South Asia

In Search for Power, Afghanistan's Hazara Community Vows to Fight On

The Hazaras are seeking electricity in the Bamyan province, as well as a larger place in the country's political dynamics.

Sept2 Hazara protest_Facebook

People seen the Chehlom event, organised by the Enlightening Movement to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period for the July 23 attack. Credit: Facebook

New Delhi: There was not an empty seat in the international patients lounge at Max Smart Super Specialty hospital, where a property dealer, three students, a teacher, a mine engineer and an unemployed man conversed animatedly in Dari. Afghans, clutching a sheaf of medical papers, are a familiar sight in New Delhi’s luxurious private hospitals, but this group has a special cache. They are the survivors of one of Kabul’s deadliest-ever bomb blasts. The explosion, which struck on July 23, targeted the largest Afghan social protest movement to have emerged since the fall of the Taliban.

On July 23, the Enlightening Movement (Jombesh-e Roshnayi), backed by Afghan’s only Shia ethnic minority, held its biggest-ever rally in Kabul to protest against President Ashraf Ghani’s government. The protestors had one demand – to reverse the decision to re-route a 500 KV line for a regional electricity project (the ‘TUTAP’ power project) that will pass through the Salang Pass and change its location to the Hazara-majority province of Bamyan in central Afghanistan.

It was around 2.30 pm. Some peaceful marchers had taken a break for lunch, others for prayers and others were still setting up tents for a longer stay at Deh Mazang square. Soon two bomb blasts, at least one of them triggered by a suicide attacker, hit the protestors. The official report said 80 people were killed and over 300 injured – the highest death toll caused by a bomb blast in Kabul since 2001. ISIS claimed responsibility for the blast, the organisation’s first attack in the Afghan capital.

July 23 blast survivors at Max Super Smart Speciality hospital. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

July 23 blast survivors at Max Super Smart Speciality hospital. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Over the past two weeks, 53 of those injured have been booked into Delhi’s Max, Apollo and B.L. Kapoor hospitals for advanced treatment. The Hazara diaspora has incurred the medical expenses for most of their compatriots, while the Indian government is picking up the tab for eight patients and another four are being sponsored by Afghanistan’s vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan-Uzbek leader.

Seated at the lounge in a corner of the bustling hospital lobby, Iqbal Tanin, a mine engineer, was waiting for a check-up. His broken right hand was in a cast studded with screws and tubes,  “I was about 20-25 metres away. When the first blast took place, I must have fallen unconscious, because I woke up in the army hospital,” he said.

Perched on a seat diagonally from Tanin, 30-year-old Mohammad Hussain was not sure why he is alive. “What can I say, he is a miracle. He was just three metres [away from] where the first blast took place … When he was first taken to the hospital, doctors were surprised that he is still alive,” said Hussain’s translator, an India-born Afghan who asked not to be identified. Both Tanin and Hussain also suffered burst eardrums, a common injury among the survivors.

Tanin and Hussain, like the others waiting in the hospital lounge – 40-year-old Baqir, property dealer; 25-year-old Kabul University student Sayedjawad Roish; Ahmed Fashihi, a teacher; Ali Rizai, a medical student and Mohmmad Ibrahimi, an environmental science student –  are well-educated. There are also fairly representative of the socio-economic profiles of those who support the Afghan protest group that was targeted by the blast.  The protests, which broke out earlier this year, were fuelled by social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, originating from long ingrained resentment over historical discrimination.

“For three centuries, we have been discriminated [against] …We were going to get our first ever big international project and now they want to derail it,” Zulfeqar Khan Omid, a member of the Enlightenment Movement high council and leader of the regional Labour and Development party, told The Wire.

His memories of that fateful day are crystal-clear – one moment he was answering demonstrators’ logistical queries about the protest and the next moment, he was being “thrown up like a ball” from the impact of the blast. He remembers the police shooting in the chaotic aftermath of the blast as well as the silence that followed when he called out to his colleagues – the people standing next to him only moments before.

Omid has undergone three operations on his left leg in the last month – two operations in Kabul and one in Delhi. After being discharged from Max Hospital last week, he is recuperating at the house of a family member in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave.

Seated in the house, his shattered legs propped up on an ottoman, Omid talks of his plans to mobilise the Afghan Hazara community in India, mostly made up of students. He wants them to be as active as those in western capitals in supporting the Enlightening Movement.

“When I was in [the] hospital, so many people who live in Delhi came to visit me. I registered all of them and told them that we should have a meeting soon,” Omid said.

As news spread that those injured in the Kabul blasts were being treated at three South Delhi hospitals, the hospitals became a magnet for members of the Hazara community living in different parts of Delhi. “Many visitors were coming to the hospitals to offer assistance to the injured and it was the first meeting for most of them. One said, we have 30 families here … another said, we have 40 families near my house. Everyone took each other’s phone numbers and promised to be in touch,” said 62-year-old Salman Ali, a Canadian national of Hazara origin, in the city to coordinate medical treatment for the injured. He fled to Iran from Bamyan in 1999 and then moved to Canada.  Ali was part of the exodus precipitated by the Taliban’s persecution of Shia Hazaras.

Zulfiqar Khan Omid. Credit: Devirupa Mitra/The Wire

Zulfiqar Khan Omid. Credit: Devirupa Mitra/The Wire

Armed with a reasonably-sized database, Omid has hatched a plan to set up the Indian chapter of the Enlightening Movement. “Most of the people who will be part of this group will be students, some are businessmen who have branches in Delhi and Afghanistan”.

Contributions from the diaspora are critical for the movement, especially when it is struggling to recover from the shock of the terror attack. “Our people abroad have been sending money. Taxi drivers are offering their savings. We have managed to get millions of dollars,” said Omid.

The money will be put to immediate use to support the families of the ‘martyrs’ of the Deh Mazang bomb blast and also to treat those injured in the blast. While the hospital fees are a substantial burden, house rents are also a major expense. “Some of those who returned to Kabul developed infection[s] and had to again fly back to Delhi. So as a precaution, we have rented about 10-15 apartments in the city for those being treated – to stay while they make rounds of the hospital for changes in dressing and check-ups,” said Ali.

Every day, Ali travels between the three hospitals, talking to patients and doctors, keeping tracking of tests and the need for additional money. His dark green bag is the repository of his tools – medicines, spare injection needles and blood pressure gauges. An A-4 sized notebook is his indispensable memory bank. “Each page is for one patient,” Ali said, flipping through the notebook. The last page is a diagram of the fractures on Omid’s leg.

In another part of the city, Omid is hoping to utilise his extended stay in the city to catch the attention of the right people in Lutyen’s Delhi. “I am very much interested in meeting authorised people,” he said.

In fact, he had hoped that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would take a personal interest. “We were very keen and hopeful that Prime Minister Modi would have come and met with the injured in hospital. It would have been a very clear message to the terrorists”.

He was all praise for the Indian embassy in Kabul for expediting the medical visas of the injured and their attendants. “The Indian ambassador assured us that he will himself supervise so that visas are issued fast. We are very thankful”.

Incidentally, India does have reason to keep an eye on Bamyan. In 2001, an Indian consortium, led by the Steel Authority of India Limited, won the extraction rights in three out of four blocks in the province’s Hajigak mines – the largest untapped iron ore deposits in Asia.

Nearly 15 years later, the project has yet to take off, with uncertainty over security and financial viability stalling the project. The need for electricity at the Hajigak mines, once they are operational, is one of the arguments used by the Enlightening Movement to illustrate the potential applications of the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan, or TUTAP, regional initiative passing through Bamyan.

As part of its aid package to Afghanistan, India is running 13 small development projects in Bamyan. A  report by Pajhwok Afghan News, a news agency, said that during his visit to Afghanistan in early August, Indian ambassador Manpreet Vohra said that India had received proposals for new projects.

The rise of the Enlightening Movement 

Among Afghan’s four major ethnic groups, the Hazaras stand out as the only Shia community among Sunni Muslims, and for their distinctive features. Comprising 9% of the population, they are mainly spread out across the highlands of central Afghanistan.

Hazaras first faced persecution when Amir Abdul Rahman went about consolidating a unitary Afghan state in late nineteenth century. Since then, Hazaras have remained  socially and politically marginalised and suffered a special brutality that was meted out during the Taliban period.

After the 2001 Bonn agreement, the Hazaras got a taste of political power. Socially, they pulled themselves up by stressing the need for education, including for their women. As per Afghan ministry records, the Hazara-dominated provinces have the highest pass rates for admittance to the top domestic academic institution.

“After the Bonn conference, we were much hopeful justice would come, they would follow human rights and ethnic rights. But in the last 15 years, we saw a lot of discrimination. The latest in that line of discrimination was about this TUTAP project,” said Omid.

A sense of deep-rooted grievance, mainly directed against the Pashtuns (the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan), pervades the conversations of the survivors of the July 23 attack with The Wire. Speaking in Dari, Hussain illustrated the systemic bias faced by members of the Hazara community. “If you go to a government office and the official is a Hazara. Then everything [is] fine. But, if he is a Pashtun, then we will asked to go round and round”.

This prejudice is directly responsible for the backwardness of the Hazara homeland, even compared to the rest of war-ravaged Afghanistan, they believe. “We are the most peaceful region in Afghanistan. People in Bamyan are scared to even set off a firecracker. But, there is almost no development as there is no power. People are still living in caves … Whatever light there is comes from solar or diesel generators,” said Tanin.

Demonstrators from Afghanistan's Hazara minority attend a protest. Credit: Ahmad Masood/ Reuters

Demonstrators from Afghanistan’s Hazara minority attend a protest. Credit: Ahmad Masood/ Reuters

The lack of electricity has been a lightning rod for the Hazaras’ civil disobedience for the last several years.

As far back as 2009, civil society activists had installed a large sculpture of an oil lantern in a prominent square, which promptly became known as alakain (lantern) square. There is a continuity in this imagery, with cut-outs and depictions of lanterns being a common sight at rallies in central Afghanistan.

In her 2014 paper on the protests by the Hazaras published in the Central Asian Survey, anthropologist Melissa Kerr Chiovenda wrote about how the deep darkness of Bamyan nights “serves as a physical reminder to the inhabitants which leads many to believe they are kept in an underdeveloped state…”

Two years ago, New Zealand built an off-grid solar project, which was then extended by Norway in 2015. It has been the only source of power in Bamyan. But, even this has barely met the community’s basic necessities and is often unaffordable, with the cost per unit being several times the price of power in Kabul.

Enter TUTAP.

The project, funded by the Asian Development Fund, aims set up a 500 MW transmission capacity to supplying electricity from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, via Afghanistan. In a 2013 report, German consultancy firm Fitchner, hired by the Asian Development Bank, recommended the “Bamyan route” as “it will avoid the narrow space and difficulties along the Salang Pass, will allow connecting further generation by coal fired power plants along the route and will secure power supply of Kabul and south Afghanistan by using a separate route”.

The first inkling that the Bamyan route was no longer in consideration was a leaked letter in January 2016 from Muhammad Sarwar Danesh, the second vice president to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, protesting against the move.Ghani set up a technical committee, which as per the Kabul-based think tank, Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), again pushed for the Bamyan route. But, it offered a second option – if Salang Pass was still the main route, an additional 220 KV line could be added to connect Bamyan to TUTAP.

The Afghan cabinet formally approved the Salang Pass route on April 30, arguing that it would lead to saving $35 million and a shorter construction period. Within a week, the Jombesh-e-Roshanyi had taken form and the first major street protests under its aegis took place in Bamyan city on May 6.

Many of the activists leaders were veterans of  ‘Zabul seven’ demonstration in November 2015, when thousands marched on Kabul roads with the coffins of seven Hazaras, including a 9-year-old girl, who were beheaded by the Islamic State.

