What the Afghan protests are really about

Hazara killings have galvanised Afghans into standing up against extremism and government negligence.

Afghan women carry the coffin of a 9 year-old girl as thousands march in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Wednesday [AP]
Afghan women carry the coffin of a nine-year-old girl as thousands march in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Wednesday [AP]

On Wednesday, thousands of Afghan protesters poured on to the streets of Kabul and gathered at Pashtunistan Square just outside the Presidential Palace. Carrying the coffins of seven beheaded Afghans, they demanded justice and security. It was by far the biggest demonstration the city had seen in recent history.

The victims were from the ethnic minority Hazara community from the Jaghrori district of Ghazni province. This massacre took place between November 6 and 8 in the Arghandab district of Zabul. The victims had been abducted about a month earlier while on their way to Ghazni, according to a statement issued by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The bodies of the victims were transferred to Kabul late last night by their families and supporters to seek justice in the capital from the National Unity Government.

Kabul protest against brutal Hazara killings

The demonstrators expressed anger over the indiscriminate killing of seven innocent civilians. They accused the government of negligence, not only in this latest incident but in a series of horrific events since February 23, when 30 men (again from the Hazara community) were taken hostage by a group of fighters. Although 19 of those hostages were returned after the Afghan Government intervened, at least four people in the group were killed and another six are still missing.

Shocking images

What makes this particular incident even more disturbing is that for the first time, the victims of these brutal killings were women and children. Social media posts from Afghanistan have been littered with shocking images of the victims with their slashed throats. Nicholas Haysom, head of UNAMA, said: “The deliberate murder of civilian hostages, including women and children, is particularly abhorrent.”

Also read: Afghans protest ‘beheadings of ethnic Hazara by ISIL’

The Hazaras in Afghanistan, predominantly Shia Muslims, have for the most part coexisted peacefully with the mainly Sunni Afghan tribes since the formation of modern Afghanistan.

Women march in the Afghan capital of Kabul with pictures showing ethnic Hazaras who were allegedly killed by the Taliban [AP]
Women march in the Afghan capital of Kabul with pictures showing ethnic Hazaras who were allegedly killed by the Taliban [AP]

The origins of the Hazara are still subject to debate. It is widely believed that they have Mongolian ancestry; that they are the descendants of the Mongol soldiers who invaded the area at the time of Gengis Khan. Over the centuries, the Hazara have revolted against the Pashtun domination of the area, and have incurred the wrath of various rulers, notably Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901).

It cannot be disputed that Hazaras have continued to suffer various forms of discrimination during the past century. But since the fall of the Taliban regime, there has arguably been an upturn in relations with this minority community.

The recent abductions and killings that have targeted the Hazara community bear the hallmarks of the more recent sectarian and ethnic violence carried out by the extremist groups operating under the umbrella of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and targeting Shia communities in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Also read: Desperate journeys: Persecuted Hazara flee Afghanistan

This is not a homegrown incident; it was most likely carried out by non-Afghans. When the 19 Hazara hostages were finally released on May 11, I had the privilege of talking to some of them upon their return to Kabul. They told me that the people who held them captive were non-Afghans and could not speak any of our main languages, eg, Dari or Pashto. The hostages believed that they were of Uzbek origin.

Important messages

Wednesday’s mass demonstration carried three important messages about Afghan society as a whole. First, the people showed that they were ready and willing to gather together peacefully in large numbers and hold the government and its leaders accountable. Second, although this incident targeted a specific ethnic group and was seen as such, all Afghans established a united front against national threats such as this by partaking in this historic demonstration in Kabul.

Finally, we have seen how Afghan civil society groups and youth leaders, utilising social media networks, are capable of mobilising large segments of our society to stand together and seek justice for our fellow countrymen.

What the Afghans protested against and the world witnessed on the streets of Kabul was not just about the tragic incident that took place in Zabul province a few days ago or the targeted beheadings of seven people from a minority tribe. It was painfully evident that it was about the frustration of the ordinary Afghan towards our National Unity Government and its inability to deliver and maintain basic security and justice.

Perhaps the most significant lesson that we should all learn from Wednesday’s demonstration is that violence does not discriminate and pose a common threat to us all. The only way to fight it effectively is for us all to stand united.

Nadir Naim is an Afghan politician and a member of the former ruling Barakzai dynasty. He was a candidate in the 2014 Afghan presidential elections.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.