Hazara children in central Afghanistan

A recent atrocity revives memories of the Hazaras’ difficult past in Afghanistan

Tabish Forugh and Jumakhan Rahyab

Tabish Forugh and Jumakhan Rahyab

Tabish is a political analyst and former Afghan government official. Follow him on Twitter: @ForughTabish.

Jumakhan is a Fulbright Graduate Fellow at the University of Massachusetts' McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, Follow him on Twitter @jumakhanrahyab

Throughout the modern history of Afghanistan, the ruling Pashtun elites have not reconciled with the social and cultural identities and rights of non-Pashtun communities in general, and the Hazaras in particular. This most persecuted ethnic group are yet to see an end to the recurrence of oppression and injustice imposed on them by the state, the mercenaries of the state, and the fellow tribesmen of the governing elites, including the Kuchis, whose consistent intrusion into Hazara land and properties have made the lives of Hazaras difficult.
Following a protracted but unaddressed local governance dispute over the issue of Hazara security and safety within their lands, things came to a head on Friday, January 29th, after Behsud residents of Maidan Wardak province protested the appointment of a district police chief. In response, the government dispatched police special forces to the area aiming to forcibly install the police chief and “restore order.” The police forces suppressed the peaceful protest, killing 11 people and injuring and detaining many of the protesters. All victims were Hazaras, Afghanistan’s most persecuted ethnic community. To them, however, the recent brutality is not new. The root causes of the state-sponsored suppression of non-Pashtun communities and Hazaras in particular date back to the creation of Afghanistan’s modern state in the late 19th century. Since then, the state security apparatus and the Kuchis, Pashtun nomad tribes, have consistently violated the rights of Hazaras to own, protect, and use their lands and properties. The scope and frequency of such intrusions into the Hazaras’ mainland in central Afghanistan over the recent decades are the definition of systemic oppression.

Failing to govern based on the consent of the masses in a multi-ethnic country consisting of Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmans, Balochs, and many more, the rulers of modern Afghanistan, who have been Pashtuns with only two exceptions, have resorted to violence and oppression as a mean of consolidating a centralized government. The first series of backlashes in the 1880s against establishing a centralized government by Amir Abdur Rahman Khan were a rejection of the dominant Pashtun-centered narrative of state-building. The narrative is built around the myth that Pashtuns are the majority and the rest should obey and follow their lead. Therefore, to reinforce this narrative the Pashtun governing elites have outsourced the state monopoly on violence to their fellow Kuchi tribesmen whenever needed, creating a special political identity and protection system for them. In the late 19th century, the Kuchis were used as mercenaries of the state against the Hazaras “rebellion” in central Afghanistan, and against Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north.

An old wound: Retraumatizing Hazaras to this day

In the late 19th century, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, the Iron Amir of Afghanistan (1880-1901), violently suppressed what he called the rebellion of the Hazara people, aiming to consolidate central government rule by confiscating non-Pashtun lands and destroying the cultural heritage and identity of non-Pashtuns, whom he considered a threat to his tyranny. In the process of remapping Afghanistan’s social geography in favor of the ruling Pashtun tribes, he committed ethnic cleansing and war crimes against the people of Hazarajat, Afghanistan’s central mainland, and the indigenous communities of Uzbeks and Tajiks. During his brutal reign, the Amir confiscated lands and properties of Hazaras and generously distributed them among Pashtun tribes, a policy he enacted later in the second half of his reign in the north against Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Therefore, what happened in Behsud has to be explained in the context of a historical continuum in which Hazaras and other ethnic groups are denied their inalienable rights as citizens and are deprived of political agency to participate in matters of local and national governance. This has lasting consequences on the human and political development of their societies. The atrocities in Behsud refresh the memory of Hazara suffering that lives on in their collective memory, literature, and folklore. For instance, a Hazara quatrain reads:

The land next to the headstream is flooded
The one next to it is grabbed by the Kuchis
Oh Lord, there is nothing we can do
My dad is taken over by sorrow too

Therefore, when an intrusion with many dark historical precedents happens in the lands and properties of Hazaras, it touches a damaged nerve, revives a bitter memory of unpunished crimes, and reminds them of delayed justice.

The killing of unarmed Hazara civilians, given the increased threat from the Taliban and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, will only continue to happen until the long-standing racial terror is properly addressed. Neglecting the historical context and the state’s irrational actions in sending troops to Hazarajat will simply continue to terrorize and retraumatize people, bringing historical wounds to the surface, particularly Abdur Rahman Khan’s campaign in the 1880s but also the Taliban’s in the late 1990s.

Hazara children in central Afghanistan
Hazara children in central Afghanistan. Photo @ Nasim Fekrat. Wikimedia commons.

Blaming the oppressed: Guaranteeing the survival of systemic oppression

Despite being systematically subjected to various forms of socio-economic, political, and cultural oppression, the government, on many occasions, including the recent atrocity in Behsud, has blamed Hazaras as the “troublemakers” instead of addressing the problem of systemic oppression. In Behsud for instance, over the last 15 years, the Kuchis, time and again, have attacked Hazara homes, burning their properties, destroying their farms and crops, and displacing thousands of people. The intrusion of the state-sponsored Kuchi warlords into Hazara villages is an annual carnival of fear and terror against undefended Hazaras who are abandoned by the state, their leaders, and the collective conscience of Afghanistan’s society.

Since 2007, at least 108 Hazaras have been shot, beheaded, or abducted in Jalrez district – known as ‘Death Valley’ – leaving these people desperate to defend themselves in the absence of government protection. The existential threats against Hazaras forced people like Abdul Ghani Alipoor to take arms and garner the popular support of Hazaras who consider him the last resort of hope for their security and protection in facing growing threats from the Kuchis, the Taliban, ISIS, and the government’s belligerent forces.

Adding insult to injury, in the aftermath of Behsud atrocities, government officials and spokespersons employed the blame frame to justify the killing of Hazara civilians. They used labels such as “the enemy of the state,” ’‘union breakers”, “spies of Iran” and “affiliates of the Fatemiyoun” to demonize the victims and justify police brutality. The merits and nature of such reasoning and justifications are no different to those of Amir Abdur Raham Khan’s, who mobilized a large army of Kuchi mercenaries to crush two consecutive Hazara rebellions against his tyranny in the 1880s.

Conforming with the rules of psychology of oppression, the government and the Pashtun ruling elites employ a set of politically-charged degrading labels as mean of oppression against non-Pashtun ethnic groups and the Hazaras in particular, to make them apologetic about their identity and demands. The literature and misinformation on social media such as Twitter significantly contributed to the production of a victim-blaming discourse, rather than discussing the structural injustices that Hazaras are suffering from. As has been the case in many conflicts, the dissemination of hate speech against a vulnerable ethnic group who are demonized as the “enemy of the state” could produce a human catastrophe similar to what happened in Rwanda some 26 years ago.

The way forward: Healing the wounds?

To deliver justice as a nation, more than ever a national conversation on the visible and invisible forms and structures of oppression that have developed in parallel to the modern state of Afghanistan needs to be started. The process of national healing begins with the acknowledgment of the suffering of the Hazara people, but it ends only when the government adheres to democratic accountability, becomes inclusive and decentralized, reflecting the will of the masses, and not exclusively of the governing elites. The system of oppression should be replaced with a people-centered rights-based government in which all ethnic groups, including Hazaras, are consulted in matters significant to their social, political, and cultural conditions.


Tabish Forugh and Jumakhan Rahyab


Received: 20.02.21, Ready: 06.03.21. Editors: Federico Germani, Alexander F. Brown.

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