As the Taliban cement their control over Afghanistan, there is a deepening fear among the country’s religious and ethnic minorities that the gains they made over the past two decades could be lost and that they could again find themselves the target of persecution.
Many in Hazaras — Shiite Muslims who are estimated to make up 10 to 20 percent of the country’s population — worry that atrocities of the past will be revisited despite assurances from the Taliban leadership that they have changed.
“We are extremely worried and scared. Taliban have a history of violence against us,” one Hazara man who lives in Kabul said by telephone, not wanting his name used in public for fear of reprisals. “Now I feel I am a target for them. I don’t leave home unless it is very necessary.”
He said local Taliban officials had assured residents that civilians would not be targeted as they entered the area. But he said they had broken that promise. His father-in-law was killed by militants in Ghazni Province after the Taliban captured the area last month.
“He had not harmed anyone, he was just a teacher, a religious scholar and an educator,” he said of his father-in-law.
As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan this summer in advance of their blitz that culminated in the fall of Kabul, an investigation by Amnesty International has found evidence of the slaughter of nine Hazara men, raising fears of more bloodletting to come.
“On-the-ground researchers spoke to eyewitnesses who gave harrowing accounts of the killings,” which took place in early July in Ghazni Province, according to the report. “Six of the men were shot, and three were tortured to death, including one man who was strangled with his own scarf and had his arm muscles sliced off.”
One witness said villagers had asked the fighters why they inflicted such brutality on people. The answer from a fighter, the witness said, was that “in a time of conflict, everyone dies.”
The killings took place before the Taliban issued a blanket amnesty in Kabul this week, promising no reprisal killings and safety for all Afghans. It is difficult to know what is happening in much of the country since cellphone service has been cut in places and many journalists have fled or are in hiding. But there have been no reports of wide-scale attacks on Hazaras since Sunday.
And on Thursday, Taliban soldiers provided security in Kabul as Hazara men commemorated Ashura, a Shia holy day.
Yet the last time the Taliban swept to power, they exacted revenge on the Hazara population after taking control of Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in the north.
“Within the first few hours of seizing control of the city, Taliban troops killed scores of civilians in indiscriminate attacks, shooting noncombatants and suspected combatants alike in residential areas, city street sand markets,” according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch. “Witnesses described it as a ‘killing frenzy.’”
This time around, one of the Taliban militants’ first acts after taking control of the country was to blow up a statue of the Shiite militia leader Abdul Ali Mazari in Bamiyan Province, the Hazaras’ unofficial capital.
And with many Hazaras having adopted liberal values over the past two decades, said a Hazara woman who works for the government, “the threat we face now is much more serious than the 1990s.”
“I am worried about my and my family’s life,” she said, speaking by telephone from Kabul on the condition of anonymity, fearing for her safety. “I am very vulnerable: I am Hazara, a working woman, a liberal and an ex-journalist.”
“Hazara women have a strong presence in the society: They are university students, working outside, and are visible in the streets,” she said. “And this is exactly the opposite of what the Taliban want.”