On Sept. 30, 2022, a suicide bomber struck Kaaj Educational Center in Kabul’s Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood, where nearly 300 young students, mostly girls, were sitting in a large classroom in a bid to prepare for Kankor, a national university entrance exam. This heinous attack, which killed at least 53 and wounded more than 100 others, was the latest in a pattern of genocidal campaign targeting the ethnic Hazaras in Afghanistan.
Following the hasty withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power in mid-August 2021, the ongoing genocidal violence against the vulnerable Hazaras has heightened, and so has the fear of other mass atrocities.
The genocide of Hazaras is sadly not new. This ethnic group has been relentlessly massacred, subjugated, marginalized, and discriminated against with complete impunity since the advent of a modern state in Afghanistan in the 1880s. In less than one-and-a-half century, Hazaras have endured at least three episodes of genocides: first in the early 1890s, second in the late 1990s, and third in post-2001 and counting. Since 1999, Hazaras of Pakistan’s Quetta have also been undergoing a similar genocidal campaign.
Unfortunately, the plight of the Hazaras has received little attention, if any, from the international community, and thus the ethnic group’s genocide remains uninvestigated, unrecognized, and unprosecuted. Even in some cases, attacks have gone unreported.
The Hazara Genocide in Afghanistan
Hazaras are an indigenous ethnic group residing predominantly in today’s central Afghanistan but historically in the larger regions in the south, north, and west of their today’s lands. Distinguisable by their Turko-Mongol physiognomy and distinct Farsi dialect, Hazaras mainly practice Shia Islam in a largely Sunni Muslim country. Hazaras comprise arguably 25 percent of Afghanistan’s roughly 40 million population today.
The first episode of genocide took place in the 1890s by Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, a Pashtun ruler when the group was effectively destroyed through massacres, mass rape, mass enslavement, mass depopulation, mass dispossession, destruction of their socio-political organization, and state-inflicted economic misery. Many Hazaras converted to Sunni Islam or “concealed” their identities in a bid to save their lives while tens of thousands of them fled to Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia among other destinations. According to one estimation, around 62 percent of the entire population was destroyed.
Hazaras endured the second episode of genocide and other mass atrocities one century later at the hands of the Taliban and other ethno-nationalist groups alike. According to a recent study, in 1993, at least 1,000 Hazara civilians were horrifically massacred and many experienced harrowing acts of abduction, torture, mass rape, and plundering by militias of Ittihad-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami in Afshar, a Hazara-dominated neighborhood in western Kabul. The group endured nine cases of genocidal massacres between 1997 and 2001 that also involved mass starvation, mass rape, looting, and other heinous atrocities. In 1997, the Taliban killed roughly 70 Hazara civilians in a village near Mazar-e Sharif city. A year later, the Taliban launched a “killing frenzy” by shooting at “anything that moved” resulting in the massacre of 2,000 to 8,000 Hazara civilians in the same city.
A senior Taliban commander of the time, Mullah Manan Niazi publicly expressed his intention of “wiping out” the Hazaras because they “are not Muslim.” In the following years, the dehumanization and massacre continued in Bamyan, Ghor, Kabul, between Baghlan and Samangan provinces, and the Hazarajat region. This was coupled with destruction elements of “cultural genocide”, or the destruction of their legacies, culture, values, and history.
According to a recent report, the ethnic group endured a slowly unfolding third episode of genocide in post-2002 at the hands of the Taliban and most recently by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) as the country was undergoing a fledgling democracy, supported by the international community including the United States. During this time, particularly after 2013, Hazaras were literally targeted everywhere. Hazaras were killed in public transportation, mosques, education centers, streets and roads, protests, wedding halls, hospitals, sports clubs, and commemoration ceremonies. Sophisticated and different tactics were used in these attacks including target shootings, bomb explosions, abductions and torture, Pashtun-Kuchi attacks, forced displacement, beheadings, and summary executions. A Human Rights Watch report indicates that at least 700 Hazaras were killed or wounded by ISKP in thirteen separate attacks only between August 2021 and September 2022.
