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Afghanistan: Karzai's Visit To Hazara Region Underlines Community's New Clout

  • Charles Recknagel

Hamid Karzai's visit to Bamiyan this week brought promises that Kabul would help Afghanistan's poorest region recover by providing jobs and building new roads for trade. The promises won cheers from the region's ethnic Hazaras, who long have been one of the country's most marginalized groups but who have now gained political strength with the collapse of the Taliban.

Prague, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai made several pledges on 9 April on his first visit as the country's leader to Bamiyan in Afghanistan's central highlands. Standing before a crowd gathered at the foot of a steep escarpment into which once were carved two giant Buddhas, since destroyed by the Taliban, Karzai promised that Kabul will create jobs and new roads to revive the region's prostrate economy.

Karzai said, "the interim government intends to pave all the roads leading to central Afghanistan so that the people of the area can trade easily."

The promises of jobs and roads won loud cheers from the audience of ethnic Hazaras, who make up the region's population. Their homeland, known as the Hazarajat, has long been one of the most-cut-off regions of Afghanistan, and they have traditionally been one of its most marginalized minorities.

At the same time, Karzai expressed sympathy for the sufferings of the Hazaras -- who make up some 20 percent of the Afghan population -- under the now-deposed Taliban. The Sunni fundamentalist Taliban branded the Hazaras, who are Shiite Muslims, as heretics and singled them out for harsh treatment.

During the five years of Taliban rule, which collapsed last year under U.S.-led air strikes, the militia occupied much of the Hazarajat, sending tens of thousands of people to flight. The city of Bamiyan, like many parts of the region, changed hands several times in fierce fighting between the Taliban and the forces of the Hazaras' largest political party, the Hezb-i-Wahdat.

The excesses of the Taliban included the blowing up of Bamiyan's two 1,000-year-old Buddhas in an act of vandalism that outraged people around the world. The Taliban claimed they were cleansing Afghanistan of ancient idols.

Karzai paid tribute to the Hazaras' endurance, saying, "There's no doubt the whole of Afghanistan suffered and burned [under the Taliban] and people were killed, but the Hazaras and Bamiyan faced the most suffering." He also repeated a pledge that has been made by others in the interim government to rebuild the Buddhas -- a pledge that has yet to find international financial backing.

RFE/RL's Afghan Service recently spoke to Mohammad Rahim Aliyar, the governor of Bamiyan Province, about current conditions in the area.

Aliyar, who was appointed by the interim administration, told senior correspondent Zarif Nazar that security is not a problem in the province, which is now under the full control of the Hezb-i-Wahdat's militia. But he said the economic situation remains serious due to the ravages of the Taliban and years of drought. The region has been dubbed Afghanistan's "hunger belt" by United Nations relief officials, who have mounted a massive food-assistance effort this winter to fend off starvation.

The Bamiyan provincial governor said despite the food-distribution programs, residents of the region remain in desperate straits, with thousands of displaced people still unable to return to villages destroyed by the Taliban. Many of the families are sheltering in caves once carved by Buddhist monks into the escarpment beside Bamiyan's destroyed statues. They subsist on meager rations while struggling to survive the winter temperatures.

Aliyar said, "With reference to security in Bamiyan, there is total security and there is no problem. With restoration of peace, the emigres are returning to Bamiyan. [But] the important thing is that Bamiyan is really destroyed. Houses have been ruined, and farms sustained a lot of damage during the Taliban's rule. The economy is bad, and until now [people] have received no substantial aid from anywhere."

Karzai did not specify during his visit how much aid would be forthcoming for the central region's recovery or when it would arrive. The sad condition of the Central Highlands is mirrored in varying degrees in other parts of the country, where the economic infrastructure must be completely rebuilt. As one example of the reconstruction challenge nationwide, the Asian Development Bank reported this week that just 13 percent of Afghanistan's 21,000 kilometers of road are paved.

Still, the future prospects for the Central Highlands' Hazaras may be brighter than they have been in years, thanks in part to the very ravages they suffered under the Taliban. The war with the Taliban forced the Hazaras -- who for centuries have been marginalized in Afghan society by the majority Pashtuns -- to develop a powerful militia of their own, which, according to many reports, has 6,000 full-time soldiers.

That military strength made the Hazaras a significant partner in the loose Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban and has given the community political clout in the interim administration.

Hazara leaders have previously told RFE/RL that they count on their political power in Kabul to solve several age-old grievances with other communities, including tensions over annual spring incursions into the Hazarajat by ethnic Pashtun nomads. The Hazaras say the nomads -- who have enjoyed the support of past Pashtun-dominated governments, including the Taliban -- graze their flocks on arable land and use force to collect exorbitant interest on loans made to poor villagers.

One indication of the Hazaras' new position in Afghanistan's political strata may be Karzai's visit itself. His trip to Bamiyan comes as Afghanistan prepares to hold a Loya Jirga, or national assembly, in June, which will name a new 18-month government to lead the country to general elections. Karzai -- an ethnic Pashtun -- is widely considered to be interested in remaining the country's leader, and to do so, he must campaign for sufficient popular support to assure the Loya Jirga will give him that role.

The U.S. daily "The Boston Globe" described Karzai's visit to Bamiyan as "effectively, the first in a series of unofficial campaign whistle-stops Karzai is likely to make across the 32 provinces of Afghanistan in the coming two months to drum up support."

Karzai may have chosen Bamiyan not only to court the Hazaras but also because the region is particularly rich in tragic symbols of Afghanistan's past ethnic fighting. That is just the kind of history Karzai is promising the country will now put behind it.

Just days before his visit, residents of Bamiyan discovered three mass graves they believe are filled with people killed while the Pashtun-based Taliban controlled the area. The graves were found a week ago near Bamiyan airport.

Aliyar told our correspondent that the bodies in the graves are believed by locals to be people killed by the Taliban two years ago. "A few days ago, mass graves in two to three different areas were discovered by people quite by accident. In one or two cases, people -- before informing the officials -- verified some of the dead were family members and they buried them. In other cases, we investigated and discovered a few corpses in each of those graves. But due to the long passage of time, the corpses were beyond recognition. Most probably they are from 1999, when the Taliban were massacring their opponents and buried them in mass graves," Aliyar said.

The UN announced yesterday it is calling in international forensic experts to study the sites, saying enough evidence had been found to justify a thorough investigation.