War & Peace

The ‘Zabul Seven’ Protests: Who speaks for the victims?


The large Zabul Seven protests in Kabul, 11 November 2015. Photo: Pajhwok.

The large Zabul Seven protests in Kabul, 11 November 2015. Photo: Pajhwok.

On 11 November 2015, Kabul witnessed probably one of the largest demonstrations in recent history. The trigger was the slaughter of seven Hazara travellers who had been taken hostage in Zabul province about a month ago. The demonstration, which continued well into the night, became an amalgam of emotions and agendas: grief and horror over the attacks; defiance against brutality; exasperation over the perceived non-responsiveness of the government; calls for greater security, alongside the airing of more localised demands; and, possibly, among some, a hope to further undermine the government. The government initially focused mainly on the latter part, largely treating the demonstration as a threat and a slight, while ignoring the underlying emotions that brought so many people who had no direct link to the victims on the streets.

The demonstration

The demonstration originated in Ghazni city a day earlier, on 10 November 2015, when the seven bodies arrived and started their journey to Kabul. The seven slain Hazaras had been taken hostage in Gilan district in Zabul on the way back to their home district Jaghori in Ghazni, about a month ago. On 7 November 2015, their bodies were found by Taleban fighters, who claimed to have pushed back a breakaway group led by Mansur Dadullah. The throats of the seven travellers were slit. Among the dead were two women and a child, a 9-year old girl. (1) Afghanistan may be a violent country, but it is not numb. The cold-blooded killing of the women, and particularly the girl, hit people very hard.

The coffins arrived in Kabul in the evening of 10 November 2015, where there was a small wake. On the next day, crowds started gathering in Dasht-e Barchi, a largely Hazara suburb of Kabul, from where they walked to Pashtunistan square. This took several hours, with the crowds swelling along the way (see drone footage here). The protestors finally gathered at the back of the presidential palace and asked to see the president. A small delegation was allowed in, but as the hours passed and there had been no reports of a government response, the crowds became impatient and started to demand a reaction.

In the early afternoon, around 100 protestors scaled the walls of the compound of the Office of Administrative Affairs, next to the presidential palace, and managed to open one of the gates. A smaller group of protestors, both men and women, managed to get inside with the coffins of the dead. At this point the security forces, fearing the situation might get out of hand, started shooting in the air to deter the demonstrators. Ten people have been reported injured as a result. After the shooting, and as evening fell, many of the demonstrators went home. A crowd of several hundred remained, while those who had managed to enter the government compound were apparently allowed to stay in the parking lot with the coffins. (2)

The demonstration, judging from the live images and eyewitness reports, was generally peaceful, disciplined and well organised. Live broadcasting at several instance showed footage of protesters making a human chain to stop a surging crowd or to protect and make way for a large group of women that was at the front of the demonstration (as well as hurrying to get them out of harm’s way when the shooting started). There were some reports on social media of vandalism, but these do not seem to have been the norm.

Although a large part of the crowd was Hazara, this was a much wider demonstration. The messages that came out from the protest ranged from the repeated insistence that this was not an attack on one group but on the whole nation; an array of death wishes targeting, often in one breath, the Taleban, Daesh (Islamic State) and the government, including President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah personally; chanted calls for the resignation of the government’s leadership; and, most crucially, a demand for justice and protection, all over the country.

It had, in some way, a similar sense of a nation coming together and standing in defiance as on the first round election day in 2014, although the mood was different of course – much less buoyant. Rather, it had the grimness and determination of the smaller demonstrations after the attack on a restaurant at the Qargha Lake resort in June 2012 and after the killing of journalist Sardar Ahmad and his family by the Taleban in an attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul in March 2014, as well as the outrage expressed after the killing of Farkhunda, earlier this year.

Government reactions

The government responded to the demonstration first with silence, then with a fairly impersonal presidential speech in the late afternoon and finally, around 9 pm, in a televised meeting with a delegation representing the protesters, which seemed a touch more acerbic than necessary.

President Ghani’s speech in the afternoon (watch it here; full Dari text here; full English here), in response to what had been an emotional, and in many ways moving, day, was oddly generic and detached. It was delivered without much emotion or expression (seemingly read from a fairly fast-moving autocue) and presumably intended to project a sense of calm and authoritative restraint. But, despite its many quotable lines, it came across as removed and largely unaware of what had transpired at the gates of the palace. What was lacking was an indication that the president, and the wider government, had noticed the demonstration, heard the people or understood their concerns and emotions.

After the speech the remaining demonstrators, who braved the rain and cold, continued to demand that the government hear them. Several hours later, around 8.30 pm, the president finally received a delegation in a palace meeting that was broadcast live on all major networks.

The government at the meeting was represented by a heavyweight delegation: President Ashraf Ghani himself, CEO Abdullah Abdullah, second Vice-President Sarwar Danesh, second deputy to the CEO Muhammad Mohaqeq, Minister of Interior Nur ul-Haq Ulumi and Acting Minister of Defence Massum Stanakzai. Also present were several Ghazni MPs, representatives of the ulama and the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission Sima Samar (herself from Jaghori). This could have been a meeting in which the protesters, the grieving families, and, through them, the larger nation, felt they had been heard and taken seriously by the government.

