Taliban Displaces Thousands Of Afghanistan’s Hazara Population With No Food Or Shelter
Thousands of families from the Hazara ethnic group in Afghanistan, forced to flee their homes after a Taliban military campaign in the country’s Balkhab district last month, are now in a dire humanitarian crisis without access to basic necessities like water, food and shelter.
“As [the Taliban] entered the region, they sought retaliation on people,” Jafar, a Balkhab resident whose name has been changed here due to safety concerns, told HuffPost in a WhatsApp voice message. “They killed and mistreated innocent people, looted and torched shops.”
Jafar and his family fled the area, seeking safety in a neighboring province.
Hazaras account for about 20% of Afghanistan’s 38 million people, making them the third largest ethnic group there. In a Sunni-majority country, Shiite Hazaras are a religious minority that have historically endured widespread persecution.
Before the Taliban took control of Kabul last August, Hazaras already faced an increasing campaign of violence by the Taliban and Islamic State Khorasan, an affiliate of the Islamic State militant group. Hazaras also had to contend with systemic discrimination from the government in Kabul. Since the Taliban came to power, Hazaras have remained the principal victims of IS-K attacks and Taliban atrocities and forced evictions.
Afghanistan’s Etilaatroz newspaper reported that the Taliban had killed at least 50 civilians in Balkhab by late June. The number has since gone up, the paper reported, citing sources in the region.
A Hazara woman told Hasht-e Subh Daily, an Afghan newspaper, that the Taliban intended to capture and abuse young women in Balkhab. Hasht-e Subh also published a video that appeared to show a Balkhabi woman saying she left the area to avoid being abused by the Taliban.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said in a statement last month that there was evidence the Taliban had “fired some of defenseless civilians’ accommodation places, murdered many of the captives and the surrendered, bombarded on civilian venues, caused many families to get displaced and move out towards impassable mountainous areas, disconnected phone and internet lines, [and] blocked connective routes towards this district.”
As a result, it’s been challenging for the media to verify information or get a full view of what is happening in the region.
“Reports of executions of some civilians in Balkhab are extremely worrying, as they seem to be part of a pattern of the Taliban failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants or imposing collective punishments in areas where there has been armed resistance,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Since the hard-line Islamist insurgents assumed power last summer, not a single country has formally recognized the Taliban government or actively engaged with it on a diplomatic level, largely because of serious human rights violations against women and minorities.
“Working with our allies and partners, we have consistently made clear that we want to see the rights of Afghanistan’s women, its girls, its minorities, including its religious minorities, protected,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said earlier this month. “And of course we have seen very little from the Taliban to indicate that they are prepared to make good to that public commitment, to make good to what they have conveyed in private as well.”
But Ali, a local journalist whose name has been changed for this story, told HuffPost that the Taliban’s massacre of Hazaras, and the dire humanitarian needs of the thousands of displaced people, have received no attention from the international community.
The Balkhab conflict
The Taliban’s campaign on Balkhab was focused on capturing Maulawi Mehdi, a Hazara commander who’d recently spoken out against the Taliban. Mehdi was the intelligence chief in Bamyan, a Hazara-majority province in central Afghanistan, until he was dismissed in early June for unspecified reasons. He was the Taliban’s only Hazara military figure in the ethnic Pashtun-dominated Taliban government after the group came to power.
After several days of fighting between the Taliban and locals loyal to Mehdi, the Taliban were able to break through and enter the area.
“We only had legitimate demands for the Taliban,” a Mehdi associate told HuffPost, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns. “Hazaras are a reality in Afghanistan, and should be given equal opportunities to participate in government and society.”
He said the Taliban waged an unjustified and unbalanced war on the Hazara people in Balkhab.
Foreign Policy noted that a cash-strapped Taliban also hopes to seize control of the coal mines in the Balkhab region. Recently increased coal exports to Pakistan could be a promising revenue stream for the group, which has been in need of money due to international sanctions. Balkhab is home to five operational coal mines.
“The Taliban is on an intense campaign to consolidate resources. As part of it, they removed taxation by local Taliban actors to centralize it. That’s where the issues with Mehdi began,” Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy. “He wanted to continue operating under the insurgency model of taxing local resources.”
‘Some children starved to death’
With the Taliban’s takeover of the Balkhab district, thousands of families have been displaced. Some have made it to the neighboring Bamiyan and Balkh provinces, but many are in the barren mountains with no access to food, water or shelter.
Many people in Balkhab were caught off guard by the fighting, and had to flee the area without any supplies. The Taliban had closed roads to neighboring safe provinces, so people had to travel for days on foot or by donkey without knowing their destination ― they simply wanted to end up anywhere the Taliban could not follow them.
“I met a Balkhabi woman who had escorted 31 members of her family to safety in the mountains, most of them being children,” recalled Ali, the local journalist. “Her husband was killed by the Taliban because he refused to leave Balkhab with the rest of the family, as he was sure the Taliban wouldn’t harm an old and feeble man.”
“On the way, some children starved to death, and some aged and sick people could not survive the cold of the mountains,” Ali said. “Families had to feed their kids dirt to keep them alive.”
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs believes the number of displaced individuals to be around 27,000, but Ali estimates the actual number is much higher.
Aid workers are struggling to reach the mountainous area through which people are now scattered, and the Taliban has blocked supplies from reaching displaced families, according to local media reports.
The displaced families have immediate needs, Ali said: Without assistance, they will likely soon die of starvation or thirst. Without a roof over their heads, they must spend hours each day gathering wood and bushes for a fire to keep them warm.