The Hidden Genocide of the Hazara
For a diversion from the latest domestic mass bloodshed, here is another in an occasional series about ongoing genocides you never heard about unless you happen to be a member of the Hazara community of Afghanistan, a group that has been persecuted for centuries.
On Sept. 25, 1893, the independent Hazara country, Hazaristan, in central Afghanistan, collapsed after a three-year-long religious war by Abdur Rahman, a brutal Pashtun ruler of Afghanistan known as the Iron Emir. The new government began a brutal destruction of the Hazara people that has continued to the present.
The Hazaras make up an estimated 30 percent of Afghanistan, living primarily in the Hazarajat region, although they are generally scattered throughout the country. A recent study shows that the Hazaras are closely related to the persecuted Uyghurs of China. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan and also represent significant minority groups in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.
Hazara are first mentioned in the early 16th century by Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent and later by the court historians of Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty. Most Hazaras are Shi’a Muslims of the “Twelver” sect. The majority of Afghanistan’s population practice Sunni Islam. Iran is the only country where Twelver Shi’ism is the state religion.
The first wave of killings followed the collapse of Hazaristan. Abdur Rahman was a ruthless, Pashtun authoritarian at a time when Afghanistan’s economy was worsening and the British were seen to have too much control over the country’s foreign policies. The Hazara rebelled against the ruthless domination by Rahman. The first Hazara Rebellion lasted from 1888 to 1890. Many of the tribal leaders arrested and executed, the Hazara people were disarmed and treated poorly and their land seized and given to ethnic groups loyal to the Iron Emir. Rahman had deployed an estimated 100,000 troops, tribal and religious forces ending with the massacre of about 62 percent of the Hazara population and forcible removal of Hazaras into then sub-continent (current Pakistan), Iran, and Central Asia. Thousands of Hazara men, women, and children were enslaved and Hazara religious and political elites were systematically exterminated.
Rahman had up to 100,000 people judicially executed during his 21 years as Emir while thousands more starved to death, caught deadly diseases and died, were massacred by the Emir’s army, or were killed during his forceful resettlement of tribes.
Treatment of the Hazar got worse as they were deprived of their ancestral armlands and had to move for work to the cities where they were the lowest class, relegated to the most menial jobs. The surviving Hazara people were allowed to uproot their lives and move to Kandhar or British India, with the first migration to the city of Quetta.
A Suni extremist was appointed as governor of Bamiyan and treated the Shi’a Hazara badly as tribal leaders were commonly arrested or executed on a whim while women would be raped by the military garrison with no repercussions.
The Second Hazara Rebellion began in 1891 after the Emir’s soldiers broke into the house of a tribal chief and raped his wife in front of them. The Hazara killed the soldiers, took the garrison and the rebellion had begun.
The Iron Emir responded by declaring Jihad on the Shi’a Hazara and called upon the Sunni Tajik and Uzbeks to join, resulting in nationwide persecution of the Shi’a Hazara. An army of 40,000 soldiers, with weapons provided by the British, furthered the Hazara genocide and crushed the rebellion. Entire Hazara villages were massacred, lands were taken and given to the loyalists and thousands of women and children were taken as slaves to be sold for profit.
The Third Hazara Rebellion began and was quickly halted in 1893, as entire villages were eliminated, Hazara deported, thousands of women were enslaved and forced to marry Pashtun and all Hazara were removed from positions of power. Historians estimate nearly half of the entire male Hazara population died during the five to six years of rebellion.
Through the early 20th century, the Hazara continued to face social, economic and political persecution.
The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, under Mohammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, took power in 1978, and the Hazaras were again persecuted because of the fears that Iran, a Shi’a nation, would join the struggle against the new government. The Taraki government quickly signed a treated with the Soviet Union. Amin, who took control of the government from Taraki, published a list of 12,000 victims of the Taraki government, including 7,000 Hazaras who were shot in the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison.
During the ensuing, Soviet–Afghan War, most of the Hazara mujahideen fought the Soviets in the regions which were in the periphery of the Hazarajat region.
The Soviets withdrew in 1989 and in an effort to increase their power, Pashtun Islamist groups turned their wrath on Hazara ethnic nationalism. The Hazara resistance to growing Islamist power coalesced with creation of the Hizb-i-Wahdat or “Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan.” During the Afghan Civil War in the early 1990s, the Hazaras accumulated significant political power but the organization fractured and in 1996, the Taliban movement captured Kabul and within two years, the Hazarajat were isolated by the Taliban which refused to allow the United Nations to deliver food to the starving Hazaras.
