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The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group

The hunger strike by Ms. Jalila Haider, a human rights attorney and founder of a nonprofit organization, “We the Human – Pakistan”, has highlighted the plight of the Hazara ethnic group and the persecution they face in Pakistan. Her daring hunger strike grabbed the national headlines in the Pakistani media and forced Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa – the most powerful man in the country – to visit Quetta city, the capital of Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province. Gen. Bajwa held meetings with the representatives of the Hazara community in Quetta and according to the Dawn newspaper, he has given them “assurance that those behind the attacks shall suffer twice as much.” He has further stated that the “state is responsible for the security of its citizens.” The protest led by Ms. Haider has forced the Pakistani judiciary to take notice of the targeted killings of Hazaras. The Chief Justice of Pakistan has swung into action by meeting with the members of the Hazara community and has sought a report from all law enforcement agencies regarding the issue. Dawn newspaper reports that the Chief Justice has called the persecution “equivalent to wiping out an entire generation” and lamented the hardships and insecurity faced by the community. Although assurances have been given and promises have been made to Hazaras by the high ranking Pakistani political and military establishments, only time will tell if those promises will ever materialize.

Hazaras are scattered in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. In all these three countries they face various forms of racial and sectarian discriminations, political and economic exclusions, racial prejudice, violence, and persecution. Historians have various theories about the racial background of Hazaras. Some historians trace the ancestry of Hazaras to Mongolia. Others say they are of a Mongol-Turkish ethnicity, although, the physical features of Hazaras more closely resemble those of Mongolian descent. In terms of religious beliefs, the majority of Harazas practice Shi’a Islam and a tiny minority follow Sunni Islam. Some of the neighborhoods in these countries that they live in are ghettoized, making them an ostracized community, vulnerable to killings and pervasive racial and societal discriminations.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan is the birthplace of the Hazaras, and a majority of them still live there. It is estimated that Hazaras are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, although no official census has ever been taken to produce a correct figure. We don’t know the exact population of Afghanistan. Nor do we know the exact population of each ethnic group residing in the country. Hazaras reside in the central part of Afghanistan “covering approximately 50,000 square kilometers of land, which is also known as Hazarajat – Land of the Hazara.” The region is backward and has been ignored for a long time by the central government in Kabul. Infrastructure such as roads, health clinics and bridges are in terrible condition. Despite the pouring in of billions of dollars in aid by the international community into Afghanistan, the region is still in a primitive condition, with limited economic opportunities, a lack of resources, and harsh weather. The region has been left out of development projects. The Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who is ethnically prejudiced against the Hazaras, deprived the region of TUTAP and TAPI energy projects which could transform the region for good. Ethnicprejudice is the only reason behind this lack of development.

In the post-Taliban era, Hazaras actively participated in the political process. They have ministers in the cabinet, members in the parliament, and Hazara officials work in the government apparatus. They can access education and other public services. However, this was not the case four decades ago. The situation started to change for the better for Hazaras when Afghan communists took power in 1978. Prior to that, Hazaras were excluded from politics, education and treated like outcasts. The opening provided by the communists gave Hazaras the needed opportunity to make their mark on Afghan politics and leadership. Their elites such as Sultan Ali Keshtmand and Abdul Karim Misaq rose through the leadership ranks of communist dispensations. The former served as Prime Minister and the latter as mayor of Kabul city, the capital of Afghanistan. This political transformation would not have been possible for Hazaras had the old dispensation – monarchy – continued its reign over Afghanistan.

Since 2014, however, the prospects for Hazaras are once again in a downward spiral. The space is shrinking rapidly. The Hazara cabinet ministers have less authority and independence, functioning mostly as rubber stamps. The agenda and action plan are set for them by the president’s inner circle. The post of second vice president is occupied by a Hazara, which is a ceremonial position with no significant policy and executive powers. He can not even fire a police chief of a province. On the administrative level, the ethnic cleansing of Hazaras continue. In the Office of Administrative Affairs, there is insignificant Hazara representation occupying key directorate positions. In the diplomatic apparatus, there is just a couple of Hazara ambassadors and there is hardly any high-ranking official from the group in Afghan Embassies in the U.S., Canada, and Germany. This administrative purge is coupled with the increasing insecurity that the group faces. They are regularly targeted by the terrorist, fundamentalist and, sectarian groups. ISIS, defeated in Syria and Iraq has joined hands with the Taliban to go after Hazaras in Afghanistan as both the groups pursue an anti-Shi’a agenda. They have been carrying out attacks against Hazaras with absolute impunity. The Afghan central government led by racist and fascist Ashraf Ghani, is doing nothing to protect them. He only issues condemnations after each bloody attack against Hazaras. They need protection desperately. In the past four years, ISIS-K and the Taliban have killed 544 Hazaras, leaving another 944 wounded. We have yet to see a strategy from the government to provide security to this group.

