The Hazara of Afghanistan are a long-persecuted minority who live in fear of the Taliban.
Many Afghans from the Hazara ethnic group studying in Najaf, Iraq, watched in horror as their homeland was recaptured by the Taliban.
While they are safe for the time being, they are concerned about their relatives back home — as well as their own safety if they ever return.
Every year, millions of Shiite pilgrims flock to Najaf to commemorate the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali, whose shrine is located in the old city.
Others, such as Sheikh Ali Bassir, 51, have spent years studying at the famed Shiite seminary.
“I really wanted to serve the people of Afghanistan, and I really want to go back, but the situation isn’t normal,” Bassir adds, surrounded by shelves of Koran copies and a ceiling fan spinning above him.
As he considers the destiny of the Hazara people, who make up between 10% and 20% of Afghanistan’s 38 million people and have long been persecuted for their faith in a country riven by deep divisions, his placid grin goes wooden.
Since the Taliban retook control last month, the majority Shiite Muslim sect is concerned that Sunni hardliners will turn on them again, as they did during the Taliban’s previous administration from 1996 to 2001.
Militants are thought to have massacred tens of thousands of Hazaras.
In March 2001, images of the demolition of two enormous Buddha sculptures carved into a cliff in Bamiyan, a predominantly Hazara area, circulated across the world.
A major Hazara leader’s statue in Bamiyan was severed just days after the Taliban returned.
The Taliban’s terrible treatment of the Hazaras is still remembered by many Afghans and the international community.
“My brother and sister are currently stationed in Afghanistan. They are, thank God, far from the capital and in the countryside. They’re fine,” Bassir says.
He adds, though, that he is “afraid of how the Taliban would gain control over the Shiites,” showing a video on his phone of fighters forcibly suppressing a Hazara demonstration.
Slavery, religious and economic persecution, as well as forced displacement, have all been experienced by the tribe over the years.
According to some estimates, about half of the Hazara population was killed out in the late 1800s, with many more being enslaved during the Pashtun conquest of their native territory.
Even after the US-led invasion in 2001, Sunni militants continued to attack Hazaras.
In May, 50 persons were murdered in a car accident outside a girls’ school. Brief News from Washington Newsday.