A week later, Ghani’s speech at the Royal United Services Institute was interrupted by Enlightening Movement protestors. The scuffle between Ghani’s security guards and protestors went viral on social media. In Kabul, all Hazara MPs announced that they were not going to attend the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House of parliament) till the TUTAP issue was resolved.

Three days later, Kabul witnessed the first massive gathering of the Jombesh-e-Roshnayi, or the Enlightening Movement. Thousands of protestors packed the streets, chanting slogans against the Ghani government, catching the attention of the international media.

As July 23, the date of the next rally, approached, the Afghan government reached out to the leaders of the movement through various intermediaries, but last minute discussions fell through. The government did give a general security warning to the rally’s organisers – but the latter didn’t heed the vague sounding threat.

“In the post-2001 context, I would say the Enlightening Movement is unique both because of its scale and its use of social media … I don’t think we have seen anything like this before,” Chiovenda said.

While Afghanistan has a history of street protests that took place during the communist period, the distinctiveness of Jombesh-e-Roshnayi comes from its stress on non-violence and its ability to mobilise support. “I don’t know of any other protest in the last 16 years that has been so successful in getting people into the streets, at least before the July 23 attack,” Chiovenda said.

According to Omid and other supporters, the organisation does not have an elected leader, but rather a group of civil society members who take decisions through consensus.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of AAN, noted that the Enlightening Movement was certainly the largest social protest movement in terms of its mobilisation, but “there is also the issue of ethnic politicking, political hijacking attempts and wavering political Hazara leaders”.

“Some of the movement’s leaders also play up ethnic feelings, not recognising that at least on the legal field, past discrimination has been abolished. Of course, on the other side, there are also many nasty anti-Hazara statements, feeding fears that discrimination is not over in the minds of many, including some in government,” he said.

What really happened on July 23?

The toxic distrust for the Kabul government is all-pervasive among the supporters of the Enlightening Movement. This is most starkly demonstrated in the complete dismissal of the official version of what happened on July 23.

The shoes of victims are seen at the site of blast in Kabul, Afghanistan July 23, 2016. Credit: Reuters

The shoes of victims are seen at the site of blast in Kabul, Afghanistan July 23, 2016. Credit: Reuters

At their rented second floor apartment in Lajpat Nagar-II, the convalescing group of survivors animatedly discuss the ‘reasons’ they believe the government is behind the attack. One theory points to the type of RDX used in the bomb (which they say is only used by the government), while another refers to the suicide attacker. “Some people say that the Canadians had caught him and handed him to the government just 15 days. So how was he involved in the suicide attack?” asked Baqir. Naturally, the Afghan government flatly rejects such talk.

“The issue of activists and other Hazaras being convinced that not Daesh [ISIS], but rather the Afghan government, was behind the attack, is certainly influenced by the ingrained sense of discrimination, but I will not simply dismiss what so many people are saying as pure fantasy, as some experts have done,” asserts Chiovenda, who was in Afghanistan in early August.

Reports of Afghan forces shooting into the crowd in the aftermath of the blast have added to the conspiracy theories of governmental involvement. The shooting, as per some reports, was to target a third suicide bomber. So far, no other credible actors, besides the movement’s supporters, have disputed that ISIS was behind the attack.

“When Mr Ghani came to see me in [the] hospital in Kabul, I told him this is a genocide. He said that he announced that it was [a] crime against humanity. I categorically told him that [constituting an] investigation committee is not acceptable, as the government directly or indirectly has hand in this tragedy,” said Omid.

The Enlightening Movement has called for a joint investigation into the July 23 blast, led by the UN and with representatives from civil society group and the government.

Power dynamics

Despite the Bonn agreement, Hazara activists claim that they do not have an equitable share in the ethnic power equation. “The president is Pashtun, head of executive is Tajik and parliament is Uzbek. Again, the judicial power is in [the] hand[s] of Pashtun. When you come to key ministries like defence, finance, interior and foreign ministry, there are no Hazaras. Even in security forces, national security council chief is a Pashtun, National Directorate of Security chief is Pashtun, defence minister is Pashtun and the interior minister is Tajik. If dividing power is [done] by ethnic[ity], then it should be justly shared. If it is by merit, then we welcome that,” said Omid.