Pakistan

In Pakistan, Hazaras predominately live in the city of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. With the election of Pakistan Muslim League (N) in 2013, the security situation in Pakistan has improved but not for Hazaras. They are still being targeted by terrorist and sectarian groups. There are considerable limitations on their movements. The towns – Mariabad and Hazaratown – where they are concentrated, have turned into a literal “prison”. They are cordoned off on all corners by the security forces. Hazaras and non-Hazaras can’t enter and exit the towns without an inspection. What is worse is that if a Hazara exits the towns, the security forces can’t guarantee his/her safety, thus leaving the individual vulnerable. This limitation has lessened the security threats by preventing the occurrence of major attacks that we have seen prior to 2013, but there are still sporadic attacks on them the moment they step outside the prison.

The limitations on movement have prevented Hazaras to participate in trade, business, education and recreational activities. They can’t do business with other communities, can’t visit any park and can’t utilize educational institutions. I have lived in Quetta city as a refugee and I vividly remember that before the atrocities against Hazaras began, they had a strong presence in the business sector of Quetta owning commercially significant shops in various markets in the city. Because of the threat, they are forced to sell off their businesses, depriving them of vital sources of income. In the 1990s, one of the successful routes of doing business was importing products such as clothing, kitchen appliances and plastic wares from neighboring Iran. Now, this option is either closed or used much less often. Traveling to Iran is now replete with real dangers. The insecurity has affected the education of Hazaras, too. Major educational institutes are located in the city center. As a result, they can no longer attend those institutes, as the danger is prevalent. I personally remember how Hazaras had excelled in education prior to security threats. Now getting an education is considered a luxury. Having lived in Quetta both before and after the insecurity surge, I have observed the tragic transformation of Hazaras from a successful community to a pariah group.

So, who is behind all this is open to endless political debate. There are numerous theories about it – ranging from the regional political rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran where Hazaras are caught in their geopolitical war, to Shi’a and radical Sunni sectarian tension as Hazaras are labelled heretics by some of these radical Sunni groups, to the local business rivalry between Hazaras and non-Hazaras, and finally the role of Pakistani intelligence agencies that are complicit in failing to protect minorities. But whatever is happening is not random. It seems to me a well-designed plot to uproot Hazaras completely from Quetta. According to the latest report released by Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights, in the past five years: “509 Hazaras are killed in terror-related incidents in Quetta.” The figure speaks for itself and demonstrates the hellish situation in which Hazaras live. Ironically, in 1880-90s, Hazaras fled genocide at the hands of a brutal Afghan king – Abdur Rahman – who also confiscated their land and forced them to settle in the highlands of Afghanistan with minimum grazing grounds and a harsh climate. They came to Quetta, then British India, to escape the atrocities of Abdur Rahman. They are now killed in this so-called sanctuary city.

Iran

Hazaras living in Iran are the refugees who fled Afghanistan due to the Soviet invasion in the December 1979, and later the bloody civil war in the 1990s. There are an estimated two million Afghan refugees in Iran. Since Iran shares the religious sect of Hazaras – Shi’a Islam – it is safe to say that majority of those refugees might be Hazaras. If Iran is a Shi’a state, that does not mean that Hazaras are treated fairly. Far from it. They are constantly harassed, degraded, racially insulted, beaten, thrown in prisons, tortured, deported arbitrarily, and physically abused by Iranian security forces. They face limited economic and job opportunities. They do physically straining jobs which are poorly paid and dangerous. Most of them don’t have access to healthcare, education and subsidized rations. They have to pay more to buy rations through black markets. There is a restriction on their freedom of movement. It is a challenge to travel from one part of Iran to another. If you are caught traveling without documents, you are put in prison and deported. Hazaras have no right to apply for asylum, face constant legal restrictions, and live illegally. Even those born in Iran don’t possess documents and are considered illegal. Besides these abuses, Human Right Watch has documented the cases of “forced payment for transportation and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, aggression from security forces, and forced separation of families.”

In Iran, Hazaras are killed too but in a complex and indirect manner. They are killed on the battlefields of Syria on the behest of Iran – one of the warring parties in the conflict. In 2016, Human Rights Watch highlighted the plight of Hazaras and Afghans who are recruited by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to fight its proxy war in Syria. The recruitment drive that started in late 2013 has sent thousands of Afghans to Syria to fight ISIS and rebel groups, some of them children as young as 14. I am sure most of these recruits are Hazaras with gullible Shi’a beliefs to do the bidding of Iran against terror groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Al-Nusra Front. The recruitment process uses religious manipulation such as protecting Shi’a shrines, in addition to providing financial incentives, as it is hard for Hazaras to find jobs in Iran, citizenship offers, and finally physical coercion. According to HRW, if these incentives don’t work, the option of deportation will be used. Either way, it is a lose-lose situation for Hazaras. If they go to Syria, the chances of coming back to Iran alive are very slim. If they are deported to Afghanistan, the chances of being killed by ISIS and the Taliban suicide bombers are high. We don’t know how many Hazaras are killed in the Syrian conflict. Iran has not bothered to keep track of it. If it has, we will probably never know. But judging by the bloodiness and brutality of the war, I am sure the death toll is running into the thousands.

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Rohullah Naderi is an Afghan political observer. A former Fulbright Scholar, he has a graduate degree in political science from Lehigh University. He can be reached at roohullah.naderi@gmail.com

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