The Hazara People, who are mostly found in some regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are a mixed race community who are one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Their situation is not getting better even to this date.
Who are the Hazara people?
The term ‘Hazara' was first used in the 16th century in the memoirs of Babur, to describe people in the region towards the west of Kabul, till Gor or Ghazni. The origins of this community remains disputed, although there are three theories to suggest it. According to the first theory, the Hazaras could be of Turko-Mongol ancestry, descendants of Genghis Khan's army which was left behind by him in Afghanistan.
The second theory goes two millennia back, to the Kushan Dynasty, when Bamiyan in Afghanistan was a Buddhist centre. Supporters of this theory claim that the facial structure of the Hazaras is similar to that of the Buddhist murals and statues (later vandalized by the Taliban) in the region. The third and the most widely accepted theory is that they are mixed race. According to this, certain Mongol tribes travelled to modern-day Afghanistan (then Eastern Persia) and then got integrated into the indigenous peoples, because of which the Hazaras still have some Mongoloid features.
They settled in central Afghanistan, where by the 19th century, half of their population had either been killed or exiled.
Hazaras during the British Raj
Their homeland in the central highlands was invaded by the Pashtun Amir Abdul Rehman, known as Afghanistan's ‘Iron Amir' by the British, forcing them to leave their lands and go into exile in Balochistan.
There were already some Hazaras who had started entering British India, searching for labour jobs such as mining. They also came to Quetta, to work in the construction of the Indian railways. But, due to Rehman's ethnic cleansing, they had to leave.
But one interesting fact is that in 1907, British officer Colonel Claude Jacob made a regiment specially for the Hazaras. The Hazaras had got an image of having martial strength, as the British liked to imagine, because of their possible lineage to Genghis Khan.
The remaining Hazaras, who didn’t qualify for the army, used to go for unskilled labour then, because they did not own any agricultural lands in this new country.
In 1935, there was an earthquake in Quetta, which caused many Hazaras to leave the city for other places. This proved to be a blessing in disguise for them as they started doing semi-skilled labour there and were able to become tailors, mechanics and shopkeepers. Even the Second World War proved to be helpful to them as more Hazaras were recruited as soldiers, some even getting a better position like General Musa Khan, who led the Pakistani army during the 1965 war with India.
What is Hazaras' situation today in Pakistan?
Since partition, the Hazaras have remained an underprivileged minority. In Quetta, they are spread in two slums in the east and west of the city. The two areas are called Mari Abad and Hazara Town. Most of their income is remittance payments from Iran, the Gulf, Europe and Australia.
There are thousands of new Hazara migrants in Quetta escaping the terror of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But in Pakistan, they are persecuted and seen as an alien community, because of two reasons—firstly, because they’re Shia (a minority in Sunni dominated Pakistan), and secondly, because of their facial features which look Central Asian. A third reason has a geopolitical context, a belief that the Hazaras might be having Iranian support.
There are around 900,000 Hazara living in Pakistan, yet this is a vulnerable community. For decades, they have been targeted for being different by the extremists through suicide bombings and shootings. There are regular attacks on their mosques, even on festive days such as Eid. The Pakistani authorities' response to the violence against Hazara community has been to build walls blocking streets leading to their areas, or placing military checkpoints along them. Although it makes at least the Hazara areas relatively safer, it traps them inside these areas which are like Ghettos now.
In an article by the BBC, one resident, Haji Mohammed Musa, said, “Yes, violence here has come down, but we can't go anywhere else in the city. We can't do business any more. We're living in a cage.”
And if they do go outside, there are really rare chances of them coming back alive. Hazara people are scared of going out of their area, and don’t even send their family members out for the fear of being attacked.
The number of Hazara students in Quetta's universities outside Mari Abad and Hazara Town, is said to have decreased in recent years. The Hazaras, trapped inside their Ghetto-like towns, are finding other ways to get rid of their frustration by keeping themselves busy in sports. A form of gymnastics, called Parkour, is getting increasingly popular here. The Hazara boys say it gives them “a feeling of freedom” and that they “forget all their worries”.
