A file photo from a protest by Afghan Hazaras in Kabul. The community has historically faced persecution in the country | Reuters
A file photo from a protest by Afghan Hazaras in Kabul. The community has historically faced persecution in the country | Reuters

The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan has also meant the return of fear for Afghan Hazaras, who faced brutal persecution at the hands of the Taliban during their last stint in power. Thousands of them have made their way across the border to Pakistan, a country with its own history of persecution of the Hazaras. One Afghan Hazara woman shares why she decided to make the move

On a September afternoon, an imambargah on the outskirts of Quetta is quieter than it has been over the past few weeks. The mostly Hazara Afghan refugees who had been living here have been asked to move out because of the fear of a raid.

Some of the refugees who had been staying at the imambargah have temporarily moved to a rented house. Upon entering the house, one is reminded of communal hostel living during college days. One kitchen, five rooms and many residents.

Zahida*, an Afghan woman barely in her thirties, is sitting in the room occupied by her and her family. They clearly have not travelled with many possessions. The most prominent thing is a packet of medicines.

Zahida’s shawl partially hides her amputated leg; her swollen eyes hide many stories. She shares some of them and her long journey with Eos.

***

On August 15, the world watched in disbelief as the Afghan Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. When President Ashraf Ghani flew out of his country it sent shockwaves around the globe. ‘What now?’ a great many confused commentators wondered in the media. But while those on the outside were coming to terms with how swiftly the Afghan government had fallen, many in Afghanistan had to quickly think of what to do next.

For Zahida, a Hazara woman, the question of ‘What now?’ became relevant in early August, when the Taliban started capturing different cities.

Zahida was a schoolteacher in Herat and her husband owned a medical store there. As the Taliban seemed to move in closer and closer to them, the couple decided to leave for Kabul, which was generally believed to be more secure. Surely, the Taliban forces couldn’t defeat the mighty Afghan army, they thought.

With the Taliban taking control of cities around them, the Hazara couple’s worst fears were coming true. The Hazaras, who now make up an estimated nine percent of Afghanistan’s population, have historically faced prejudice, mistreatment and violence in Afghanistan. But things relatively improved for them after the collapse of the Taliban rule in 2001.

Afghans such as Zahida fear that the Taliban’s return means a return of violence and persecution for the country’s mostly Shia Hazara population.

As the Taliban approached Herat, Zahida and her husband knew it was time for them to leave. Her pay had been pending for the last three months, but the couple decided to leave it behind. They started selling all their belongings at throwaway prices. And, at last, on August 10, they left for Kabul with their children.

Two days later, Herat fell into the hands of the Taliban. They had escaped right in time, they thought. But their troubles were far from over.

In a matter of days, the Taliban would take control of Zahida’s country. And, in a matter of weeks, her family would be one of the thousands of Hazara families seeking refuge across the border in Pakistan.

THE FALL OF KABUL

Evacuees crowd the interior of a US tranport aircraft en route to Qatar | Reuters
Evacuees crowd the interior of a US tranport aircraft en route to Qatar | Reuters

When Zahida’s family reached Kabul, they found the city packed with people from all over Afghanistan. Everyone was rushing towards the capital for security against the Taliban. Many of them were Hazara Shias. The Hazaras were aware of the sectarian discrimination by the Taliban in the past and could simply not afford to trust them.

The family started temporarily staying at a friend’s house while searching for a place for themselves. But their search was cut short when, on August 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul.

Fear and confusion could be felt in the air. Kabul had become a textbook example of mayhem and chaos. Everyone started going towards the airport as they were told that US flights were airlifting people to America. The airport became another madhouse; people were climbing on each other, people hanging from planes. “My husband and I decided to wait for a few days because of my health — I am diabetic and cannot afford any fatigue and tension,” says Zahida.

On August 24, Zahida’s family went to the airport. Some of their relatives had gotten on a plane to the US, so they also decided to try their luck. It was tough to get in, with scores of people waiting to escape. “I sat in the shadow of a wall, covered from the top with barbed wire,” she recalls. “With each passing day, we were getting closer to the gate,” she adds.

With the Taliban taking control of cities around them, the Hazara couple’s worst fears were coming true. The Hazaras, who now make up an estimated nine percent of Afghanistan’s population, have historically faced prejudice, mistreatment and violence in Afghanistan.

On August 26, Zahida and her family were almost at the entrance gate when a massive explosion rocked the airport.