The Hazara Genocide in Pakistan
Hazaras of Pakistan are a living example of genocide as they first settled in Balochistan province in the late nineteenth century after escaping the first episode of genocide in the 1890s at the hands of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan. Hazaras live across Pakistan, but the majority of them reside in Balochistan’s Quetta capital, making an estimated 500,000. In Quetta, Hazaras are attacked by Sunni-extremist militant groups, primarily by the proscribed Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) which maintains links with the Taliban. LeJ has publicly vowed to “abolish” Shia Hazaras “from every city, every town, and every corner of Pakistan.” Most recently, ISKP has also been claiming responsibility for the attacks against the Hazaras.
Similar to the mass atrocities in Afghanistan, members of the Hazara community in Quetta are also killed literally everywhere. Further, they are largely restricted to “ghettos”. This ghettoization coupled with systematic attacks and widespread anti-Hazara sentiments has marginalized the community in their own city, hence depriving them of their basic human rights such as mobility and access to education and public services. Moreover, the community is restricted economically with little growth and prospects for employment and has immensely been affected psychologically enduring serious risk factors of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, frustration, hopelessness, and paranoia, among others. In the past couple of years, Hazaras have also increased their outbound migration in a bid for safety. One report shows that nearly 70,000 Hazaras have migrated to Australia, European countries, or have been stranded in Indonesia or Malaysia.
The first attack against the Hazara community in Quetta was recorded in 1999, the latest in March 2022. As of April 2018, more than 1,500 Hazaras were killed and more than 3,500 others wounded in more than 190 systematic attacks against them in the Balochistan province. A report from Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission deems the number of Hazaras killed as high as 2,000.
In a nutshell, Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan are deliberately, coordinately, and systematically targeted because of their membership in an ethnic and religious group. Pursuant to the Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, attacks against the Hazaras are directed with the intention to “destroy them in whole or in part” thus demonstrating undeniable signs and patterns of the crime of genocide.
Why does it Matter?
The genocide of Hazaras matters because it threatens the existence of Hazaras as a distinctive ethnic and religious group who are faced with sustained attacks that cause them serious physical and mental harm. Moreover, the scope, scale, and patterns of the attacks prove the intention to destroy Hazaras partially or completely. Therefore, it requires immediate investigation, recognition, and effective preventive measures by individuals, organizations, and, most importantly, the international community. In other words, preventing the Hazara genocide is delivering justice and ensuring the existence of this ethnic group.
Furthermore, it matters because it is happening now. The longstanding genocidal atrocities, discriminations, and dehumanization have plagued, and continue to plague, the entire moral, social and political fabric of the Hazara society – leaving a negative impact on their dignity, identity, collective memory, and every layer of their subsistence. Therefore, the silence, indifference, or, perhaps ignorance of the international community in the face of this genocide will likely allow for its perpetuation. The international community’s decision to act or not to act today will have a decisive impact on the continuation or prevention of genocide against the ethnic Hazaras tomorrow.
On these accounts, the international community is legally, politically, and morally responsible to take effective humanitarian, diplomatic, judicial or institutional actions to prevent the Hazara genocide and punish its perpetrators – who openly proclaim responsibility. The UN Genocide Convention must be delivered and the international institutions like the UN and International Criminal Court should intervene to fight impunity and protect the Hazaras. This is particularly urgent as the current de-facto Taliban regime, which either perpetuates or is complicit with this genocide, has proved unable and unwilling to protect the Hazaras.
Genocide happens because individuals, organizations, and governments disgracefully fail to stop it. Today, the international community has a choice to make. Will it help stop the Hazara genocide?
[Photo by Tahmina Saleem]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Maisam Iltaf is a researcher and human rights activist. He is the Co-founder of Rahila Foundation, a non-profit working for youth empowerment through education, advocacy and capacity-building programs. Iltaf has also published with Diplomat and Global Voices.