Behsud: Kuchi atrocities?
The story is so small and on such a local level that nobody is particularly interested. With an ever-growing insurgency, are international readers really interested in a conflict within the conflict, in which there are no international actors, nor anyone the ‘international community’ need particularly pay heed to…
Even within Afghanistan, it doesn’t merit any attention from local journalists. This is undoubtedly on account of ethnic biases against the purported ‘victims’, the Hazaras.
Not that it’ll mean anything to most of the readers of this blog, but here’s one of the few videos made for local television (in this case Tolo’s Pashtu-language Lemar TV station) which shows images of Kuchi (/Taliban?) fighters in the district, as well as burned houses and those killed in the conflict:
The Hazara people who live in the three eastern districts of Wardak province – Behsud 1, Behsud 2 and Dai Mirdad – have been in some sort of conflict with the largely Pashtun Kuchi (or ‘nomad’) people for over 100 years. Hazaras claim that they are the original inhabitants of the land and that Kuchi groups are trying to force them off their land.
In recent decades there was some measure of balance in which the Hazara would allow some Kuchis grazing rights for their cattle and sheep. This became difficult to sustain in the past two or three years as the numbers of nomadic Kuchis who have arrived in the district has increased each year. Each summer Afghan media outlets report new deaths among the Hazara community in the district at the hands of Kuchis.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the Taliban, who are in de facto control of the western districts in Wardak province, have reportedly formed alliances with the Kuchis to force out Hazaras from the district. The Taliban hope that their support of the Kuchis – a majority of whom are Pashtuns – will buy loyalty and will allow them to take control of more of the province.
Some video from a trip I made last week to Wardak’s provincial capital, Maidan Shahr:
Recent research by the Senlis Council, an international think-tank, shows that over half of the province – just 45 minutes from Kabul by road – is under Taliban control. Behsud district so far has been relatively free of Taliban influence and as such remains out of their control.
The Hazaras – traditionally believed to be descendants of Genghis Khan’s hordes from the 13th century – are somewhat an anomaly in Afghanistan and are treated as such.
Kabul itself is now as much as 40% a Hazara city, and anywhere you go in the west of the city you find members of this massive underclass, ready to do the jobs nobody else wants. These neighborhoods are the closest thing Afghanistan has to a slum.
Casual racism dominates most passing discussion of the Hazara, and it is this that has in turn influenced the lack of local and foreign media interested in the issues of Behsud.
Afghan television and radio stations covered the big demonstration in Kabul on 23rd July (with over 50,000 demonstrators), but the root issues of the problem were never properly explored, and the stories of many went untold.
Last year, several journalists were able to visit Behsud on a day-trip with elders from the districts. Tom Coghlan, writing for the Telegraph newspaper (UK) reported:
With its lofty peaks, streams and carpet of wild flowers, Behsood ought to be a tourist’s delight. Instead, refugees are pouring out in clapped-out cars and minibuses; more than 4,000 are estimated to have fled so far. In the villages, week-old plates of half-eaten food sit on abandoned tables. link
This year, the conflict and displacement seems to have been bigger. I say ‘seems’ because I haven’t managed to visit the district myself to check. And listening to what’s going on through interlocutors here in Kabul just provokes confusion. Here’s a picture of some graffiti on the wall written by Kuchis last year.
A translation from the Pashtu reads:
Death to Karzai.
Death to the Hazara people. They have become American.
Death to the Americans. link
Tens of thousands of ethnic Hazaras closed down part of Kabul on Tuesday 22nd July in the afternoon in a demonstration calling for the Afghan President Hamid Karzai to resign over a land dispute in the eastern and neighbouring Wardak province.
At least 50,000 demonstrators crowded the streets near Kabul Zoo in southern Kabul and were preparing to progress on towards the city centre when one of the demonstration’s organizers, Hajji Mohammad Mohaqiq, called on the crowd to end the demonstration before it turned violent.
Hajji Muhaqiq (Photo: Philip Poupin) had been on a hunger strike for over a week in protest against what he said was the government’s inaction over the issue when we spoke to him on the day of the demonstrations. 51-years old, Muhaqiq previously served as planning minister under Karzai and is a senior leader of the Shi’a Hizb-e Wahdat (Unity Party).
The militia he commanded during the 1990s has often been accused by Afghan people, politicians and media outlets of committing atrocities against civilians.
Mr Muhaqiq said there was “no government to stop the Kuchis from traveling into the district with large amounts of weapons.” These Kuchis, who he claimed were coming from as far as North Waziristan (Pakistan) and the south-eastern Paktya province (Afghanistan), were in the hands of the Taliban now. These attacks and attempts to force Hazaras off their land showed that the Taliban were “trying to exert control over the province.”