The Hazara suffered severe oppression, and many ethnic massacres, genocides, and pogroms were carried out by the predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the Twin Towers, the U.S. and coalition forces invaded Afghanistan and defeated the Taliban. Violence against the Hazara, however, continued. The Taliban returned to power after the fall of Kabul in 2021, and concerns were raised as to whether the Taliban would reimpose the persecution of Hazaras as in the 1990s.
Hazaras are still often targeted by militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and others, which have killed at least 800 to1,000 Hazaras since 1999.
After decades of war in Afghanistan and the sectarian violence in Pakistan, many Hazaras have re-settled in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and particularly the Northern European countries such as Sweden and Denmark. Since 2001, about 1,000 people have died in the ocean while trying to reach Australia by boats from Indonesia and many included Hazaras women and small children who could not swim.
Not including the killings by the Iron Emir, here is a partial list of the worst massacres against the Hazara people:
In February 1993, the Islamic State of Afghanistan government and its allied Ittihad-i Islami militia attacked the Afshar district in west Kabul, predominantly populated by Shi’a Hazaras. The Saudi backed Wahabi militia of Ittihad-e-Islami went on a rampage through Afshar, killing, raping, looting and burning houses. Around 70 people died during the street fighting and between 700 and 750 people were abducted and never returned and were most likely killed or died in captivity.
Following the 1997 massacre of 3,000 Taliban prisoners by Abdul Malik Pahlawan in Mazar-i-Sharif, thousands of Hazaras were massacred by Taliban members in Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998. After the attack, the new governor declared that “Hazaras are not Muslim, they are Sh’ia. They are kofr (infidels)” and “If you do not show your loyalty, we will burn your houses, and we will kill you. You either accept to be Muslims or leave Afghanistan.”
The pass connecting the settlements of Tashkurgan and Pule Khumri is known as Robatak Pass where the Taliban killed 31 people, mostly Hazara, in May 2000.
Another mass execution by the Taliban was in January 2001, when 170 people were killed over four days in Yakawlang District of Bamyan province.
In June 2010, at least nine Hazara men were killed when they were ambushed by the Taliban in Khas Urozgan District of Uruzgan Province.
In November 2015, Afghan militants claiming loyalty to the Islamic State beheaded seven ethnic Hazara civilians who had been abducted in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan. The victims were four men, two women, and a 9-year-old girl named Shukria Tabassum.
On July 23, 2016, two suicide bombers targeted a peaceful rally at the Deh Mazang Square of Kabul. The rally was organized by a predominantly Hazara-led movement known as “Junbesh-e Roshanaye” or the Enlightenment Movement, which formed around the growing frustration among the Hazaras regarding their share of national resources and foreign aid. The attack killed 160 and wounded more than 200.
There were 18 deaths and 54 injuries in a July 2016 attack at Kabul’s landmark Sakhi Shrine. The Islamic State (ISIS) took credit and the next morning ISIS claimed a fighter used an improvised electronic device to kill at least 15 Hazara people in the Balkh province of northern Afghanistan.
In August 2018, a bomb at the university preparatory academy in a Hazara neighborhood of Kabul took 48 lives and injured 67. ISIS claimed credit.
On Aug. 17, 2019, a bomb set by ISIS killed 63 and injured 182 at a wedding of a Hazara couple in Kabul.
On March 6, 2020, mourners commemorated the 1995 death of Abdul Ali Mazari, a Hazara leader. That day, March 6, gunmen for ISIS attacked and killed 32 and injured another 81, all civilians.
Gunmen stormed a maternity hospital in a majority Hazara neighborhood on May 12, 2020. The attack killed 24 people including two newborns.
A suicide bomber linked with ISIS killed at least 30 people and wounded 70 others when he detonated a device on Oct. 25, 2020, outside of an education center in a heavily Hazara neighborhood in western Kabul.
Two bombs exploded on Nov. 24, 2020, on the side of a road in Bamyan city, with a majority population of Hazara, killing 14 and injured 45 others.
The oppression of the Hazara has continued with the Taliban’s return to power. Amnesty International reported on Aug. 20, 2021, that the Taliban had “massacred” and tortured several members of the Hazara minority in Ghazni province.
In early October 2021, the Taliban and associated militias forcibly evicted hundreds of Hazara families from the southern Helmand province and the northern Balkh province. These followed earlier evictions from Daikundi, Uruzgan, and Kandahar provinces. Since the Taliban came to power in August, the Taliban have told many Hazaras and other residents in these five provinces to leave their homes and farms, in many cases with only a few days’ notice and without any opportunity to present their legal claims to the land.