15 Sep 2021

Afghanistan: Hazara minority fearful of future under Taliban rule

International Editor

Dozens of female footballers and their families have managed to escape from Afghanistan across the border to Pakistan, including one group who’d been in hiding after their homes were burned down and some relatives were captured by the Taliban.

But there are entire communities left behind who are now living in fear, like the Hazara minority, who are reluctant to believe Taliban promises that they won’t be persecuted.

Channel 4 News travelled to the largely Hazara province of Bamiyan to find out more. 

There’s only gaping holes now where the 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas once stood.

They were destroyed in 2001 on the orders of a Taliban committee that included Afghanistan’s new head of government Mullah Hassan Akhund.

The Taliban say it’ll be different this time and they won’t persecute the Hazara people of Bamiyan, who they revile for being Shia and not Sunni Muslims.

And yet they have desecrated the statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a champion of Hazara rights, who they murdered in 1995.

We met two young women who’ve worked for foreign organisations in Bamiyan. They’re liberal, even liberated, and they panicked when the Taliban stormed into town last month.

One of the women, whose identity we have hidden for her protection, said: “We were wearing high heels, and we were so scared, worrying how we would escape if the Taliban came.

“We thought we needed trainers, so we could run. So we bought trainers but then we couldn’t find a car. We said, ‘Oh God what shall we do now?'”

Both of them hid in farming villages with their families, but they returned to see if they could somehow carry on working, one as a journalist, the other as a women’s rights activist.

The other woman said: “I’m trying my best. For 20 years women have worked hard. I don’t want our endeavours and passion just to disappear.”

The local bazaar, which would previously have been full of tourists and foreign NGO workers, is now patrolled by the Taliban.

Very few Hazaras joined the Taliban but Channel 4 News spoke to one of the most notorious – Mawlawi Mahdi.

He was imprisoned for extortion and abduction and he signed up when he came out of jail.

He said: “”When foreign countries invade us on a false premise, even if they only get one metre inside our land by force, our religion demands that we stand and defend our people.”

The fighters, he said, were treating the people so well that the Taliban now have no enemies in Bamiyan.

The Taliban are clearly trying to show their softer side. But people in Bamiyan have terrible memories of what happened last time, how they were persecuted for being Hazaras, for being Shia, not Sunni Muslims. So many have fled, and others are just terrified, they don’t trust the Taliban.

Mahdi’s deputy Mawlawi Besri, another Hazara, was also on message.

Women don’t have to cover their faces, he said, just their hair.

He added: “Our Islamic Emirate leaders have told the fighters that they should not interfere with people’s culture or beliefs, especially the Shia people. We have convinced them not to be afraid.”

But people whispered something different when the Talibs weren’t listening.

Everyone’s buying cloth to make traditional clothes, fearing the Taliban won’t tolerate people wearing jeans and shirts.

One man had a story of a relative beaten savagely for parking his car in the wrong place. Another said he knew of villagers being forced to leave their homes.

The young women we met come from poor rural backgrounds, and feel they have to speak out.

One said: “We came here to raise the voice of village women who live far from the city, women who don’t even have the right to go to the bazaar without a male guardian. We have chosen to take this risk and it doesn’t matter what happens to us.”

The other added: “The most vulnerable in our society are women. I’ve worked with women’s rights for years as a journalist, in order to project their voices to the world. But now I don’t know if I’ll still be alive today or tomorrow.”

Afghans live in the shadow of war. In Bamiyan, Soviet tanks from the 1980s sprout like indestructible mushrooms. But people are not indestructible, and nor are the gains the Hazaras and women have made in the last two decades. In Bamiyan, the Taliban are smiling – but menace and dread lie just beneath the surface.

Producer: Anna McIntosh

Camera operator/editor: Soren Munk