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25 August 2021

Personal story: I am Hazara – and I fear for my persecuted people

In 1998 the Taliban massacred 2,000 Hazara people, long the victims of sectarian violence. In my mountains and in my village, I am afraid history will repeat itself. 

By Shukria Rezaei

The Taliban is in Mazar-i-Sharif. Ten days ago, on 14 August, I looked up from my MSc dissertation on the Hazara genocide of the 1990s to find that history was repeating itself. In 1998 the Taliban had invaded the northern city and carried out house-to-house searches, identifying Hazara men to shoot and suffocate in shipping containers. At least 2,000 people died. It wasn’t the only massacre. Those who have followed Afghanistan’s recent progress from a distance are often unaware that the Hazara, the “almond-eyed” people who make such good servants in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, have long been living with government deprivation and Taliban attacks.

I am Hazara. I was born in the remote district of Jaghori in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 1997. It is a mountainous area, home to Hazaras who live in small numbers in valleys, relying primarily on subsistence farming: sheep herded into the mountains, crops of wheat, apricots, mulberries and almonds. Traditionally, it was a peaceful place, with most of the villagers not only geographically distanced from the capital Kabul, but also politically disengaged; there was little representation at a government level. Most of the elder generation – including my own parents – had no education, except for the few who had some Islamic teaching. But in the last 20 years, Hazara families have sent their children to school in large numbers, hoping that this will be a way out of poverty, discrimination and suffering. Each valley in Jaghori now has its own school – a product of the villagers’ hard work and their desire for education, mostly without any support from government funds.

But throughout the occupation, the Taliban has attacked those schools – especially the girls’ ones. Its members have attacked local businesses and mosques, too, and terrorised families and individuals. They knew they were beyond government reprisals. Before I reached my first birthday, my family fled south over the border to Quetta, but Pakistan was not easy either. Soon we were subject to sectarian, anti-Shia, anti-Hazara violence. Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, nor Iran, on the other side of the mountains, welcomed Hazaras.

My father walked to the UK. It took him three years: Iran to Turkey to Greece, and on to Italy and France. When he got here, he worked seven days a week and 12 hours a day in a Tesco warehouse to provide for us back in Pakistan. After a few unsuccessful visa applications, my mother and I were finally granted a UK visa to join my father in 2011, when I was 14. Throughout my childhood, I had known him only through the phone and some photographs.

[see also: The Taliban’s new reign of terror]

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Living in the UK has brought very different challenges. Due to the strict English language requirements and the government’s “Life in the UK” tests, my mother, who is illiterate, has not been able to demonstrate to Priti Patel that she can live in the UK permanently. My application is dependent on my mother’s, which means I haven’t qualified either, despite my first-class degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Goldsmiths College. Having to renew our visas every two years since 2011 has been a huge financial burden. And in every application we submit, there remains a risk of deportation: back to the Taliban.

The events of the last two weeks have shaken many of us, especially the Hazaras, who now fear that the massacres of the 1990s will be repeated. Since the fall of our village to the Taliban last week, my parents have made frequent contact with my grandfather, uncles and aunts. My mother is anxious and helpless, but her father reassures her that everything is fine, and that the Taliban is not after him. My uncle, who was a soldier in the Afghan military until only two weeks ago, tells a different story. The Taliban has been searching for him, saying that he will be “forgiven” as long as he disarms. Forgiven for what? Forgiven for being Hazara and a soldier? It is inconceivable that he should trust the Taliban with his life, given the group’s long history of violence, and its consistent and systematic targeting of Hazaras over the last two decades. The Taliban has long expressed its hatred for Shias. Common sense, and history, dictates that we cannot fall for its mirage.

It’s for this that my aunt was so afraid the Taliban would find my uncle’s military papers and ID that she burned them. Now my uncle cannot demonstrate to the British embassy that he had them. I am desperately writing to my MP. But we have lost hope for his application.

I understand why the Western media is so focused on the freedoms of Afghan women. Who can forget the cruelties, the stonings, the grotesque Handmaid’s Tale images of the last Taliban emirate? I am deeply committed to women’s rights and my education is everything to me. This new Taliban has said that girls can still receive an education, but what does this really mean? Lessons on how to be a good Talib wife, mother, sister and daughter? Is it the education the people of Afghanistan have spent the last two decades fighting for?

I worry that the focus on women – especially in Kabul, where people are still accessible by laptop and phone – makes other groups invisible. Many people in the West do not understand that central to the Taliban vision is not just an Islamic emirate, but an emirate free of the rafidha, or the rejectionists, by whom they mean the Shias, or Hazaras. Educated women are certainly at risk, but far less attention has been paid to Hazaras and other Afghan minorities who face a more imminent danger – of sectarian and ethnic massacre.

While the world’s cameras are fixed on Kabul, elsewhere in Afghanistan, in my mountains and in my village, the Taliban is busy clearing its path. Amnesty International reports that the Taliban tortured and killed nine Hazara men in a remote part of Malistan district last month. We don’t know how many others are suffering the same fate; away from the cities, the news comes through friends or social media, and the Taliban regularly cuts mobile phone services. In Bamiyan, where, in 2001, the Taliban dynamited the giant Buddhas the Hazara had peacefully watched over for centuries, another statue was last week destroyed – that of the admired Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari. He was tortured and killed by the Taliban in 1995, his death part of the Taliban brutality that is the subject of my thesis: no longer history, but happening now.

[see also: Lyse Doucet’s Kabul notebook: A dystopian airfield, and the Afghans leaving everything behind]

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat