“Because We Are Hazara”: When Being a Hazara Never Ceases to Be a Crime in Afghanistan
The Taliban’s return to power has made Afghanistan a place where all kinds of violence and brutality are not only committed with widespread impunity but are also highly normalized. Although the extremist group has succeeded in manipulating the world into accepting its deceptive narrative of “bringing peace” and “ending the longest war” in the country, the reality on the ground stands in stark contrast to the group’s false claims. The headlines about Afghanistan contain nothing but disturbing reports of the Taliban’s incessant human rights abuses, the heightened vulnerability of persecuted communities such as the Hazaras, the forced displacement of persecuted populations from their homes, the arbitrary detention, torture, and killing of civilians, gender apartheid, and the alarming increase in suicides and femicides throughout the country.
Since the return of the extremist group to power on August 15, 2021, not a day goes by that we don’t witness violence and crimes in one form or another. The situation is so devastating and the violence so widespread that I often find it difficult to read the news or even check my social media accounts for fear of encountering another horrific news story that reminds me of my powerlessness and inability to do anything about it. Keeping myself informed about the latest developments in my home country has become a terribly traumatizing and agonizing experience.
For those of us of my generation who have had the experience of living in Afghanistan during the first rule of the Taliban regime (1996-2001), the crimes and brutalities committed in the current rule are not entirely new – rather, they evoke a deep-seated childhood trauma in all of us. An intergenerational trauma that we have inherited as a result of either witnessing or hearing about the cruel crimes and brutalities of the Taliban during their first rule over the country.
During the Taliban’s first rule, I was still a child. We lived in a small village in Jaghori, a district in the central Ghazni province. I must admit that although I was born in a conflict-ridden country, I am one of the lucky few who barely experienced violent conflict as a child. This is perhaps because Jaghori – the village where I was born and spent the first years of my childhood in1990s – is located in a rural part of Afghanistan, quite far from the cities where the conflicts were being fought. However, the fact that I did not experience war in a country devastated by decades of wars did not give me a trauma-free childhood. Wars reach their end point one day, but the collective trauma caused by war remains – it becomes transgenerational – something we rarely talk about openly. So, I was born at a time in a country ravaged by civil war – a civil war that permanently traumatized the circumstances in which we grew up.
I spent the first few years of my childhood at a time, in a village where every exchange between the adults in the village revolved around the horrific atrocities committed by monstrous beings called the Taliban – beings that struck fear and terror into the collective psyche of the children of the village. Although none of the children had ever seen the Taliban, the stories of their heinous crimes and barbarity had entered our childhood games, stories, and thoughts. I vividly remember how the idea of the Taliban manifested itself in our childhood games. We imagined the Taliban as monsters – gigantic devils with big, sharp teeth and massive claws with which they could tear people to pieces. Devils, somewhat similar to the devils in the fairy tales that my grandmother used to narrate to us. I think it is because of this self-authored perception that we never imagined the Taliban as people like us – thinking of the Taliban as people was beyond ever stretch of our childhood collective imagination.
We dreaded these creatures, but at the same time, we assured each that having our fathers and grandfathers by our side nothing can harm us – not even the Taliban. Although, admittedly, an assurance deeply rooted in patriarchal norms and expectations. I remember how the presence of elders in our family and the broader community used to send a wave of assurance of a foreseeably guaranteed protection from the Taliban. This was how we used to end our plays for the day on a positive, rather hopeful note, having no idea about the truth of the group that was ruling the country.
In the late 1990s, my family had to leave Jaghori for Pakistan. It was during our journey to Pakistan that for the very first time I met the Taliban. They were men like my father and grandfather only that they had large turbans wrapped up around their heads, long beards that covered almost all their faces, except for their enormous eyes, and large Kalashnikovs in their hands. They looked scary, but they were humans – a realization that shocked me to the core. Looking retrospectively, I think learning that the Taliban are men just like my father and grandfather brought relieve and comfort for me – it solidified the confidence in me that having my father by my side, no one would ever dare to hurt me.
As a child who had never stepped beyond a village, our migration to Pakistan marked my first ever travel abroad. We passed all Taliban controlled checkpoints without any significant incident until we reached Torkham – a crossing point at the border that demarcates the disputed line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Torkham, we were asked to step out of the car and walk a fairly long distance to cross the border. As we were getting closer to the border, I could see the Taliban forces with Kalashnikovs tightly in their hands, guarding the border. I could also observe people – men, women and children smoothly pass through the iron gate in spite of the heavy presence of the Taliban forces who were monitoring their movements.
My hand was knotted tightly in my elder sister’s hands as we walked to the border gate, following my father who led us to the gate. I can vividly remember my father’s worried face as he kept stopping to make sure we were following him. I have never forgotten the concern in his eyes – a concern that I was perhaps too young to understand but that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
As we approached the iron gate of the border, we were stopped by the Talib guards, unlike other people who crossed the border without any problems. A young Talib ordered my father to step closer to him. My father did as he was ordered and walked towards him. The young Talib started talking to my father, I do not know what he was talking about, but I could hear him repeating the word “Hazaragai” over and over again. His voice grew louder and more bitter as he persistently repeated the word “Hazaragai.” I was shocked, perhaps frightened, not because I had the slightest idea what the word meant and why the Talib kept repeating it in an angry tone, as it was the first time in my life that I had heard the word “Hazaragai.” But because I had never seen anyone speak to my father in such a bitter, disrespectful, rather threatening tone.
The young Talib pushed my father when he insisted on repeating the word “Hazaragai”. I was frightened. I clung tighter to my sister, but I kept my eyes on my father, who was still standing in front of young Talib, trying to explain to him the reason for his arduous journey while pointing at us. But that didn’t seem to interest young Talib. He kept repeating the word “Hazaragai” while he kept pushing my father away. I couldn’t understand why we were detained, and my father was so insulted while other people crossed the border without the slightest obstruction by the Talib border guards.
In the midst of my father’s attempt to convince Talib to allow his family to cross the border, the Talib pushed my father off him with such force that my father almost collapsed. I still did not understand why this was happening to us. I had to ask my sister why we were being stopped and my father insulted in front of his children while other passengers could cross the border undisturbed, to which my sister replied coldly, “Because we are Hazara.”
That was the moment I first learned that we were Hazara. That was the moment I first learned that my greatest crime in my own homeland was being a Hazara.
Through the intervention of our Pashtun driver, we were finally allowed to cross the border and enter Pakistani soil, where I automatically assumed another criminalized identity in addition to my Hazara identity – I became a Hazara refugee.
On my first trip outside my birthplace, I discovered that the Taliban are not the monstrous beings with sharp teeth and massive claws with which they can tear people to pieces, but that they are actually people just like us, but who are capable of atrocious crimes that is beyond every stretch of our childhood imagination. It was on that first journey that I first learned that I was a Hazara and that the word ‘Hazaragai’ is a derogatory racial slur against Hazaras, widely used to disparage the Hazaras.
It was only much later in my life that I learned of the genocidal violence by the Taliban against Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif, in 1998, where, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 2,000 Hazaras were summarily executed. The Taliban went “house-to-house” as part of their “systematic” search for Hazara men who were then summarily executed. This violence against my people took place just a year before, when I learned as a child that being a Hazara in my homeland is the greatest crime imaginable – a crime for which we are still systematically and mercilessly killed.