War & Peace

Hazaras in the Crosshairs? A scrutiny of recent incidents


"Bring back 31 Hazaras" - one of many protests of Afghan Hazaras abroad, demanding more action from the government finding the 31 abducted from a bus in Zabul. The protests in Kabul are ongoing. Photo: Facebook

Eight abductions of groups of people have been reported since late February by officials, activists or media as having targeted ethnic Hazaras. The first was also the biggest: the abduction of 31 bus passengers in Zabul on 23 February 2015. Other crimes ‘against Hazaras’ have been reported from Ghazni, Farah, Daikundi and Balkh. AAN’s Qayoom Suroush has been examining the incidents in detail to see if there is a new trend of targeting this ethnic group. He finds much of the reporting has been full of mistakes with assumptions relayed as fact. With the possible exception of the Zabul mass abduction, he finds little to back up a notion of a new trend of ethnic targeting, but does say the reporting points to how vulnerable many Hazaras feel.

On 23 February 2015, a group of gunmen stopped two buses driving from Herat province to Kabul as they passed through Shahjoy district of Zabul province and kidnapped several dozen of the passengers. One female passenger described later how the gunmen first collected all cell phones and national ID cards from the passengers, then separated males from females, then Hazaras from non-Hazaras, and finally took away 31 Hazara men, leaving the other passengers on the road. Another eyewitness, who also said that all the hostages were Hazaras, said the kidnappers had worn black masks and military uniforms and spoke Pashtu and Dari.

Two months later, the majority of abductees, possibly all, are still being held. Some reports  (see for example here) have talked about an old man having died because of the “cold weather” and one ANA soldier who was among the abductees having been found beheaded. (1) The public and the national and international media, almost in unison, have spoken of an incident deliberately aimed at Hazaras, even though the identities, motivation and goals of the kidnappers in fact remain unclear. But if the list of hostages is scrutinised, the assumption that all are Hazaras is not certain and the man who was beheaded – if this report is accurate – was not Hazara, but Tajik. Among the families of the hostages camped out in Zarnigar Park, protesting what they perceive as the government’s inadequate response, there is also a Tajik family who believes their son is among the Zabul hostages.

Allegations to be found in the many, often contradictory sources of information as to the aim of the kidnappers vary from the kidnappers wanting to target Shias to them  being Taliban and wanting to swap the hostages for prisoners. The Taleban have denied carrying out the abduction, though, and no other armed group has claimed the kidnapping. Some members of parliament from Zabul still told Tolo News that the passengers had been kidnapped with the help of Mansur Dadullah, a senior Taleban commander and brother of the notorious Mullah Dadullah who was killed in 2007. Mansur was reported to have joined the Islamic state group, operating from Zabul, but if he had, he is back with the Taleban, according to an interview he gave to Radio Tehran on 5 April 2015 in which he also denied having been involved in the kidnapping of the 31 passengers. He said that “foreign fighters who fled from Pakistan kidnapped the passengers” and wanted to exchange them for “family members” imprisoned by the government (interview in Pashto here). He did not mention the ethnic background of the passengers as being of importance.

This fits with what the chairman of the Zabul Provincial Council, Attaullah Haqparast, told Tolo News on 10 April 2015. He claimed the kidnappers had asked for a prisoner swap. He, too, said the kidnappers were “foreigners” and added, “We have sent our elders several times to the kidnappers, and their translator talked to us. They have demanded the release of twelve prisoners.” (Afghanistan’s National Security Council reportedly rejected the deal.)

Efforts to free the hostages seem to be stuck at the moment. Rescue operations by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have, so far, failed. After one mission launched at the beginning of March, Vice President Sarwar Danesh said the ANSF had killed more than 100 insurgents (including some foreigners) and arrested “the leader of the group responsible for the abduction,” whom he named as Mullah Abdullah Kakar. He gave no further information about the man’s political background or possible aims. However, none of the abductees were, in fact, released. Some Hazara elders and activists now claim that no such operation took place and that the government lied about both operation and arrest.

In the end, the evidence that Hazaras were specifically targeted comes from two passengers who were let go and who said the kidnappers had separated Hazaras from the non-Hazaras. This may have been due to ‘ethnic targeting’ – or they could have chosen the Hazaras because, for example, they have the weakest political and tribal lobby and any backlash against the kidnappers would be smaller. When, hopefully, the hostages are freed, things may become clearer.

The second incident: Qarabagh (Ghazni)

On 15 March 2015, another ‘Hazara kidnapping’ was reported, this time in Qarabagh district of Ghazni province (where about half of all citizens are Hazaras). Taleban stopped a car coming from Jaghori district (another Hazara-dominated district) and took ten passengers, all of whom were Hazaras. However, they released them only hours later, after the Taleban had interrogated the travellers and warned the women to wear “proper Islamic attire”, meaning burqas rather than the large headscarves or chadors favoured by many Hazara women. This kind of road block is common across the country, including in insecure Qarabagh district where there is little Afghan National Army (ANA) presence. With both districts having large Hazara communities, chances are that Hazaras will often face such incidents, but such road blocks also hit the local Pashtun population.

