Why the Hazara people fear genocide in Afghanistan

With a long history of persecution, the Hazaras fear the worst under Taliban rule.

Relatives attend the funeral of the victims of a bomb blast during Friday prayers at a Shia mosque in Kandahar, Afghanistan on October 16, 2021 [EPA]

In the aftermath of the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, violence against the Hazara population has escalated. With a long history of persecution, including by the Taliban, the Hazaras are right to fear a genocide.

While the Taliban and other armed groups are targeting and committing human rights violations against the people of Afghanistan, the Hazara ethnic and religious population is especially at high risk. The international community must pressure the Taliban to guarantee the protection of the rights of the Hazara people, to ensure a genocide against them does not take place.

A history of atrocities against the Hazaras

As one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Hazara people have endured various forms of oppression from Pashtun rulers and governments, including slavery, systematic expulsion from ancestral homes and lands, and massacres. These experiences have led some to consider Hazaras to be one of the “most persecuted people in the world”.

In the late 19th century, Pashtun ruler Abdur Rahman Khan sought to bring the Hazara people in their homeland of Hazarajat under his rule. He waged a brutal war against the community, which resulted in bloody “massacres, looting and pillaging of homes, enslavement” and the transfer of Hazara land to Pashtun tribes. It is estimated that  Hazarajat lost some 60 percent of its population to ethnic cleansing, which has led some scholars to term the carnage a genocide.

Over the following decades, Hazaras continued to face repression, discrimination and socio-economic marginalisation. Many were forced to “conceal their identities” to obtain state identification. Until the 1970s, a large percentage of the Hazara population could not access higher education, enrol in the army or secure higher-level government jobs.

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghanistan descended into civil war between various armed groups. In 1993, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, worried by the positions that Hazara armed groups had taken in Kabul’s Shia-majority areas, decided to launch an offensive against them. Intense shelling, arbitrary killings of civilians and targeting of Hazara men resulted in hundreds killed and forcibly disappeared.

After the Pashtun-centric, ultra-conservative Sunni Taliban group took over Kabul in 1996, atrocities against the Hazaras did not stop. “Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan [graveyard],” was the mantra of the Taliban at the time. And its fighters made good on such threats.

In 1998, as the armed group was attempting to establish full control over Afghanistan, it laid a siege on Hazarajat, blocking supply routes and starving the civilian population. In August of the same year, Taliban fighters captured Mazar-e Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, going on a rampage targeting Tajiks, Uzbeks and particularly, Hazaras.

Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 2,000 people of different ethnic communities, including Hazaras, were killed and according to estimates by Hazara groups, the death toll may be as high as 15,000.

Vulnerability of the Hazaras

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which toppled the Taliban regime, brought new hopes for the Hazara people. Although discrimination in the country continued, the community was able to participate in public life much more freely. Hazara youth were quick to embrace all forms of education and emerged at the forefront of social change initiatives, while Hazara women pushed for women’s emancipation.

These gains in education and social standing have encouraged the community to mobilise and demand an end to discrimination and a greater political space. When the post-Taliban governance of Afghanistan was being set up at the Bonn Conference of 2001, Hazaras were estimated to make up 19 percent of the country’s population. Yet in the following years, the political space they were given in the country did not reflect the proportion of the population they constituted.

After 2001, the Hazaras also continued to suffer targeted violence at the hands of the Taliban and other armed groups. Since 2015, the emergence of the even more extreme Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) unleashed an even deadlier wave of attacks on the Hazara population, with suicide bombers targeting schools, mosques and even hospitals in Hazara neighbourhoods.

The return of the Taliban to power in Kabul has meant not only a rollback of the limited social gains the Hazaras had achieved, but also new atrocities against the community.

In August, Amnesty International reported that at least nine Hazara men were massacred by the Taliban when its fighters took over Ghazni province in July. Then earlier this month, the organisation released evidence of another massacre in which 13 Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, were killed in late August in Daykundi province.

In late September and early October, reports in Western media emerged of mass “evictions” of Hazara people from their ancestral homes and lands in Daykundi province. Taliban fighters forced over 4,000 Hazaras from their homes, claiming they had no ownership over their land, leaving them stranded without food or shelter as harsh winter approaches.  In Mazar-e-Sharif, a local Taliban court decided to expel some 2,000 families, again based on false claims that they do not own their homes.

By now there is a clear pattern of Taliban atrocities being committed across Afghanistan, which could mean that the Hazaras may be facing imminent ethnic cleansing.

The Taliban leadership may have moderated its rhetoric to please the international community, claiming that it will protect all ethnic groups, but it has done nothing to stem the growing number of crimes being committed by its fighters. What is more, the group has also clearly declared that it will only accept Hanafi jurisprudence, which would effectively preclude any accommodation of the Shia Islamic law and values followed by Hazaras. Expectedly, no Hazara representative was included in the Taliban government announced in September.

It is also not surprising that, despite the insistence by the Taliban that it can provide security and peace in Afghanistan, ISKP has continued its deadly attacks against the Hazaras. In October, the bombing of a Hazara mosque in Kunduz resulted in the death of more than 100 people. Another bombing of a Hazara mosque in Kandahar killed at least 47 people and wounded scores of others.

Protecting the Hazaras

Despite ample rhetoric on the need to protect religious minorities, regional players have also not stepped in to help the Hazara people. While it is presumed that Iran may come to the protection of Shia minorities, it did not come to the aid of Hazaras during the massacres of 1998 and has not taken any serious action since the Taliban took over Kabul in mid-August.

Tehran supported the Taliban in its fight against the US and even hosted some of its leaders; its policies towards Afghanistan are built on its perceived national interest. Therefore, it is unlikely that it would take any significant steps to protect the Shia of Afghanistan.

The only hope for the Hazara people is that the international community will stay true to its own commitments to human rights and pressure the Taliban into concessions. To secure guarantees of Hazara rights and protection, it can leverage the aid the Taliban has requested. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have already stopped payments to Kabul, while the US has frozen the country’s assets held on US territory. These funds can be used in negotiations with the Taliban.

All Afghans face precarious and dangerous circumstances in their country, but the situation is particularly desperate for the Hazaras, who have been historically marginalised, dispossessed and massacred. The risk of ethnic cleansing and even genocide that they face should be a matter of international concern and international human rights bodies need to take action.

The newly appointed United Nations special rapporteur on Afghanistan must immediately investigate the systematic attacks and forced displacement of Hazaras to ensure those responsible are identified and held to account.

The international community has a legal, moral and political obligation to protect the Hazara people. It must honour the commitment of “never again” in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.