KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Just running errands in the mainly Hazara neighborhoods of west Kabul can be dangerous. One day last week, Adila Khiari and her two daughters went out to buy new curtains. Soon after, her son heard that a minibus had been bombed — the fourth to be blown up in just 48 hours.
When his mother didn’t answer her phone, he frantically searched hospitals in the Afghan capital. He found his sister Hosnia in critical condition with burns over 50% of her body. Then he found his mother and other sister, Mina, both dead. Three days later, on Sunday, Hosnia died as well.
In all, 18 people were killed in the two-day string of bombings against minivans in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi district. It was the latest in a vicious campaign of violence targeting Afghanistan’s minority Hazara community — one that Hazaras fear will only get worse after the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops this summer.
Hundreds of Afghans are killed or injured every month in violence connected to the country’s constant war. But Hazaras, who make up around 9% of the population of 36 million people, stand alone in being intentionally targeted because of their ethnicity — distinct from the other ethnic groups, such as Tajik and Uzbek and the Pashtun majority — and their religion. Most Hazaras are Shiite Muslims, despised by Sunni Muslim radicals like the Islamic State group, and discriminated against by many in the Sunni majority country.
After the collapse of the Taliban 20 years ago, the Hazaras embraced hopes for a new democracy in Afghanistan. Long the country’s poorest community, they began to improve their lot, advancing in various fields, including education and sports.
Now many Hazaras are moving to take up arms to protect themselves in what they expect will be a war for control among Afghanistan’s many factions.
Inside the Nabi Rasool Akram Mosque compound, protected by sandbags stacked against its ornate doors and 10-foot high walls, Qatradullah Broman was among the Hazaras attending the funeral of Adila and Mina this week.
The government doesn’t care about Hazaras and has failed to protect them, he said. “Anyone who can afford to leave, they are leaving. Those who can’t are staying here to die,” said Broman. “I see a very dark future for our people.”
There is plenty for Hazaras to fear.
Since it emerged in 2014 and 2015, a vicious Islamic State affiliate has declared war on Afghanistan’s Shiites and has claimed responsibility for many of the recent attacks on the Hazaras.
But Hazaras are also deeply suspicious of the government for not protecting them. Some worry that government-linked warlords, who also demonize their community, are behind some of the attacks.
Former government adviser Torek Farhadi told The Associated Press that within the political leadership, “from the top down,” there is a “sorry culture” of discrimination against Hazaras. “The government, in a cynical calculation, has decided Hazara lives are cheap,” he said.
Since 2015, attacks have killed at least 1,200 Hazaras and injured another 2,300, according to Wadood Pedram, executive director of the Kabul-based Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Organization.
Hazaras have been preyed on at schools, weddings, mosques, sports clubs, even at birth.
Last year, gunmen attacked a maternity hospital in the mainly Hazara districts of west Kabul. When the shooting ended, 24 people were dead, including newborns and their mothers. Last month, a triple bombing at the Syed Al-Shahada school in the same area killed nearly 100 people, mostly Hazara schoolgirls. This week, when militants attacked a compound of de-mining workers, shooting and killing at least 10, witnesses said the attackers tried to pick Hazaras out of the workers to kill.
Some of these attacks, deliberately targeting civilians, hospitals and children, could rise to the level of war crimes, said Patricia Gossman, associate director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.
Pedram’s organization has petitioned the U.N. Human Rights Commission to investigate the killing of Hazaras as genocide or a crime against humanity. It and other rights groups also helped the International Criminal Court in 2019 compile suspected war crimes cases in Afghanistan.
“The world doesn’t speak about our deaths. The world is silent. Are we not human?” said Mustafa Waheed, an elderly Hazara weeping at the burial of Mina and her mother.
A black velvet cloth inscribed in gold with Quranic verses was draped over the two bodies. Family and friends carried them on wooden beds, then placed them inside the graves. Mina’s father fell to the ground crying.
“The U.S. can go into space, but they can’t find out who is doing this?” Waheed said. “They can see an ant move from space, but they can’t see who is killing Hazaras?”
In the face of the killings, talk has turned to arming Hazara youth to defend the community, particularly in the districts that the community dominates in western Kabul. Some Hazaras say the May 8 attack on the Syed al-Shahada school was a turning point.
It is a significant reversal for a community that showed such hope in a new Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, many Hazara militias gave up their weapons under a government disarmament program, even as other factions were reluctant.
“We used to think the pen and the book were our greatest weapon, but now we realize it is the gun we need,” said Ghulam Reza Berati, a prominent Hazara religious leader. Fathers of the girls killed in the school attack are being told to invest in weapons, said Berati, who helped bury many of the girls.
Sitting on the carpets of west Kabul’s Wali Asar Mosque, Berati said Hazaras are disappointed in the democracy brought by the U.S.-led coalition. Hazaras have largely been excluded from positions of prominence, he said.
Hazaras worry about continuing IS attacks and about the potential return of the Taliban to power after the American withdrawal. But they also worry about the many heavily armed warlords who are part of the government. Some of them carried out violence against Hazaras in the past, and Hazaras fear they will do so again if post-withdrawal Afghanistan slides into a repeat of the brutal inter-factional civil war of the early 1990s.
One warlord who is still prominent in Kabul, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, led a Pashtun militia that massacred Hazara civilians during a ferocious 1993 battle with Hazara militias in Kabul’s mainly Hazara neighborhood of Afshar.
Rajab Ali Urzgani became a sort of folk hero in his community as one of the youngest Hazara commanders during the Battle of Afshar — only 14 at the time.
Now 41 and still known by his nom de guerre, Mangol, he returned to Afshar earlier this month with the AP to visit the site. He stopped to give a prayer for the dead at a mass grave where nearly 80 men, women and children were killed in the bloodshed are buried. A black Shiite banner flies at the entrance.
Mangol held out little hope for peace in Afghanistan following the U.S. and NATO withdrawal.
“When the foreigners withdraw, the war will happen 1,000%,” he said. “The war will happen like in the past with the different groups, and we will defend our family and our dignity.”
Associated Press writer Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.