Nevertheless, soon after this incident, social media users and news agencies started speculating about Hazaras being systematically targeted, quickly jumping from assumption to ‘fact’. The Shia News Association, an Iran-based news agency, for example, tweeted about a “continuation of Hazara kidnappings.”

The third incident (Farah)

On 17 March 2015, another ‘Hazara kidnapping’ was reported, this time from Farah province. Tolo News said six Hazaras traveling from Herat were abducted by masked gunmen. However, according to Farah governor Asef Nang there had not been a kidnapping of Hazaras; rather, he said, Afghan soldiers “went missing” on the way from Farah to Herat province. He did not even want to confirm that the soldiers had been kidnapped (with the governor later speaking of only one abducted soldier). It also remains unclear how many of the potential victims were Hazara, with local media reporting, for example, four out of the six being Hazara (see here). It seems likely that if the six had indeed been abducted, insurgents took them because they were soldiers. AAN, talking to locals and security officials, could not find evidence for this incident being specifically Hazara-related.

The fourth incident: Daikundi

A few days later, on 25 March 2015, Afghan media reported another ‘Hazara kidnapping’, with the Taleban abducting “20 Hazaras” in Daikundi province as they travelled from Kandahar. On the same day, the Taleban rejected the report and said that they had only stopped the vehicle, not detaining anyone, because of the ongoing fighting between them and ANSF in the area and would allow the travellers to pass as soon as the area was safe. They did so on 28 March 2015.

At this point, the BBC also found out that the travellers who had been affected, had not been Hazaras, but rather (Shia) Baloch.

With much of the media apparently not noticing these at least contradictory details of the accounts available, reporting of the incident increased anxiety among Hazaras. One social media user wrote, “I ask all leaders to take action and stop such kidnappings. It is a tragedy that one ethnic group can be targeted like this in today’s Afghanistan.”

Incidents five to seven: Balkh, Sar-e Pul, Ghazni again

Since then, there have been five more incidents which appear to have been wrongly labelled as having deliberately targeted Hazaras, strengthening a picture of Hazaras being pursued despite a weak evidential basis. For example, on 30 March 2015, five men – who were indeed Hazaras – were reportedly kidnapped in Balkh province. However, as also portrayed by the BBC, it seems the victims were probably taken because they were known to be wealthy coal merchants. A provincial council member told AAN that the kidnapper, whom he alleged was a local illegal militia commander, had asked for a ransom. If true, there seems to have been no political or ethnically-motivated agenda behind the abduction.

The Killid Group reported 13 Hazaras as kidnapped in Sar-e Pul’s Balkhab district on 1 April 2015.  The Taleban released four of their hostages in early April and the remaining nine on 14 April 2015. The reasons for the abduction remain unclear, but AAN was told by members of the provincial council that the person who had initiated the abduction, the district’s Taleban shadow governor Hashim Quraishi, was Hazara himself. Local officials said, “Well, this kind of thing happens all the time.” (As an example of “this kind of thing” happening “all the time”, armed men, kidnapped 12 people on 11 January 2015 in Sar-e Pul  and, after killing two of them, released the rest. However, as ‘Hazara kidnaps’ were not yet on the radar, the ethnic identities of the hostages were not reported at the time.)

Another reported ‘Hazara kidnapping’ on 1 April 2015, again in Ghazni’s Qarabagh district, involved a group of gunmen stopping two cars with 20 passengers – who were indeed Hazara – and taking them hostage for a day. However, it transpired that the travellers were random victims taken with the aim of creating leverage over the police. Before the kidnapping, a local girl had delivered herself to the police and been taken to a shelter in neighbouring Jaghori district. It is not clear why the girl had sought shelter, but the hostages were released after police brought her back to her family (leading one to wonder about the current situation and the safety of the girl; read AAN’s reports on domestic violence and the role of the authorities here).

The eighth incident

Finally, the most recent ‘crime against Hazaras’ was reported on 14 April 2015 in Ajrestan district of Ghazni province, a Pashtun district surrounded by largely Hazara-populated areas, including Jaghori district, Nawur district and Daikundi province. Four Hazaras (from Malestan district) were kidnapped and, soon after, killed. AAN spoke to local Hazaras in Malestan who said they were at a loss as to why such a thing had happened, “We have not had tensions between Pashtuns and Hazaras here in 25 years,” they said. Here too, the perpetrators appear to have had goals other than ethnically-motivated ones. Ghazni’s deputy governor, Muhammad Ali Ahmadi, told Deutsche Welle that the Taleban had taken the four as leverage in an attempt to negotiate the release from jail of their commander and his men, who had been arrested the day before in Jaghori district. The Taleban released a statement condemning the killing and rejecting any involvement, though. They blamed “Kabul’s spies,” meaning the NDS, of trying to “cause ethnic and sectarian violence.”

