Kabul, Afghanistan – Amena says her family came to the Afghan capital from Bamiyan province in search of better opportunity and safety six years ago. They settled in Dasht-e-Barchi – a predominantly Hazara Shia Muslim neighbourhood in western Kabul.
Last month, 85 people, most of them female students between the ages of 11 and 17, were killed in bombings outside the Sayed-ul-Shuhada high school in Barchi. Among them was Amena’s teenage niece.
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“We came here for work, but all we found was death,” Amena, 50, said, adding that her family is now contemplating a return to their home district Waras, where a number of the schoolgirls killed were from.
The relative security of the neighbourhood – home to approximately one million people – has attracted Hazaras such as Amena from across the war-torn country and also those returning from refugee life in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
Barchi emerged as a safe haven for the Hazara population as the South Asian nation descended into civil war in the 1990s and Kabul became a battleground for armed groups fighting for control of the country.
We’re not going anywhere. We have honour, we can’t be scared off
But in recent years the neighbourhood has become a target of brutal attacks, many of them claimed by ISIL (ISIS), triggering calls of a Hazara genocide that people say the Kabul administration has failed to address.
In recent years, the government has made some efforts to secure Barchi by authorising extra security for the neighbourhood during the annual Ashura commemorations. The commemorations of the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson have come under attack at least three times since 2011. President Ashraf Ghani has also made a point to condemn each attack in the area.
To Barchi residents, though, those efforts have not been enough. They say in Barchi, no place is safe. Armed groups have attacked educational testing centres, a wrestling gym, an ID card distribution centre, a mosque, a maternity ward, and last month, the girls’ school.
On Saturday, at least seven people were killed in two separate blasts in the area.
Discrimination against Hazaras
Hazaras in Afghanistan have faced decades of abuse and state-sponsored discrimination, most recently under the Taliban regime between 1996-2001. In neighbouring Pakistan, they are attacked by armed groups for their largely Shia beliefs, while in Iran, they face blatant racism as obvious Afghan refugees and conscription into Tehran’s foreign wars.
Analysts and officials believe the attacks are being used by ISIL to stoke sectarianism in the multi-ethnic country, at a time when insecurity is on the rise and reports are emerging of regional leaders establishing local armed militias along ethnic lines in fear of the Taliban’s return to power following the impending US withdrawal.
The US withdrawal is part of the peace agreement signed with the Taliban, which had been waging a brutal armed rebellion since it was removed from power in the US-led invasion in 2001. Taliban has since scaled down its attacks against US forces but continues to target Afghan forces across the country.
Despite the threats, the neighbourhood – with its mostly dirt roads that stretch out for kilometres – remains a vibrant, bustling home to hundreds of thousands of people who know their ethnicity and geographic location make them clear targets.
Fereshta, a college student originally from Maidan Wardak province, admits to the terror that looms over one of Kabul’s most congested neighbourhoods.
“You can’t escape the fear, it’s all around,” the 20-year-old said outside a small neighbourhood grocery store.
Economic diversity of the area
Fereshta blames everyone, from the Taliban – who were known to attack and kill thousands of Hazaras during their five-year rule – to ISIL, to the Afghan government for the rising insecurity of Hazaras.
“When an area gets attacked repeatedly over the course of five years and the government isn’t actively trying to secure it, it raises a lot of questions,” an academic in the area, who did not wish to be named for security reasons, said.
Zainab Zafarkhil moved to Dasht-e Barchi from Iran in 2007. At the time, her family’s decision to move to the neighbourhood was quite simple. It was safe.
“There was a time when a suicide bombing in Barchi was unthinkable. It was the safest spot in all of Kabul,” the 22-year-old college student said. But the recent attacks have made her think of moving out of the area.
Zafarkhil’s family is an example of the economic diversity of the area, which has simple mud homes where the unpaved roads turn to mud in the cold winters and the giant, multi-coloured shopping centres where young people shop for bootleg Gucci abayas and the latest iPhones.
Her family is fortunate. As business owners and government employees, the Zafarkhils have the economic means to move to any other part of the city, but for thousands of other families in Barchi, especially those coming from remote provinces like Ghor, Maidan Wardak and Ghazni, that is simply not an option.
Hussain and his wife, Bas Gol, moved their family from the district of Lal Wa Sarjangal in the central province of Ghor seven years ago, just before the violence started to pick up.
They came to Barchi in 2014 hoping to give their sons better educational and economic opportunities than what was available to them in Ghor. However, both husband and wife know that returning safely to a province home to more than 130 armed groups would be nearly impossible.
“Going back would just cost us more money. We just have to hope for the best here.” Hussain says even if his family were to return to Lal Wa Sarjangal, there would not be enough economic opportunities for them to support the family.
What attracts people to Dasht-e-Barchi?
Qayoom Suroush, a Kabul-based researcher, says that like Hussain and his wife, tens of thousands of families moved from other provinces to Barchi specifically because of economics, security and culture.
“In Barchi you are among your own people, you don’t have to worry about social acceptance here, because everyone is like you,” Suroush says of the cultural incentive that draws so many Hazaras to the neighbourhood.
Many residents Al Jazeera spoke to referred to the importance of being close to family and how living in Barchi makes it much easier for them to attend local religious and political gatherings that are considered vital parts of their social life.
Additionally, having spent the last 16 years living and studying in Barchi, Suroush says the quality of education available to young people in Barchi is also very important to people coming from some of the least secure and undeveloped areas of the country.
“Education is very important to the Hazara people. In Barchi you can get a quality education at a much better price than other areas of Kabul,” he said. Like Suroush, other residents pointed to the dozens of schools, language courses and college entrance exam preparation centres all along the main road.
Even for those who can somehow afford to return to their home province, it often means going from one insecure area to another.
‘Pashtuns against Hazaras’
Farzana Azghari has lived in Barchi for most of her life.
“We moved here before I could even pray,” the 19-year-old told Al Jazeera. It was then that her triplet sisters, Raihana, Habiba and Hakima were born. Like other young girls who grew up in Barchi, the Azghari sisters initially had few fears. They felt safe and protected in their enclave.
But over the last two years, Farzana and other Barchi residents said the Shuhada high school had come under threat, so much so that the students themselves started to pat down each person who entered the premises.
“For two years none of us carried backpacks to school,” Azghari said of the fear that had consumed the residents of Barchi.
When the school did come under attack, it was Raihana who would not make it out alive. She would be buried, along with dozens of other young girls, on a hillside that has been divided among the victims of each of the different attacks that have taken place in Barchi.
Azghari says these attacks are orchestrated by groups that want to turn “Pashtuns against Hazaras and Hazaras against Pashtuns”.
The government has doubled down on blaming the Taliban for the attacks, including the school blasts. But the armed group refutes the allegations. No group has claimed responsibility for the school attack.
Recently, Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said it was the ISIL forces who were responsible for the school attack. ISIL has claimed responsibility for the majority of attacks on the Hazara people, Shia places of worship and ceremonies and for the attacks specifically against Barchi.
Fereshta, the college student, lost her own friend in a blast. Her teenage friend was among the 30 people killed in the October 2020 bombing of the Kowsar-e Danesh education centre in Barchi.
But she says the Hazara people of Barchi will persevere.
“We’re not going anywhere. We have honour, we can’t be scared off,” Fereshta told Al Jazeera.
“We will show the world that Afghanistan isn’t a graveyard for the Afghan people.”