despite the fact that no official census has been conducted in Afghanistan so far? More than one-third of the population in Kabul are Hazaras, and several million Hazaras live in the central, northern and western parts of Afghanistan. Moreover, about 80 per cent of the two million Afghan refugees living in Iran and around 20 per cent of the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan are Hazaras. What is clear is that the Afghan government, for political reasons, have deliberately refused to conduct population census in the country, since it will reveal statistical facts and data that will not favour the current Pashtu dominated government.

Despite all the discrimination, the Hazaras have been advocating and supporting democracy, peace, human rights, the Afghan constitution and the international community’s presence in Afghanistan, as well as fighting against terrorism, drugs, corruption and illiteracy.

The Current Situation

With the gradual withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in 2014, there is a risk that all the achievements obtained in Afghanistan since 2001 by the broad support of the international community will be wiped out. Without the support and participation of the international community, there is an enormous risk of returning back to the period before September 11, 2001, when the country had become a hub for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for threatening international security. Today, as we get closer to 2014, the fear of having an unknown future falling into the hands of Islamic extremist groups increases. It is the fear that the international community might once again leave Afghanistan alone with irresponsible armed groups who are dependent on intelligence Mafia groups in the region, just like the one accrued after the withdrawal of Soviet Union troops in 1988-89. These concerns are exacerbated when there are many reasons for this dangerous return to the past. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will soon leave Afghanistan, yet Afghan Army and police forces are still vulnerable and fragile in many ways. Corruption is rife in the country. Large-scale poppy cultivation and drug trafficking is still going on with no doubt that a chain of international Mafia is involved behind it. Although there are more than 100,000 ISAF troops currently in Afghanistan, war and violence has not decreased, but has even increased in recent years. In light of this, what will happen when ISAF do gradually leave Afghanistan? There are not enough strong, efficient, and challenging political parties within the country. Warlord and human rights violators have authority in the government, good governance does not exist, and the recruitment of administration staff takes place based on ethnical and political interests rather than qualification and merit.

On the other hand, there are concerns that after the withdrawal of foreign troops, there will be an ethnic civil war, similar to the one in the 1990s. This is because ethnic and language conflicts still exist in Afghanistan. The country has only taken its first initial steps towards nation building and most citizens respect democracy and human rights. Of course, to achieve these values and to overcome all major challenges such as ethnic tensions, discriminations and prejudice, corruption, war, ignorance, poverty and violation of human rights the country has a long way to go and needs to be supported by the international community. This concern increases when the government leaders perceptibly take actions based on ethnic interests. For instance, President Karzai and his network noticeably support the Taliban and other anti-government groups who are for the most part ethnically Pashtun. In addition, the government releases armed-Taliban prisoners without any trial, and whenever NATO begins an air strike against the Taliban, Karzai’s voice raises in favour of stopping the attacks. Karzai and his team’s policy put armed national forces, international troops as well as Afghan citizens in confusion, decreasing their morale and courage against their ruthless enemies. Many non-Pashtuns speculate that Karzai and his team are willing to support the Taliban and the Islamic party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Both groups are Pashtun and one can suggest that President Karzai wants to make sure that those groups are kept secure from the attacks of the international forces until they withdraw from the country and subsequently, these groups can dominate Afghanistan again.

Ethnic and religious minorities, women, and children are extremely concerned about the return of the Taliban and other insurgent groups to power. Amongst all, the Hazaras, with their bitter experiences during the Taliban regime and the overwhelming discrimination during Emir Abdur Rahman’s era, are more alarmed. There is no doubt that if conditions change in favour of ethnic and religious extremists, the Hazaras would be the most vulnerable group in Afghanistan because of their ethnicity and religion. The Hazaras’ perspicuity is growing intensively in favour of modern society and humanity, and they have pioneered in culture, education, art and sports in comparison to others ethnic groups.

In the last 12 years, armed extremist groups have threatened the Hazaras. Although these extremists were more involved in fighting with NATO troops, their threats have increased in the last few years. To elaborate, almost all the roads leading to Hazarajat have become unsecure due to the lack of attention by the central government and the domination of armed extremist groups in the region; therefore, there are evidences of Hazaras being killed on these roads as they travel back and forth to see their friends and families. The situation is similar outside of Afghanistan too; in the Quetta city of Baluchistan province in Pakistan, where around half a million Hazaras reside, they are incessantly being targeted by a Sunni-Islamic terrorist group called “Lashkar Jangawi”. This group is affiliated and has strong collaborations with Al-Qaida networks. In the last 4 years, more than thousands of Hazaras have been brutally killed in Quetta. Until now, the Pakistani government has not been able to or has not been willing to stop the attacks. “Lashkar Jangawi” has announced that they will clean Pakistan from Hazaras. While several months ago Gulbidin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Islamic Party, which is one of the most powerful political and armed groups amongst Pashtuns collaborating with the Taliban against the Afghan government and international troops, threatened the Hazaras through the media with mass-killings, forced expulsion from the country and deprivation from their participation in the government structure.

What to do?

The World Hazara Council (WHC), a non-partisan and non-political organisation with the vision to promote the cultural, social and civil rights of the Hazara people and to advocate on their behalf in media, governments and civil society organisations, follows the current situation in Afghanistan with concern. The situation in Afghanistan is about to change as we are entering 2014.  The Hazaras residing in the West believe that the international community must advocate and put concrete measures in order to safeguard the rights of the Hazara people after 2014.

At present, the Taliban supporters within the Afghan government have started negotiations with the Taliban with the intention to bring them back to power once again. The Taliban supports the foreign troops’ withdrawal and intends to establish an Islamic Emirate, run by Islamic Sharia laws. There is no doubt that the Taliban regime will violate human rights as well as destroying all the achievements accomplished within the last 12 years. If the Taliban come to power, the rights of women, children, religious and ethnic minorities would be abolished. Besides, Afghanistan would be a perfect haven for terrorist groups and Islamic extremists once again. The abandoning of the Afghan people in the fight against terrorism and their supporters will cause a vast human catastrophe not only in the region but also in the world. Undoubtedly, most Afghan citizens support international intervention, human rights and respect human values; in light of this, the Afghan people need the continuous support of the international community in order to accelerate and build upon the accomplishments achieved since 2001.

The World Hazara Council hopes for peace and stability around the world and an end to tyranny, injustice and inequality.