Routine behaviour for the Taleban

So, what to make of this series of incidents? From what the Afghan media and activists have reported, one could construct a coherent picture of systematic violence against Hazaras (see for example herehere and here). The Wall Street Journal said on 20 April 2015 that “Afghanistan has largely been spared the sectarian strife that plagues other parts of the Muslim world, but many Hazaras see the kidnapping as an indication they, too, now are a target.” And the New York Times wrote, on 22 April 2015:  “A wave of kidnappings followed by numerous beheadings of members of Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic group have spread alarm and anger among a people who historically have been this country’s most persecuted.” But this picture is both misled and misleading.

Take the NYT piece for example. The piece was headlined, “Taliban are said to target Hazaras to try to match ISIS’ brutality”. Yet, its report that the four men from Malestan (case eight) had been beheaded (its source for this was the Ghazni police) does not seem to have been true. AAN was told by family members and neighbours, who had buried the four men on Monday, that the corpses were intact. They had not been beheaded they said: “They were simply shot.” The New York Times article also claimed an additional case of brutality against Hazaras: six men from Daikundi who were ‘found dead’ in Ajirestan district.  However, none of the security officials, local journalists, residents and two MPs from Daikundi contacted by AAN had heard of any killing in the province in recent weeks.

There also appears to be some problem with the sampling. Strangely, the incidents claimed as Hazara-targeted are mostly kidnappings. If Hazaras were indeed being targeted, there would surely be other, less personnel-intensive and more varied opportunities of harm, such as drive-by shootings, assassinations or robberies. In general, it is not unusual for Taleban to stop and hold travellers – of all ethnicities – and interrogate and search them. Doing so, they usually try to identify those who are earning their living as soldiers or government officials, or others associated with the state. It also serves as a convenient way to generally intimidate the civilian population, projecting the Taleban’s power over people’s daily lives. There have been, over the years, many examples of such incidents – including on the road that featured in two of the recent incidents, the insecure Qarabagh road to Jaghori district of Ghazni, which locals call “a nightmare.” In short, the reported ‘Hazara kidnappings’ in Qarabagh on 15 March 2015, in Farah on 17 March 2015, in Daikundi on 25 March 2015 and in Sar-e Pul on 1 April 2015 look to be fairly routine behaviour for the Taleban and carried out regardless of the ethnicity of travellers.

And then, of course, there have been other, similar incidents over the past months – whether  insurgent, criminal or personal – that hit Pashtuns or Tajiks or Uzbeks. Two recent ‘non-Hazara kidnappings’ were the five – Pashtun – NGO workers killed on 10 April in Uruzgan (reason yet unknown) and the 19 staff (ethnicity not reported) of a demining NGO kidnapped by a group of armed men in Paktia because, AAN was told by one source, they had been clearing an area that the Afghan government wanted to use for a future military camp. Two days later the deminers were released.

Scrutinising the individual incidents which activists and media are citing, there seems to be, for now, no evidence that Hazara are being systematically targeted (the Zabul abduction of the 31 bus passengers is the only case where it seems Hazaras may have been targeted, but even there the initial motivation and the goal of the kidnappers remains unclear).

Yet the fear is real

However, the reaction to the reporting – and sometimes the reporting itself – clearly shows that Hazaras feel very vulnerable. Hazaras generally live in areas where traveling means navigating passes through high, otherwise impassable mountains and through areas where other groups predominate. Hazaras are easily identifiable and, although there are some Sunni and Ismaili Hazaras, the group is largely perceived as Shia. Afghanistan has experienced ethnic-based bloodshed in the past during the war, with Hazaras as both victims and perpetrators – although sectarianism of the kind seen in Pakistan, Iraq and now Syria has been rare. Nevertheless, there is a  fear that insurgents and other groups might change tactics.

The reasoning sounds like this: The Taleban, although currently presenting themselves as a national movement for all Afghans regardless of sect or ethnicity, are largely made up of Sunni Pashtun mullahs. Also, this year has seen an increase in foreign fighters moving into Afghanistan after Pakistani operations drove them out of their stronghold in North Waziristan last summer. These fighters tend to be more vicious and more reckless than the Taleban (it is not their country, after all) and potentially more sectarian-minded. The savagely sectarian Islamic State might also gain ground in the country (although, see AAN reporting here on how the Daesh threat has so far been overblown). Moreover, other countries in the region with previously harmonious intra-ethnic and intra-sect relations (such as Syria and Yemen) have recently descended into bloody, sectarian chaos.

The recent trend of reporting kidnappings as aimed at Hazaras , for the moment, appears to say less about the actual dynamics and trends within the insurgency (or among criminal elements), but a great deal about how vulnerable Hazaras feel about their safety.

 

(1) More recently, a video clip with the logo of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was released that shows two masked men beheading an Afghan Army soldier and asking the government to respond to what they say is their demand or they will kill all hostages. Some news agencies like BBC World reported the soldier was one of the Zabul hostages, although the IMU fighters do not specifically mention the 31 hostages or indeed specify their demand to the government. It is also not clear if the beheaded soldier, who was from Andarab district of Baghlan province, was among the 31 hostages. He was certainly not Hazara. After the linking of this murder to the Zabul hostages, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) swiftly said the soldier had not been among the Zabul hostages.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace