The Hazaras, who inhabit Afghanistan's central highlands, have traditionally been among the poorest and most powerless groups in the country. But Afghanistan's recent decades of war, and particularly the fight against the Taliban, have created a new sense of strength within the Hazara community that could change its prospects for the future. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from the central highlands in this third and final part of a series on the Hazaras.
Durai Fuladi, Afghanistan; 2 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the heart of Afghanistan's central highlands, some 40 minutes by car west of Bamiyan City, lies the small hamlet of Durai Fuladi.
The hamlet is typical of the Hazara settlements that cover the region. It is a compact, tidy group of houses made of earth-and-straw bricks near a sparkling mountain river. In the center of the town is a large madrassah, or religious school, and in the outskirts are carefully tended plots of land surrounded by neat stone walls.
The central highlands is among the poorest regions in Afghanistan, with just 10 percent of its land suitable for cultivation. But the Hazaras -- widely believed to be descendents of intermarriages between Ghengis Khan's Mongol warriors and indigenous Tajik and Turkic peoples -- are self-sufficient and have made it a pleasant home.
The men are almost all farmers, growing potatoes and cereals. The women wear brightly colored clothes and headscarves, but rarely the burqa. When left in peace, the villagers even manage to grow enough surplus potatoes to supply other parts of Afghanistan.
But recent years have rarely been peaceful in the central highlands, known because of its inhabitants as the Hazarajat. Afghanistan's some 3-4 million Hazaras have historically had tense relations with Afghanistan's majority Pashtun community, and the past five years of Taliban rule have been particularly bad.
The Pashtun-based, Sunni fundamentalist Taliban targeted the Hazaras as special enemies because they, unlike most Afghans, practice Shiism, which the militia considered outside of Islam.
The evidence of the Taliban's intolerance toward the Hazaras is easy to see in Durai Fuladi, just as it is in hundreds of other towns and villages in the region. The stores along the street leading into town were burned by the Taliban, who occupied the area until U.S. air strikes destroyed the militia after 7 October. The town was forcibly cleared by the Taliban of its population, which fled to the mountains or elsewhere in the Hazarajat held by the Hazaras' own forces. To be sure that people did not return, the Taliban burned many homes, too.
Ahmadi Taqalos is a teacher at the religious school who came back a month ago. He and several other teachers have just reopened the madrassah, which before the Taliban had 500 students from the surrounding area. Now there are just 50 students who are resuming their study of the Koran and the tenets of Shiism, one of the two main branches of Islam.
Taqalos, who is 35, says he cannot explain why the Taliban's hatred of Shiism and the Hazaras ran so deep. He says the militia simply wanted to drive both out of Afghanistan: "The Taliban had no love for the Hazaras. The reason is that they did not want to accept the Hazara people and their religion. They burned houses and killed poor people."
Now that the Taliban is gone, Taqalos says he only hopes for peace between Afghanistan's various communities. And he, like many Hazaras, is looking to the country's new interim administration as the best chance in many years to address some of the continuing frictions between his people and the Pashtuns. The reason is that the Hazaras, as members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, now hold several ministerial posts in the administration, giving them an important voice in its affairs.
In Bamiyan City, the guesthouse of the Hazara's largest political party, the Hezbe Wahdat, is filled with local dignitaries waiting to see party chief Karim Khalili. At the moment, Khalili is in the capital, Kabul. But the visitors, who have traveled for hours over the region's bad roads, are happy to wait a few days until he returns. The guesthouse itself is the only functioning public accommodation in Bamiyan, where the Taliban burned many homes as the city changed hands several times in fighting.
Khalili's secretary is Sattar Nilli, a quiet man in his late 20s who studied medicine at the University of Mazar-i-Sharif. Now engaged in politics, he says he still wants to return to his studies, which were interrupted by the warfare.
Nilli says he is optimistic that peace will now take hold in Afghanistan because many of the principal commanders in the country are now participating in the government. He says each day that passes without trouble builds popular confidence.
But he also says that the Hezbe Wahdat, which he claims had some 6,000 troops fighting the Taliban, has no plans to disarm before the country's other factions do the same. And he says 1,000 of the party's soldiers are deployed on the borders of the Hazarajat near Kabul and that another 1,000 are on the region's border near the southeastern city of Ghazni.
Those deployments, he says, are purely defensive because "the Hazaras have always been victims of war." Then he adds: "Now, God willing, they won't be victims again."
The Hazaras keeping their soldiers at the ready is in line with the standard practice of all factions in Afghanistan. But it also may signal a new self-awareness within the community of its own military strength. And that awareness could change the way the Hazaras view some long-standing practices in Afghanistan they previously have had to accept.
One of these is a seasonal migration into the Hazarajat each summer by Pashtun nomads who claim grazing rights over large parts of the region, including cultivated land. At the same time, the nomads have also acted as traders and bankers for the local peasantry, who often are heavily indebted to them.
Nilli says the nomads' grazing on farmland and what he calls their extortionate collection of payments continued in the past because Pashtun-dominated governments supported it: "Because the state supported them, [the nomads used the pasture lands and] also extorted money from people and intimidated them by force. This also continued during the Taliban time. And now we hope we will have no such Pashtun actions in the future."
The Hezbe Wahdat official says that his party intends to use its influence in the interim administration to end the practice. And he says the issue is likely to be a test of the Hazaras' confidence in the new government: "The nomads were encouraged by the state to go to Bamiyan Province. If the government [of Hamid Karzai] encourages them to do that [again], we will not have confidence in that government."
Pressed on whether any new nomadic incursions during the coming summer could lead to armed resistance by Hazara fighters, Nilli answers, "Yes."
As the Hazaras prepare to exercise their political power in Kabul to redress such grievances, the central highlands itself is in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis. International aid agencies have delivered or dispatched some 30,000 tons of cereals to the region to assure its population will survive the winter.
The Taliban's clearances of villages and the years of fighting in the Hazarajat uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, who will depend on international assistance for food and shelter at least until spring. Then they will require new supplies of seeds and livestock if they are to begin rebuilding the region's once self-sustaining, farm-based economy.