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Afghanistan's Hazaras receive mixed messages from the Taliban

The parents of twelve year old Fatima Khawari tried their best to keep her away from the war and violence that had tainted her own childhood. Like so many in the Afghan Shiite Hazara community, they survived a campaign of persecution during the civil wars of the 1990s and the first Taliban rule that forced them to flee to Pakistan in 1998. After the US invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Fatima's parents returned to Kabul, believing they were safe and determined to provide their families with a better and happier life.

In June, when I was sitting at the Khawari house in Dasht-e-Barchi, Hazara district in western Kabul, Fatima smiled as she leafed through her sketchbooks, which were full of meadows, farmhouses, portraits of herself and her family, and the skyline from Kabul.

The drawings suggested an innocence that was so at odds with her life and her surroundings. On May 15, a series of bombs exploded through Fatima's school, Sayed ul-Shuhada High School, killing over 80 young women from the Hazara community. Fatima was one of the few girls in her class who survived the explosion.

The parents of twelve year old Fatima Khawari tried their best to keep her away from the war and violence that had tainted her own childhood. Like so many in the Afghan Shiite Hazara community, they survived a campaign of persecution during the civil wars of the 1990s and the first Taliban rule that forced them to flee to Pakistan in 1998. After the US invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Fatima's parents returned to Kabul, believing they were safe and determined to provide their families with a better and happier life.

In June, when I was sitting at the Khawari house in Dasht-e-Barchi, Hazara district in western Kabul, Fatima smiled as she leafed through her sketchbooks, which were full of meadows, farmhouses, portraits of herself and her family, and the skyline from Kabul.

The drawings suggested an innocence that was so at odds with her life and her surroundings. On May 15, a series of bombs exploded through Fatima's school, Sayed ul-Shuhada High School, killing over 80 young women from the Hazara community. Fatima was one of the few girls in her class who survived the explosion.

"She is so precious to us, you have no idea," said her father as he told the story. "The thought of losing her would be unbearable."

Islamic State-Khorasan made headlines with the August 26 attacks on Kabul airport, in which nearly 200 people were killed, including 13 US soldiers. But the group has been wreaking havoc on Afghans for years. Islamic State regards Shiism as Islam's heresy, and its attacks on the Hazara minority in particular have killed hundreds – and brought terror into the lives of an already vulnerable population.

The Hazaras believe that the Islamic State of Khorasan was responsible for the attack on Sayed ul-Shuhada High School, the most gruesome of a series of targeted mass murders of Hazaras in Afghanistan in recent years. It followed a pattern similar to the attack on the airport. In both cases, an initial explosion sparked panic, causing people to flee towards the exits, where other bombs waited to be detonated in order to reach the highest possible casualty rate.

Fatima's 26-year-old brother Hamid was teaching at the school when the first explosion struck. When the desperate children tried to flee, he realized that any further attack would likely take place on the street just outside the school and slammed the front door, blocking it with his body and preventing the students from exiting the exit. Hamid's guess was proven correct when two bombs exploded on the streets next to the school exits. His quick thinking probably saved the lives of Fatima and many of her colleagues.

Now that the Taliban have regained control of Afghanistan, many Hazaras fear a return to the massive persecution of 20 years ago. Others cautiously hope that the end of the current conflict is their best chance for peace.

The Taliban proclaim an “open, inclusive” Islamic government that represents Afghans of all ethnic groups. How well their actions match their rhetoric has not yet been determined. But the way the Taliban treats the Hazara in the coming months will be an important clue as to the nature of the group in its current form – and how it can govern Afghanistan as a whole.

Hazaras, who are predominantly Shiite Muslims, have suffered hundreds of years of deprivation and persecution under the Sunni rulers of what is now Afghanistan and western Pakistan. They were particularly hard hit by the civil wars between Afghan mujahideen groups that raged in the 1990s. The Taliban are believed to have carried out numerous massacres against the Hazara during their own rule, including a particularly brutal one in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.

As a result of the violence under the Taliban, hundreds of thousands of Hazara fled to neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. Like the Khawari family, many Hazara returned to Afghanistan after the US military ousted the Taliban in 2001 and initially supported the new government. Hazara militias were some of the first to lay down their arms and support the US-backed Hamid Karzai government. Especially after the increasing education rates among women and girls, many initially believed in the international reconstruction efforts.

But in the past two decades, as attacks on Afghan Shiite communities increased, that optimism faded.

Shortly after the bombing of the Sayed-ul-Shuhada school, I attended a meeting of the leaders of the Hazara community in Kabul. Some had lost their daughters in the explosion. “The government has done less than nothing for us. We have no more hope in her, ”one told me. "They did nothing to investigate the bombing and they refuse to send security guards to patrol our area." The community leader spoke on condition of anonymity as he had been involved in an attempt to organize a local protective militia.