The live broadcast showed three people speaking on behalf of the demonstrators and the families of the victims, but they, it was claimed later, were not the organisers of the demonstration, nor had they travelled up from Ghazni with the coffins. (3) Together their speeches made up an odd mix of apologetic respect, blunt complaint, localised security demands and irrelevant gripes.

On the side of the government Mohaqeq, Ghani and Abdullah spoke – in that order. Both Mohaqeq and Ghani were clearly irritated by the whole matter, and Mohaqeq lashed out at one of the protest organisers, accusing him of having done this out of spite for not receiving a minister’s post (Mohaqeq has since then received a lot of flak, in subsequent protests and on social media, for what appears to have been a squabble over influence). Abdullah was a lot smoother, describing this as an opportunity to listen to the pain of the people, but his message, although delivered in a more soothing way, largely covered the same ‘talking points.’ (For a palace summary see here).

The messages given in the three speeches on the side of the government included: the government has not and will not be indifferent; it will listen to your legitimate demands. But also: you are not the only ones in the country who have suffered and given sacrifices; thanks to this demonstration, the security forces have been unable to give their full attention to the fighting in other provinces; and you should stop carrying these bodies around like this. (4) A large part of the response, finally, focused on the specific, largely security-related demands the protesters had presented, and the extent to which they could be met. The demands included the capture and punishment of the perpetrators, the effective protection of the roads, a greater presence of police forces, the creation of a separate army corps for the Hazara areas in central Afghanistan and a memorial for the dead.

Reading between the lines, there appears to have been considerable nervousness within the government about the aims of the crowd and the potential for violence or mischief (probably remembering the violent 2006 demonstrations that left a trail of destruction in the city). However, from the reporting on the ground and the mood in the city, it did not seem to be that kind of crowd. The day could have ended much earlier, and presumably on a higher note, if there had been an earlier acknowledgement of the protesters’ petitions.

Now, on the next day, new, smaller, demonstrations are springing up around the country, most of them stressing the call for greater security and reiterating that the suffering of the ‘Zabul Seven’ is the suffering of the whole country. (5) Many people, however, after having expressed their support and concerns, are likely to be sensitive to the government’s implied message that normal life should not be further disrupted.

In the absence of mass support, the discourse may now turn uglier, with politicians and commentators on social media seeking to mobilise against the government or to polarise along ethnic lines. But, despite the frustration many people feel, it is unlikely there will be many takers; one of the driving forces of the demonstration appears to have been the refusal to accept the type of divisive sectarian violence that the killings seemed to represent. In terms of the hopes that this may become Afghanistan’s own version of the ‘Arab spring,’ protracted demonstrations in Afghanistan tend to be complicated by the fact that it is not clear what people would want to ask for, other than generic calls for better security and a functioning government.

On the side of the government, it is not clear what the impact will be. The initial, knee-jerk response was mainly to treat this as a nuisance and a threat that needed to be nipped in the bud. Hopefully, though, it will also initiate some soul-searching on how to engage with people’s demands and frustrations – both the spurious and the legitimate. And it may, possibly, lead to the national unity government publically dealing with thorny issues together more often – which would be no bad thing.

 

(1) The killings in most English-language media were described as ‘beheadings,’ presumably as a mistranslation of the Dari halal kardan. In reality, the seven had their throats cut (the killers reportedly used kite wire that had been sharpened with glass, used, normally, in kite fights to cut the threads of rivals). Halal kardan is also sometimes used as shorthand for brutal killings in general (“to slaughter”).

Reports vary on who the perpetrators were. Most fingers point to Uzbek fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who are said to have joined Dadullah Mansur. He is a dissident Taleban commander, now with the anti-Akhtar Mansur faction led by Mullah Muhammad Rassul.

(2) Bringing bodies of victims to the offices of government officials, although rare in Kabul, happens more often in the provinces, mainly to draw the attention of the government to an injustice. The bodies are brought both as ‘evidence’ and as a rallying point.

(3) The organisers of the protest called their own press conference on the day after the Kabul protests, 12 November 2015, to more clearly articulate their demands and to take away the impression that some of them may have acted based on personal agendas or resentments. This was more or less at the same time as another press conference in which a tired-looking Abdullah sounded a conciliatory note and fielded additional questions.

(4) The government, judging from the points raised at the televised palace meeting, is very keen to have the bodies buried as soon as possible. The bodies are currently at the 400-bed hospital, where they were taken around midnight last night. It is not yet clear whether they will be buried in Kabul or in Ghazni, or when.

(5) Follow-up demonstrations on 12 November in other provinces include those in Ghor, Daikondi, Bamyan (for Diakondi see also here), Balkh, Herat and Nangarhar. Zabul already had a demonstration on 11 November 2015.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace