The bombs which ripped through Ashura processions in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif and likely targeted – futilely – a ceremony in Kandahar killed dozens, raising the spectre of sectarianism in Afghanistan. Every year since 2001, says Kate Clark, the Ashura ceremonies have become larger and more public as the Afghanistan’s Shi’a communities have grown in confidence. Yesterday’s attacks look designed to terrorise and oppress. In her first report, already posted, she looked at yesterday’s attacks. In this second report on Ashura, – which was largely written before the bombings – she looks back at the ceremony of ten years ago, the first after the Taleban defeat (amended – footnote added).
I woke on Tuesday morning thinking of Ashura in 2002. It was special. Mourning ceremonies had taken place in Kabul the previous year, although only indoors, but that had been more open than in previous years. The Taleban had banned flagellation and chest-beating in many parts of the capital in 1996, said an AFP report (quoted in full at the bottom of the blog). It quoted a ‘community leader’, Sayed Nawab Haideri, on the relaxation of restrictions in 2001* and his call for religious harmony:
‘”This is not an occasion exclusive for Shiites or for the Sunnis. It is an Islamic event.” “This was the day of uprising against oppression,” he said lauding that both Shiite and Sunni congregated in the hall to mark the day of mourning.’
Nevertheless, 2001 was a bloody year for some of Afghanistan’s Shi’as. The Taleban massacred civilians and burned villages in parts of northern Hazarajat where there had been armed attacks against their rule. The attacks had a military aim – to wipe out resistance, but also an undeniable sectarian/ethnic element – this was the collective punishment of civilians connected – only by sect or ethnicity – with the armed opposition (in this case, Hezb-e Wahdat and Harakat-e Islami). Shi’a Hazara and Sayed civilians were the main victims of the Taleban’s scorched earth policy, although other groups were also hit, including Uzbeks in Takhar and the mixed communities of Shomali.**
In 2002, the new Afghan leader, Hamed Karzai, a Sunni Pashtun visited atakia khana (mourning house) for Ashura. It was a signal of a new era and greatly appreciated by the mourners.
In the late afternoon, I visited the Afshar neighbourhood where the mourning took place with the sun shafting low through the ruins. Most of the population had fled in 1993 after Ittihad-e Islami and Shura-e Nezar forces wrenched control of the neighbourhood from Hezb-e Wahdat. After the fighting, during house-to-house search operations, hundreds of men were killed, others were taken off for slave labour. Some women were raped. It was part of a wider pattern of ethnic attacks, particularly in west Kabul, where factions targeted each other’s civilians in tit-for-tat attacks.*** It was only after the defeat of the Taleban that it finally seemed safe for the refugees to come home.
Witnessing Ashura, in the ruins of Afshar in 2002 was one of the most moving things I have ever seen. This was the report I filed for BBC radio.
CUE: Afghan Shi’a Muslims have been commemorating Ashura openly and publicly for the first time in many years. The day marks the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed in what is now Iraq, thirteen hundred years ago. Under the militantly Sunni Taliban, ceremonies were severely curtailed. Among those attending the ceremonies was the Afghan interim leader, Hamed Karzai. The BBC Kabul correspondent, Kate Clark, reports.
(Chanting and beating sounds)
LINK Young Shi’a Afghan men beat themselves with their fists, with chains and with blades, mourning the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, thirteen hundred years ago. Bruised and bleeding, their grief is real. But in other ways, this has been a day of freedom for Afghan Shi’as.
AFGHAN WOMAN The Taliban wouldn’t let women go out of their homes and they wouldn’t let us mourn. But now freedom has come and the flag of Islam has been raised. We’re happy that we can all come to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.
LINK The Taliban and their al-Qaida allies punished resistance in Shi’a areas brutally – massacring civilians and burning whole villages – even their schools and mosques. Commemorating Ashura was difficult and dangerous. But in this district of Kabul, Afshar, it hasn’t been commemorated for ten years, since well before the Taleban came, as this man explains.
AFGHAN MAN Before, under the mujahedeen government, there was factional warfare and each faction targeted civilians in the name of their group – Tajiks or Pashtuns or Hazaras, Sunnis or Shi’as. In this district, Afshar, we had to abandon our neighbourhood. Our homes were looted. We ran away with only our sandals.
LINK People are only now coming home. But reminders of the brutal civil war are everywhere. This mourning house is in ruins – set amid centre of acres of destruction. The pictures of fallen factional leaders – remembered as martyrs by their followers – adorn cars and buildings. The iconic face of the Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud is everywhere and photos of the Shi’a Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, have multiplied in the run-up to Ashura. In the post-Taliban era, those factions are now back in power. People hope they can overcome their sectarian past.
AFGHAN MAN Now the factions have been united by the Bonn Peace Conference. They’re working together in the interim government. That means we’ve been able to come home.
LINK All over Kabul, tens of thousands of Shi’as gathered to mourn Hussein with visible grief and intensity. He’s honoured by all Muslims, but the fact that one particular Sunni Muslim came to a Shi’a mourning ceremony was highly symbolic.