The people of Mari Abad are not able to meet the other Hazaras living on the other side of Quetta, in the Hazara Town. They can’t travel there without the fear of being shot or killed.
Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi are two sectarian extremist groups which have targeted the Hazaras.
Around 70,000 Hazaras have fled, mainly to Australia, while hundreds may have drowned during this perilous sea journey. Even after settling in Australia, the Australian Hazaras are concerned about the 'Talibanization' of Afghanistan. They also held demonstrations in support of the people of their community who have remained behind.
Hazaras' present situation in Afghanistan
The Hazaras have always been persecuted in the predominantly-Sunni Afghanistan, especially by the Taliban. The worst form of violence started when, on August 8, 1998, the Taliban attacked and captured the Mazar-i-Sharif, which was then the only city controlled by the United Front, which is opposed to the Taliban. Within hours, it had started killing people in a frenzy and literally killed “anything that moved”. There were reports about women and girls, especially in the Hazara neighbourhoods, getting abducted and raped. The killings of Hazara men and boys was mainly done out of revenge by the Taliban for the Hazaras’ failed attempt of attacking them in 1997. Hazara fighters killed thousands of Taliban fighters and prisoners in the north in 1997. When Hazara strongholds fell the following year the regime massacred entire communities in revenge.
The Hazaras are confined to a huge open-air prison in central Afghanistan called Hazarajat. They can’t venture out, as there is fear of being killed.
IS-Khurasan, a group affiliated to the so-called Islamic State, is another terror group in Afghanistan which has also proved to be a threat for the Hazaras. In 2016, at least 80 Hazara people died after dual suicide bombings by IS-Khurasan, during protests which were held for electricity transmission line to be routed through Hazarajat. IS-Khurasan stated that it attacked the Hazaras because of their involvement in the war in Syria. Most of the Hazaras, who happen to be Shias, have been recruited in the Iranian army which is an ally of the Al-Asad government. An IS-Khurasan commander told Reuters, “Unless they (the Hazara Shias) stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, we will definitely continue such attacks.” Poor Afghan Hazaras residing in Iran are offered Iranian citizenship to fight in Syria. Some are even forced to join as fighters. But, this is just an excuse, as the IS-Khurasan would have attacked the Hazaras even had they not joined the Iranian forces fighting for the Shias, because, just like its parent organisation, ISIS, this organisation sees the Shias as 'infidels' or outsiders who are against Islam and therefore, worthy of death.
Hopes from the US
The Hazaras, Hindus, Jewish, and other minorities—especially women of all ethnic and religious groups—in Afghanistan, were relieved that finally their nightmares are over, when the US forces started bombing the Taliban in 2001. Hazaras see the US as their liberator. Their hopes will be destroyed if the US withdraws from Afghanistan without completely finishing up the Taliban.
The situation in several places in Afghanistan has become better, where the Taliban is no more. People are able to attend colleges and schools and have more freedom. But the remaining states still suffer at the hands of the Taliban. There are deep scars still left in the country, which are difficult to heal even if the Taliban fades away.
Hazaras in the Covid-era
In Pakistan, the Hazaras were blamed for bringing the virus in their country. Their movement was restricted and they were targeted time and again for spreading the virus in their country.
They even had to face discrimination at workplaces. Mohammad Aman, a prominent Hazara activist, told Institute of development studies, “Places like Civil Hospital and The State Bank of Pakistan have unofficially asked their employees belonging to the Hazara community, including doctors, not to come to work.”
The Hazaras have been quarantined in their areas, Mari Abad and Hazara Town, and are not allowed to move out. Further, no other Pakistanis except the Hazara Shias are quarantined at airports. There is a belief among the Pakistani people that it’s the Hazaras who are bringing the virus from Iran.
Even after so many decades of persecution and mass killings, nothing much has changed in the situation of the Hazaras. They continue to live a life full of fear and abandonment. They left their homelands in Afghanistan, because the Pashtuns and the Taliban persecuted them. They came to Pakistan, where again, they are persecuted for the same reason. Those who left for Iran, were bullied for their Central Asian ancestry or had to fight in wars. Then the remaining who left for Syria, are now stuck and left to die in the Syrian war. There’s no place called home for the Hazaras.