Ruttig, a veteran scholar on the country, disagrees with the Hazaras that have not gotten a share of the power pie in the post-2001 scenario. “The Hazaras are well-represented, but they are also fragmented. And maybe, a non (or not only-) Hazara reform movement would be better than concentrating on ethnic policies only.” He feels that there is a “still a gap between the legal and real situation,” but “progress also needs to be recognised.” “Yes, I agree, Bonn has only been implemented very superficially in many aspects. But the problem is larger – there is a lack of de-militarisation of the entire Afghan society and that includes the Hazara part of it. There is also discrimination (or marginalisation) of non-Hazaras in Hazara majority areas”.

While broadly agreeing that discrimination against Hazaras was still present, Chiovenda also noted that nearly all parties in Afghanistan have their share of disappointments over Bonn.

“I have encountered people who feel uncomfortable when they encounter a Hazara in a position of power, indicating a deep-rooted sort of prejudice that they are at least aware of and people who openly discriminate and say they would never hire a Hazara for a position, for example. On the other hand, I believe the feeling that the promise of the Bonn conference not having been implemented is something felt by many Afghans from all groups,” she said.

About the Hazaras’ complaint of not having enough representation at the high table, she flags a “complicating factor” of Hazaras not viewing the Sayeds among them as member of their ethnic group.

“Many Sayeds, because of their particular status, have maintained political power while resentment against them by ethnic Hazaras has increased – even as Hazaras might continue voting for them because of their holy status. I know this is not consistent but it is what happens. Among non-Hazaras, however, Shia Sayeds from Hazara areas are considered Hazaras and the political position they hold are counted as positions given to Hazaras.”

Mohammad Mohaqiq. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mohammad Mohaqiq. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the Hamid Karzai administration, former vice president Karim Khalili was a prominent Hazara face. In the beleagured National Unity government, prominent Hazara roles are filled by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s deputy Mohammad Mohaqiq and Ghani’s second vice-president Sarwar Danesh.

Even as they sat far away from their homeland, the scorn for the Hazara leadership in the government among supporters of the Enlightening Movement had not lost its intensity. “They are like businessmen now. The ancient leaders only think of their own benefits. That’s why we don’t want them,” said Esmatullah Ranjbar, an earnest 24-year-old native of Ghazni. He went to the July 23 rally with a group of five friends – two of them never returned.

When some Hazara politicians arrived at the funeral held on July 25 for the 80 people who died at Deh Mazang, they had to beat a retreat before angry mobs smashed car windows.

“It is another consequence of Bonn non-implementation. Afghanistan’s ambiguous presidential system with some strong parliamentarian elements. But without a strong role of political parties in it, exempts the leaders to take [a] clear stance whether they are in government or in opposition. Often, they try to be both at the same time,” Ruttig said.

On the Facebook pages of young Hazaras, memes expressing contempt for these leaders are as common as their posts expressing anguish over those killed on July 23.

The antipathy for the old-style political leaders may have increased during the Enlightenment Movement, which “is interpreted by many as most important for being a move away from these traditional leaders to a younger, more idealistic generation”. “At the most basic level, there is a belief that collaboration with the government has resulted in a sort of selling out of Hazara interests,” explains Chiovenda.

A deeper “ideological roots for the disdain” could be the widespread feeling that these leaders have betrayed the ideals of the revered Hazara Mujahideen leader, Abdul Ali Mazari. After Mazari’s death, his party Hizb-e-Wahdat splintered into four groups, with Mohaqiq and Khalili leading two of them. “Their political wrangling to get ahead in the federal government is seen as at odds with the ideals of Mazari – certainly by the activists, and now by more and more Hazaras in general,” she asserted.

