Afghanistan is one of those countries where minority issues drive nearly everything. They form the basis for why President Hamid Karzai is “the best game in town,” but also why he should resign. They form the fundamental structure of the national government, with ethnic set-asides (Kuchis get 10 seats in Parliament, Tajiks and Hazara each get a Vice-Presidency), warlordism (no one will dare move against Abdulrashid Dostum's ethnic Uzbek enclave in the north), and generally a tense unease between various people groups.
Because this situation is not new, it sometimes gets ignored in the face of the Taliban insurgency. But sometimes ethnic rivalries boil over into outright disputes. In Wardak province, just west and south of Kabul, the Hazara have a long-standing feud with the nomadic Kuchi over land rights. On Tuesday, July 8—the day after the horrific bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul—a band of Kuchis moved into the Behsud district of Wardak and killed several Hazaras, taking at least four hostage and claiming the “right” to use their land. The Rumi reports:
In April, Human rights workers expressed fears that Hazaras were planning to take up arms against Kuchis who settled on their land.
“Given that both parties lack confidence in the government's ability to solve their disputes they may try to defeat each other by violent means,” Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission said.
Kuchis, who are predominantly Pashtuns, traditionally move all over the country in search of green pastures for their livestock and, at the start of each spring, many travel to the central provinces, where most of Afghanistan’s Hazaras live.
Kuchi elders complain that Hazaras have enjoyed strong international support since the Taliban’s fall, while Kuchis have been perceived as collaborators of the mainly Pashtun Taliban.
In July 2007, after several people were reportedly killed in clashes between Kuchi herders and Hazara settlers in Behsud district, President Karzai set up a commission to come up with a solution. Then commission has yet to report its finding.
Very quickly, a blog to help the victims of the attack was set up. A relatively recent blog-based clearing house for Hazara issues, Hazarajat Times, picked up a story that would grow in significance: Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, a Hazara Member of Parliament, first warned that the Kuchi incursion would lead to civil war if it was not resolved, then began a hunger strike on July 16 to end the conflict. He drew some rather surprising supporters, such as Abdulrashid Dostum, and within days hundreds had pledged to join in the strike.
Since the current conflict was eerily similar to the exact same clash that happened in July of 2007, many Hazara were deeply frustrated at the perceived inaction of Kabul. So they planned a protest.
By July 21, Mohaqiq was trying desperately to spread the word about the clashes (which were almost entirely unreported in the West). The Rumi captured most of what he said:
He said “over 15 villagers including children and women have been gunned down while 20,000 persons have been displaced fleeing the barbarism of Al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters”.
Mohaqiq expressed disappointment towards human rights organizations, media and UN for not taking any serious notice of the invasion and strongly appealed the international community, human rights organizations and United Nations to intervene and avoid Kuchi nomads massacring the people of Behsud District…
Last year on June 23, 2007 there was a giant peaceful public demonstration in Kabul against the Government to resolve the “Kuchi Headache” for ever “The international community, NATO led coalition forces, United Nations and Human Rights’ organizations are needed to look into the matter and get rid of the “headache” meeting the human rights of the downtrodden people of central highlands” he added.
About this time, some Farsi/Dari-language media began to cover the incursion. Quqnoos has a disturbing video of some Hazara victims of the attack.
In posting the above video, The Rumi angrily wondered why President Karzai seemed to be doing nothing:
Kabul government sent police forces to stop the Kuchis but in this video you can see the kuchi-armed groups dressed in Taliban style are walking in front of National Police. Why the police forces cannot take their weapons? What is so special for the kuchies to be armed while the rest of the ethnicities are disarmed?
About this time, Mohaqiq was reportedly weakening. Registan.net noted that the ethnic issues surrounding the conflict had much more complex roots, and warns against assuming it is all about the Taliban:
Many Hazara claim the Kuchi are “Taliban,” or at least Taliban-loving, because during the 90s they worked with the Taliban, who granted them access to Hazara (and Tajik) land. Naturally the Hazara are angry over this imbalance.
Here’s the rub. As a predominantly Pashtun force, the Taliban were rather notorious for their appalling treatment of all other minorities within Afghanistan, including (or perhaps especially) the Hazara. In fact, the imposed famine on the Hazarajat was particularly brutal and generally unreported in the media in the West.
Wardak is about half Pashtun, with most of the rest (somewhere around 40%, according to unreliable official statistics) Hazara…It seems, in brief, a fairly standard nomad/settler conflict, with the consequent disputes over land used both for agriculture and grazing. These types of conflicts become especially acute during times of drought or shortage, and the current squeeze over food prices, and a looming drought in the south, have probably exacerbated the conflict.
The next day, July 22, Safrang noted that thousands of people took to the streets of Kabul, demanding the government put a stop to the depredation.
The march started around 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning in Dasht-e-Barchi area of West of Kabul and proceeded towards the city center and the offices of the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. Several news agencies have put the number of demonstrators at “thousands”. By mid-day, Farda TV reported that the demonstrations were over and no incidents had taken place. Farda TV also aired footage of the demonstrations showing people in thousands marching in large thoroughfares of the city, advancing towards the center of the city.
Footage also showed police in riot gear standing around, and in some cases lining up on the main streets at a distance from the demonstrators, blocking their advance. Faced with the riot police, some among the demonstrators encouraged those at the head of the demonstrations to sit down and not advance any further, avoiding contact with the riot police and keeping a distance of 15 meters or so.
It was hard to read many of the placards and banners held up by demonstrators on TV screen. Those that I could read included:
“We oppose ethnic conflict and those who support/encourage it”
“The government should stand with defenseless civilians of Behsud”
“We want Justice”
The protests seem to have worked. Amidst a crowd Hazaristan Times estimated at 300,000, Mohaqiq ended his hunger strike, having met with both Karzai and UNAMA officials about the incursion. They posted some beautiful pictures. And President Karzai ordered an evacuation of the Kuchi, who by all accounts are slowly leaving the embattled district.
At what cost, however? The Hazaristan Times started a donation drive to financially assist Hazara who had their homes razed or family members killed. The images they post are gruesome, but help to highlight just how severe this sadly ignored problem really was.