(Karzai speaking in Persian)
LINK The Afghan interim leader, Hamid Karzai, said that Hussein died to protect truth and justice, says. He preferred martyrdom to living in shame.
AFGHAN MAN Yeah, he came to here today and he said there is no difference between the religious of people. All the people are creatures of God. He gave wishes to Afghans that you may live in a peaceful life.
Bring up response from audience.
LINK It’s difficult to underestimate just how important it’s been for Afghan Shi’as to openly commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein. As one man put it – it’s been like coming out of the grave.
This blog was largely written before the attacks of yesterday and I hesitated before posting it because of the dangers of raking up the past and referring to ethnic-based violence committed by both mujahedin factions and the Taleban. The aim of those who carried out the Ashura attacks appears to have been to stir up revenge attacks and spark sectarian discord. All Afghan leaders – whether Shia or Sunni and including the Taleban – have striven, so far, to calm the population and to place the violence as an attack on all Afghan Muslims and on the nation. Afghanistan had not suffered sectarian attacks before, but. at various stages in the war, it has suffered ethnic-based, tit-for-tat violence. The abyss is familiar and remembering the past – if only as a warning for the future – does seem important.
* Since writing the blog, an Afghan who was in Kabul during the Taleban government confirmed that Ashura commemorations were not banned, although they were indoor only. Several Taleban leaders used to attend, including Mawlawi Kabir – currently one of the insurgent leaders, then commander of the eastern zone. He also said the Shi’a ‘community leader’ referred to in the AFP 2001 article, Sayed Nawab Haideri, was actually a commander from Ghazni province who supplied four thousand Shi’a Taleban to the Emirate’s fighting force. He said he was also at the ceremony in Kandahar in 1994 when Mullah Omar was acclaimed Amir ul-Mu’minin.
Of course, the Taleban in government were a different beast from the Taleban in opposition. Even so, many of the reporters who called on Tuesday had assumed the Taleban in government had banned Ashura commemorations. It is useful to try and get the historical record straight.
** For accounts of the Taleban massacres, see the Afghanistan Justice Project, ‘Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, 1978–2001 – Documentation and Analysis of Major Patterns of Abuse in the War in Afghanistan’ (2005) here and ‘The United Nations Mapping Report (of War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses)’, officially unpublished, but available here.
*** The last two reports also carry details of the Afshar massacre, as does the Human Rights Watch, ‘Blood Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity,’ July 2005, here.
This was the AFP report on 1 April 2001
‘Shiite Muslims observe Muharram rituals in Afghanistan’
KABUL, April 1 (AFP) – Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan observed the religious Muharram rituals on Sunday as the Taliban regime lifted curbs on mourning and flagellation by the community to mark the martyrdom of an Islamic saint.
Witnesses said thousands of devotees including a large number of women, gathered in the minority community’s main Chendawol mosque to mourn the death of the companions of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. The main ceremony of Ashura or the 10th of Muharram is to be observed across the country on Wednesday to mark the martyrdom of Hussein during a battle in Karbala, Iraq in 670 AD. Muslims believe the battle in Karbala was between the righteousness and the oppression.
The mourners included a group of some 50 Shiite zealots who beat their chests with open palms and flagellated bare backs with knife-fitted chains amid religious hymns. Women sitting in the balconies and wrapped in the mandatory all-body coverings of burqa joined with chants of Hussein, they said. One mourner fainted and fell down in the mosque compound but others continued to beat their back. The Shiite mourners also tried to kiss a black flag hoisted in the hall symbolising Hussein’s flag.
The mainly Sunni Taliban had banned flagellation and chest-beating in many parts of the capital after seizing Kabul in 1996. But Shiite representatives said this year they observed the occasion without any Taliban restriction. The Taliban militia which rules most of the country follows a strict doctrine of the Islamic Sharia law.
“There were no restrictions at all. There were no Taliban presence even inside the mosque,” Shiite elder Sayed Mohammad Ali Shah said. Shah said the small minority in Afghanistan observed the religious rituals throughout the country. “We have been able to perform our religious rites with peace of mind,” a Shiite leader Sayed Mirza said, expressing satisfaction over the level of religious freedom provided by the Taliban authorities.
Shiite representatives said there was no sectarian violence or open hatred between the two communities in the impoverished and war-torn Afghanistan. Community leader Sayed Nawab Haideri calling for religious harmony said: “This is not an occasion exclusive for Shiites or for the Sunnis. It is an Islamic event.” “This was the day of uprising against oppression,” he said lauding that both Shiite and Sunni congregated in the hall to mark the day of mourning.
He also deplored the “silence” of the Islamic world” over the desecration of the Koran in India in retaliation to the Taliban’s destruction of two ancient Buddha statues in the central Bamiyan province last month. The Muharram rituals will continue for another three days in Afghanistan.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020