Muhaqiq was keen to connect the problems in Behsud district with more general problems of Afghan governance. The President, he said, had set the country’s national unity back 10 years through his policies. Citing various ethnic slights in which Karzai – as a Pashtun – has been seen to ignore other groups, Mohaqiq said that only a new team and another president can bring Afghanistan back on the road to national unity.
Elders from Wardak told us that as many as 5000 families (with an average of 10 members per family) had been displaced to Kabul or to Bamyan on account of the fighting.
“Every family”, they said, had been affected in the conflict in the three districts. 80% of Behsud 1, 40% of Behsud 2 and 100% of the Hazaras in Dai Mirdad district had been forced out on account of the Kuchi incursions, we were told.
They saw the problems as a Pashtun government-led conspiracy against the Hazaras. “Why is Karzai doing this? We have no opium here? There is no insecurity. Why can’t he help us to develop the area instead of expelling us?” said Hajji Wakil Hani, head of the Wardak people’s shura or council.
Looking all the way back to Amir Sher Ali Khan, the elders said that it was the Amir Abdur Rahman who started the present wave of Hazara persecution.
62% of all Hazaras (they said) were either killed or displaced from their homes during this period.
But now, they reasoned, what was the point in disrupting the Hazarajat areas? “We just want our children to study. This year most of the schools are closed – last year as well – in these Behsud areas. In most of the Hazarajat there are no killings, no insecurity, but still Karzai threatens the people in the south. ‘You’ll get a Hazara government if you don’t sort things out…’ Karzai warns his fellow Pashtuns. What kind of a threat is that?” one of the speakers interjects.
The head of the Ulemaa’ (religious clerics) in Wardak, Agha Mobarez, asks, “What is Karzai doing? Why is he encouraging the destruction of the only place that is secure? And can we even talk about ‘Kuchis’ anymore? They live like everyone else.”
They pointed to the lack of electricity, medical clinics, and road-building in Kabul’s District 13, inhabited by around 1 million Hazaras, as evidence for the government’s lack of care.
The problems of the district have only increased with the influx of thousands of refugees – as many as 5,000 homes they estimate.
Mohammad Ali, 65, one of the refugees from the conflict who was now living in a friend’s house along with 46 others from his village, said he didn’t know what he could do now. “We are waiting until the winter when the Kuchi will leave.
Our wheat is burned, our livestock and our houses too. What can we do? We can’t return to our houses and we have nothing here.”
He had left from Qash village (in Behsud 1) in which there were 15 houses. All the families fled the village when they received news that Kuchis were coming. Walking 20 km to Jalrez district, they then took a car to Maidan Shahr, and from then to Kabul.
“Last year we thought it would stop, so we returned. But now it happened again.” They asked me to record their names for the record: Mohammad Ali, Hashim, Khodabakhsh and Zikria.
They had assembled two rows of women for us to talk to, all sitting on the porch outside the house. “They took our livestock. They are the black enemies, and they took our cows. Karzai should do something. They’re killing us, and we’re starving. Karzai did this to us. It’s not Kuchis, it’s Taliban. This is all a plan of Karzai’s making. No development has reached the area,” they all interject.
It was at this point I heard the first of the rumour that the Kuchis come in Afghan National Army (ANA) helicopters.
According to what they said – and what most of the other Hazaras we spoke to over a week-long period said – these helicopters are seen in the sky moments before Kuchis appear in the area.
Amir Mohammad, 47, had taken 3 days to come from Lataband area of Dai Mirdad district, and said that the Hazaras compliance with the Afghan government’s disarmament programme had meant they were unable to defend themselves against the Kuchi arrival. 2 cows stood in the courtyard of the Kabul house, the last remaining livestock of the village.
The woman in this video is explaining the exact way she was displaced out of her village. She spoke of ‘stages of displacement’, whereby every time the Kuchis came close to where you were staying, you’d move 3 or 4 villages backwards. Eventually, you’d read Bamyan or Kabul, she said, but each person that had reached these big cities would have therefore been displaced several times prior to arrival.
The men in this video explain how they left. “The Kuchis were in the village just up the road,” they say. “We didn’t have any people killed or injured from our villages.” It took them about 3 or 4 days to reach Kabul. Amir Mohammad explains how the Hazara had handed in all their weapons as part of the DIAG disarmament programme and so were unable to defend themselves.
They also complain that no assistance or houses has reached them from the billions of dollars pledged to Afghanistan. And the Kuchis, they said, were taking advantage of the knowledge that the Hazaras had handed over their weapons.