AFTER THE BLAST

Zahida and her family started running towards secure ground. After the blast, firing began. “We were running. I was breathless and ran for not more than 10 minutes when I started feeling pain in my left leg,” she says. “I asked my husband to sit somewhere.”

When she sat on a low wall to recover some energy, she noticed that her trousers were drenched in blood. She asked her husband to see what had happened. “Let me bring a wheelbarrow to carry you to the hospital,” he responded. “Something has hit you.”

It took Zahida’s husband some time to find a wheelbarrow. By the time he returned, the pain was unbearable. Her leg was numb and she couldn’t feel it. “I was almost unconscious when he rushed me to the hospital,” she says.

Even in her condition, Zahida couldn’t help but notice that the hospital was full of people who had been injured in the blast. She was quickly taken to the operation theatre and a bullet was taken out of her leg.

When she woke up, it was close to early morning. The doctor advised Zahida to leave the hospital as they needed the room for treating patients with more severe injuries.

That is when Zahida’s family decided to leave for Quetta, Pakistan.

ROAD TO PAKISTAN AND BEYOND

Zahida’s husband hired a taxi from Kabul that charged them almost 175 dollars (over 29,000 Pakistani rupees) for the nearly 590-kilometre-long journey till Spin Boldak, which neighbours Chaman in Pakistan. It was a long journey, made longer by several checkpoints and dilapidated roads along the way.

“I was continuously taking painkillers, but the excruciating pain wouldn’t go away,” Zahida recalls. “I felt a deep ache in my leg but couldn’t check it because of the burqa I was wearing,” she says.

On the way to Spin Boldak, the family stopped to have lunch at a local hotel. Zahida went to check her leg and saw that it was turning black and blue. She didn’t know what to make of it, and neither did her husband. Besides, while on the road, they had no choice but to ignore it anyway.

The family reached the border 18 hours after they first started in Kabul. A middleman helped them cross the border, charging an additional fee for his services.

Zahida and her family finally reached Quetta early in the morning and went straight to an imambargah. Here they were given breakfast and Zahida fell asleep for a while. Her husband went out to fetch some supplies.

Zahida woke up with a fever and an excruciating pain in her leg. Her husband was sitting next to her. She told him she was not feeling well and needed to go to the doctor. He told her they couldn’t go because they were illegal refugees. She implored him to take her as she felt like she was dying.

Moved by her pleas, the imambargah’s caretaker called a community doctor who examined her and told her to go to a hospital. He said her leg had gangrened. “I didn’t understand him, but it seemed like things were not good,” she recalls. “He said he would sneak us into the Civil Hospital at night.”

They reached the hospital at midnight, where an on-duty doctor examined her. He was of the view that her leg would need to be amputated. “I wanted to die at that moment, but I had to live for my children,” Zahida tells Eos.

Her family was told that the operation would cost 50,000 rupees. They barely had 20,000.

The family asked for money from everyone at the imambargah, which had started to fill up with more Afghan Hazara refugees.

“I never knew I would have to beg for money to cut my leg,” Zahida says. “The next day I was taken to the hospital on two legs and came back with one”

THE SAFER OPTION

The plight of Hazaras in Pakistan is well-documented. But migrants such as Zahida believe that being here is a safer option than being in Afghanistan right now. Besides, most are only here temporarily and plan to travel further to Iran or Europe.

In a September 21 press conference, the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that they would consider putting women and members of the Hazara community in government positions. But most Hazaras, in Pakistan and back in Afghanistan, remain sceptical of these claims.

If there were any ambiguity about what the return of Taliban rule could mean for the Hazaras, it was removed by an August 19 report by Amnesty International, which found that Taliban fighters had massacred nine Hazara men after taking control of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in July.

“On-the-ground researchers spoke to eyewitnesses who gave harrowing accounts of the killings, which took place between 4-6 July in the village of Mundarakht, Malistan district,” the report says. According to the report, the brutal killings likely represent a small fraction of the total death toll, as the Taliban had cut mobile service in many areas that they had captured, controlling the photographs and videos shared from the regions.

But as the group seized control of the entire country, the violent imagery of what had happened was etched in the memories of those who had witnessed the atrocities. Zahida is just one of them, her amputated leg being a constant reminder of the hysteria and fear that came to Afghanistan with the Taliban rule.

Thousands of other stories remain unheard.


Continue reading: EXIT AFGHANISTAN


*Name changed to protect identity

The writer is a Chevening Scholar and received his Masters in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. He tweets @f_kasi

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 26th, 2021

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