January 14, 2023
BY MOHAMMAD MUSA MAHMODI
The family of 20-year-old Vahida Heydari, who was a victim of a suicide bombing on a Hazara education center, goes to her grave for a mourning ceremony, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports the Taliban have essentially wiped out 30 years of developments, concluding that “current conditions are similar to those under the Taliban in the 1990s.” AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
In the final weeks of 2022, the Taliban made headlines for banning women in Afghanistan from working in humanitarian organizations and attending universities. These moves are being rightfully condemned but should come as no surprise.
Since taking control of Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban has worked to exclude parts of Afghan society from public life. The increasing exclusion of women has drawn the most international attention. But the Taliban has also sought to erase religious and ethnic minority groups. Often, these aims converge.
In September, a suicide bombing of the Kaaj Education Center in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, killed more than 50 people, most of them high-school-aged girls. The attack was a particularly horrific example of the brutal campaign against girls’ education. It also targeted a minority group that has suffered decades of violence and discrimination: the Hazaras, a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnic minority.
As a Hazara and the former executive director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, I stand with Afghan women and with the Hazara people. I urge the United States to recognize the atrocities in Afghanistan for what they are: crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.
The Kaaj Center attack, which cut short the lives of brave and talented Hazara students who were preparing for the Afghan college entrance exam, was not an isolated incident. Since the Taliban took control, its forces and the Islamic State of Khorasan have escalated their attacks on Afghan Hazaras. These attacks have killed or injured at least 700 people.
The perpetrators of these atrocities have often explicitly singled out Hazaras, pulling them out of buses or cars and executing them while sparing members of other groups. Although the Taliban treats many segments of Afghan society cruelly, the Hazaras are uniquely vulnerable. The Taliban governs by spreading hatred based on religious, ethnic and racial divisions — and the Hazaras, who are the Taliban’s primary targets along each of these axes of difference, suffer the most destructive consequences.
In an attempt to moderate their international image after the fall of Kabul, Taliban authorities pledged to ensure security for Afghanistan’s religious minorities. These were false promises. In reality, the Taliban has used its power to remove Hazara leaders from all levels of government, discriminate against Hazaras in distributions of humanitarian aid and evict thousands of Hazara families from their homes.
Today, the lives of millions of Hazaras are increasingly precarious. A 20-year-old woman who was a victim injured in the Kaaj Center attack told a human rights investigator: “Whenever we go out, there is a possibility that we will not live to return home. Our cars will be attacked, as will our schools. Wherever we are, at any moment, we will be attacked. We are their target.”
The United States has a legal obligation to prevent the crime of genocide. President Biden has a moral duty to keep his promises to the Afghans who worked to achieve a free, equal and democratic Afghanistan.
The United States should, as a start, publicly condemn and investigate atrocities like the Kaaj Center attack.
International scrutiny is important because, in the resurgence of violence against the Hazaras, it is not always clear who is directly responsible for the attacks. The relationship between the Taliban and the Islamic State of Khorasan, which includes many former Taliban members, is murky. In the past, both groups have exploited this uncertainty by exaggerating their role in some attacks and denying responsibility in others.
The United States should support a United Nations inquiry into attacks in Afghanistan, including the attacks against the Hazaras — just as it supported the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, which collected evidence of crimes, including genocide, against the Rohingya.
Without international pressure, attacks on Hazaras will continue with impunity. In the months since the Kaaj Center bombing, the Taliban has made no effort to investigate the attack or hold the perpetrators accountable. Victims see no prospects for justice in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The 20-year-old Kaaj Center attack survivor said: “In the previous government, there were some who could hear our voice, but now, there is no one left who cares about us. On the day of the attack, the Taliban didn’t even allow people to give blood to the wounded.”
The brutal tactics that the Islamic State of Khorasan is directing against Hazaras under the Taliban recall the darkest days of Afghanistan’s history. For more than a century, successive Afghan regimes have oppressed, enslaved and exploited Hazaras.
Between 1892 and 1901, Abdur Rahman Khan, Afghanistan’s ruling Amir, led a merciless military campaign — a state-backed jihad — against Hazaras. Historians estimate that more than 60 percent of the Hazara population was killed or enslaved. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, its forces massacred thousands of Hazara civilians in Mazar-i-Sharif and Bamiyan and imposed food embargoes on areas where Hazaras resisted the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Neither the United States nor the international community has ever recognized the long history of genocide against the Hazaras in Afghanistan. This failure — and the impunity that international silence allows — has set the stage for the genocidal campaign that the Taliban and the Islamic State of Khorasan are waging today.
Formally recognizing the 1892-1901 Hazara genocide and investigating ongoing crimes are important first steps. But the United States must also provide concrete support to the Hazaras, as part of its commitment to provide essential assistance to the Afghan people after the August 2021 military withdrawal. The Biden administration should prioritize providing humanitarian visas for Afghan Hazaras, especially the young Hazara women whose futures are being deliberately destroyed.
After the tragic losses of the Kaaj Center attack, protesters took to the streets both inside and outside Afghanistan to demand an end to Afghanistan’s genocide of the Hazaras. Online, millions of people have joined the movement; the hashtag #StopHazaraGenocide has been used on Twitter more than 16 million times. The international community, led by the United States, must heed these calls and take action. The survival of the Hazaras depends on it.
Mohammad Mahmodi is a Tom and Andi Bernstein Visiting Human Rights Fellow at the Schell Centre for International Human Rights at Yale Law School. He previously served as executive director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission for 10 years, from 2009 to 2019.
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