Then they added the story (/rumour) that helicopters and Afghan internal security forces were helping the Kuchis. They give estimates that 200 villages were burnt in the wider Behsud area, amounting to some 5000 houses. We were unable to verify this claim.
On Tuesday, a funeral was held outside Kabul for 3 further Hazara men killed by Kuchis. The funeral procession for Mohammad Musa, Mohammad Ali Naseri and Anwar Husseini started in Dasht-e Barchi (a Hazara-majority area) in a procession (see video below) and then the mourners were put on busses and taken outside Kabul for the burial.
A car with with the family of one of the victims passes by: one man driving, eyes red, and 6 women (2 in front, 4 in the back). It’s the one time I’ve regretted my beard – grown for southern Afghanistan, but immediately provoking suspicion and unease among the mourners. My bag is checked several times by Hazara security guards who must think that I am a Pashtun suicide bomber.
Over 2000 mourners are bussed to Koh-e Qogher, a remote hillside cemetery that overlooks the city. Once used by the Soviets for accomodation, the area surrounding the hill is now inhabited by Hazaras.
Those being buried were reportedly killed on 26th July in Dai Mirdad district after President Karzai had issued an edict demanding the withdrawal of all Kuchis from the area.
This, many of the mourners told me, was evidence of “institutional racism” and showed that Karzai was conducting a “personal war against the Hazara people.”
Again I heard stories of ANA helicopters arriving and giving weapons to the Kuchis/Taliban (the words were used interchangeably). By noon the sun was fierce, and men walked through the crowd distributing water brought up in a tanker for the mourners.
There were many speeches after the bodies were buried. One Shi’a mullah from Kabul compared the dead men to the martyrs of Karbala.
A man called Faissi, a representative of the Kabul Hazara community, gave a very political speech – although people didn’t seem all too moved by the sentiment.
Some quotes: “the government is not listening to the cries of our martyrs…the silence of the government on the Kuchi crimes is reprehensible…”
A Mullah from Dai Mirdad itself gave a religiously-intoned speech appealing to people’s better judgement. “Islam is a religion of peace,” he said. “Nobody said life should be free of war…BUT it should be conducted within a framework and within a clear set of rules.” ‘Adalat or justice was mentioned countless times by all who got up to speak.
If it isn’t already clear from the above, this story was pretty confusing to make sense of, and the more I talked to people, the more things were complicated. I went to visit someone at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) to make sense of what I’d heard. They are an official Afghan government organ, and last year during the clashes in Behsud they wrote a long report detailing exactly what was going on.
I wanted to see if they’d been to Behsud this year.
Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy Chair of the AIHRC, agreed that the issue was heavily politicised on both sides and that obtaining an accurate picture of what was going on in the area had been especially difficult. They had not, he said, released their assessment of the issue because they had not been able to talk to Kuchis involved in the dispute.
“Any small problem in Afghanistan has the potential to become a significant political and ethnic problem,” he said. By their assessment, 18 Hazaras and 19 Kuchis had been killed this year so far. His figure for the number of families displaced was much higher than the numbers the Hazara gave us – 6000-7000 families, the equivalent of about 55-65,000 people.
Mullah Tarakhel (Photo: Philip Poupin), a Kuchi MP and head of the Kuchi Affairs Commission, said that the problem was a result of the manipulations of politicians in Kabul. “Kuchis and Hazaras used to live peacefully together, but these problems now have been created out of nowhere,” he said. He named several prominent Hazara politicians – if you’re in Afghanistan, you’ll know who he named – who he said were exploiting the issue for their own benefit.
A question as to the extent and veracity of Hazara claims that Taliban are helping the Kuchis provoked smiles all round. No, he said, the Kuchis obey the government. His proof for this was the fact – he claimed – that the Kuchis had withdrawn from Behsud when Karzai recently ordered them to do so. He categorically denied Taliban help or involvement with the Kuchis.
His figures for Kuchi casualties of this year’s conflict were as follows: 27 killed, 99 injured, as well as 5 just over two weeks ago.
“Unless,” he said, “the problem is solved through the Afghan government, police and local organs, it naturally will lead to ethnic strife and will only continue to be exploited by others.”
The United Nations have committed themselves to supporting the efforts of the Afghan government as well as offering help to local initiatives and dialogue aimed at solving the problems in Behsud. Just this week they sent a team to Behsud to open a fourth round of negotiations.
Beyond this, though, the story remains opaque: simple to the passing observer, too small for the international community to involve itself, and yet also seemingly too intractable for it to be solved by the responsible Afghan government organs.
[First time I’m doing a longer piece like this that includes videos. If you have suggestions, comments etc on how I could make it more interesting etc, please email them or leave in the comments section…]