When he looked around the city, it was clear that he was right. The streets of Kabul are usually full of armed men, but during my stay in Dasht-e-Barchi I had not seen a single police officer or military man. When the Hazara tried to arm themselves, the community leader said, the government raided their homes and confiscated their weapons. "All we want is a way to protect ourselves, and they don't even allow us to," he said. Hazara was discouraged by both the government's actions and the prospect of a takeover by the Taliban.

Four months later, with the Taliban takeover secured, the Taliban leadership appears to be trying to woo the Hazara community – even to assure them of their safety. At the weekend, the Taliban allowed Ashura to celebrate one of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar – without resistance. In Mazar-i-Sharif, Hazara leaders told reporters that the Taliban had kept them safe and allowed women to attend ceremonies. A commanding officer even attended a majlis – a council meeting – in Dasht-e-Barchi to hear Hazara's concerns. All of this is unprecedented.

Yet there are fears in the Hazara community that the Taliban's actions in the rest of the country show their true intentions for the people.

An August 19 report by Amnesty International described how Taliban fighters massacred nine Hazara men in early July after a battle in Ghazni province. Three had been brutally tortured. Amnesty International Director Agnès Callamard wrote: “The cold-blooded brutality of these killings is a reminder of the Taliban's past and a terrifying indicator of what Taliban rule could bring. … These targeted killings are proof that ethnic and religious minorities are still particularly at risk under the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. "

Photos shared on social media this month showed Taliban militants in Bamiyan province destroying the statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a prominent Hazara commander who was killed by the Taliban in 1995. These scenes were reminiscent of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.

The Taliban are not a closed political organization with a tight command structure. Instead, there are many Taliban groups with varying degrees of loyalty to the political leadership. This leadership was until recently based in Doha, Qatar, where it conducted unsuccessful negotiations with the United States – leaving various more radical factions to conduct their military operations on the ground. The situation is murky and evolving, but with recent appointments to Afghan ministries and the Taliban leadership council, the radicals may now have the upper hand.

It is likely that, for the time being at least, the Taliban's more pragmatic approach to the Hazaras is necessary to maintain their fragile control over all of Afghanistan. If the Hazaras are allowed to live in peace, their customs respected and their population centers protected from violence, it could signal that the Taliban intend to take a gentler stance on issues such as women's and minority rights and a return to the harsh interpretations of Sharia law which formed the basis of his rule in the 1990s.

But it is just as possible that with the last of the foreign troops withdrawn and international media attention from Afghanistan, the Hazaras could again face the persecution that has dominated their history. Several countries, including neighboring Tajikistan – a key ally of Russia – have declared that they will only recognize an Afghan government that includes ethnic minorities, including the Hazaras; and a communique by NATO foreign ministers called for a government with “meaningful participation by women and minorities”. However, most countries seem to give the treatment of women and the rejection of international terrorists higher priority than minority rights in dealing with the Taliban.

The wild card in all of this is the Islamic State Khorasan, a sworn enemy of the Taliban who opposed their takeover of the country. In early June, armed men broke into a demining site in Baghlan, rounded up the workers, and asked if they were Hazara. "Nobody answered," said one survivor, whereupon an armed man said, "Kill them all," according to a report by the AFP news agency. Islamic State Khorasan later confessed to the attack. The HALO Trust, a demining nongovernmental organization, said a local Taliban office actually helped rescue the deminers.

Although the Baghlan attack was an isolated incident, it suggests that an "enemy of my enemy" situation could emerge for Hazaras between the Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorasan if the latter decides to open the attacks across Afghanistan strengthen.

But many are still hesitating from the May 15 attack on Sayed el-Shuhada High School, which is believed to have also been carried out by the Islamic State of Khorasan.

Reyhana Hussein's family was not as lucky as Fatima Khawari's. 15-year-old Reyhana was killed in the bomb attack on Sayed el-Shuhada. When I met her father Mohammed in June after visiting the Khawaris, he described the "incredibly painful moment" when he found his daughter's body lying next to several other young girls after searching the basement of a local hospital.

"I hope parents never have to experience what I was feeling in that moment," he said.

I spoke to Mohammed in the Hussein's living room, where a group of men were sitting and making cards – invitations to a commemoration to mark the end of the traditional Islamic mourning period of 40 days. They had passed around teacups that no one sipped. Anger, anger and sadness were written on their faces.

"Whatever happens to politics or the Taliban in Afghanistan," sighed Mohammad, "we just want peace and that the murders stop."

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