Afghan Killings Highlight Risks to Ethnic Hazaras

In a year of alarming civilian casualties, it takes a lot to bring protesters out in sufficient numbers and bring the Afghan capital to a standstill. But that’s exactly what happened November 11, when thousands of Afghans took to the streets of Kabul to express outrage at another in a series of ethnic killings.

Last month, a group of passengers from Ghazni province was traveling by road through the highly insecure Zabul province when they were kidnapped, on November 9, by insurgents who slit their throats. All seven victims – including two pre-teen girls – were members of the predominantly Shia Hazara ethnic group, which has a long history of persecution in Afghanistan. No group has claimed responsibility for the brutal killings.

Photos of the victims circulated widely on social media, eliciting horror and outrage. Protesters directed their anger at the government and orchestrated a demonstration that started with a refusal to bury the victims quietly in their native Ghazni province. The coffins were brought to Kabul and carried through the streets; protesters kept vigil overnight in the cold and rain. The following morning, they carried the victims’ bodies to the Presidential Palace, where they chanted slogans against the Taliban insurgents and the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and asked the government to improve security and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Security in most parts of Afghanistan has deteriorated in 2015, and violence against civilians has worsened. Splintering within the Taliban has given rise to rival factions competing for power. The deputy leader of one of the main breakaway factions is Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, who was the Taliban’s governor of Balkh province during the August 1998 massacre of thousands of Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif. This faction, which reportedly has the support of ISIS, is active in the area of Zabul province where the seven Hazaras were killed.

While all civilians are at risk in areas of conflict in Afghanistan, the Zabul slayings highlight the particular dangers Hazaras face. In a number of incidents in the last two years, Hazara bus passengers have been separated from other passengers, abducted and, in some cases, killed.

In July 2014, a newlywed and her family were among 14 Hazaras traveling to Kabul when insurgents separated them from non-Hazara passengers and shot them execution-style. In April 2014, insurgents abducted and killed nine Hazara men, including a provincial council candidate, in the northern province of Sar-i-Pul. On April 2, 2015, the Taliban abducted 11 Hazara men, mostly laborers, travelling in Balkhab district of Sar-i-Pul province. The insurgents released the men two weeks later only after local elders, who are influential and sometimes successful mediators, intervened.

The slaying of the Zabul seven, an apparent war crime, is particularly worrying because it evokes fears that the persecution of Hazaras by Sunni extremists in Pakistan is spilling over into Afghanistan, as the Pakistan army cracks down on the Taliban and other insurgents there.

As protests against the slaying of the Zabul seven spread across the country, the chants of Kabul protesters turned into a popular chorus, strongly denouncing the violence and demanding safety and security. As the conflict intensifies and takes a terrible toll on civilians, all parties should abide by their obligation – and oft-repeated claim – to respect civilian lives.