The Iran factor

As a Shiite minority, the Hazaras are commonly criticised for being proxies for Iranian interests. In reality, while Iran has close relations with leaders like Mohaqeq, most Hazaras view their western neighbour with more ambiguity.

The Hazaras’ view on Tehran, said Ruttig, is shaped by “both the ongoing experience of discrimination in Iran and the feeling of being used as political tools – although the leaders also never really said no to Iranian support”.

Omid claims the Enlightening Movement has had a “very bad relationship with Iran, as Mohaqiq, who opposes us, has close relation[s] with Iran”.

The property dealer Baqir, discharged and recovering from his wounds in a South Delhi apartment located above shops that advertise their wares in Pashto and Dari, was emphatic that Iran had “damaged” the Hazara cause. “Iran was behind the break-up of Mazari’s Wahdat party,” he claimed, as his fellow roommates and blast survivors nodded in assent.

His young roommate, Sayedjawad Roish, chimed in. “Just because, we are Shias, everyone thinks that we are pro-Iran. Actually, we are better than them”.

Chiovenda points out that Mazari’s Wahdat party had focused on ethnicity rather than Shi’ism as its foundation, with most Hazaras resentful that Iran was trying to export its version of Shi’ism to Afghanistan.

“…There is a feeling among many that Iran has hijacked Shi’ism. Which is to a degree true, at the highest levels of clergy. Many Hazaras are upset by this and believe they are better suited following an Afghan Shi’a cleric who can better understand their problems in Afghanistan. So there is this strange relationship whereby Hazaras receive support from Iran, live there as refugees, go there as pilgrims…but also view Iran with contempt,” she said.

Carrying on

Ghani visited Bamyan on Monday, where he inaugurated a new airport and the Bamyan-Kabul road. But his trip was marred by preventive arrests of Enlightening Movement activists and the attack on media persons at an anti-Ghani protests. Human Rights Watch even called for an urgent probe on the police action against journalists.

Meanwhile, the ‘traditional’ Hazara leaders have apparently asked to be part of the Chehlom event, organised by the movement to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period. “Mohaqiq and Khalili want to join us on Friday,” Omid said.

The legacy of the July 23 bomb blast will certainly mould the movement’s future tactics. Chiovenda feels the movement, which is known for its street mobilisation, “might take a different form”, with intensive social media campaigns and lobbying with the UN and other foreign governments.

From 3 pm on September 1, the movement activists have kept up a stream of Facebook posts and tweets with the hashtag ‘justice4hazaras’. Ranjbar, who is now back in Kabul, created a Twitter account on Thursday to join the online activism.

Zulfiqar Khan Omid at the September 2 rally. Credit: Facebook

Zulfiqar Khan Omid at the September 2 rally. Credit: Facebook

On the morning September 2, Ranjbar joined thousands of other activists and supporters at Kabul’s Hazara-dominated Dasht-e-Barchi to mark the end of the mourning for the victims of the July 23 bomb blast. With security being the top concern, it was held in an open space, but with a wall to allow for crowd regulations.

For four hours, thousands sat and listened to leaders, both from the Enlightening Movement and traditional leaders, waving flags and placards calling for an end to discrimination. In the end, there was a call for the next demonstration to be held on September 27 – not just in Kabul, but also in other capitals around the world.

Ruttig describes the prospects of the government changing the TUTAP route as “very dim”. “But it needs to be added that the question is whether the just demand of Bamiani and other Hazaras – that they want to have electrical power – is directly linked to the TUTAP line. There are some in Bamyan who know that such a line also carries dangerous consequences for the environmentally vulnerable central region,” he added.

At the same time, he believes that the Enlightening movement will endure. “I do not expect that the movement will give up, despite losing the support of some of the hazara party leaders,” he said.

For young Hazaras like Ranjbar, there was no choice but to keep up the momentum. “Now if we keep calm about power, they will forcefully dominate us again and again in the future. We have decided to struggle against all discrimination but power is the start[ing] point of strong revolution,” he said, as he furiously posted on his social media accounts.