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Guerrillas and refugees wage war on their own disunity. The Hazaras: a Persian-speaking people caught between Tehran and Kabul

By Tym LenderkingSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 1987



Quetta, Pakistan

For the Hazara people of Afghanistan, 1978-79 was a period of revolutions: the first in their own country, instigated by Soviet-backed Marxists, and another in neighboring Iran, incited by the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Seven years later, the Hazaras still find themselves caught between these two political conflicts - in a dilemma that is heightened by their centuries-old cultural and religious divisions with other Afghans. The Hazaras' situation illustrates why politics in the region remain volatile and why the Afghan mujahideen, as the fighters of the Afghan resistance are known, continue to wrestle with disunity.

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The Hazaras, numbering some 1.2 million, have traditionally been an underprivileged minority in Afghanistan. Unlike most Afghans, who are Caucasoid in appearance, the Hazaras have Mongol features - slanted eyes, high cheek bones, and sparse beards - which are the result of intermixing between the early Indo-Iranian inhabitants of central Afghanistan and the Mongols who swept through central Asia, starting with Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

Along with millions of other Afghans, thousands of Hazaras have fled Soviet-occupied Afghanistan for Pakistan and Iran. There, many of them have been absorbed into older Hazara communities that were established in the last century. ``You might say we are fortunate in having Hazara areas to come to in Iran and Pakistan. It makes the adjustment easier...,'' says Abdul Shahid, a Hazara refugee in Pakistan.

``But it also complicates our situation,'' adds Mr. Shahid, who is one of the few Hazara graduates of Kabul University. ``We now live in three different countries, and many Hazaras have become Iranian and Pakistani citizens. Who knows what this situation will mean for our unity in the future?''

As both Shiite Muslims and Persian speakers, the Hazaras have religious and cultural links with Iran. The Tehran government opposes the Soviet-backed communist regime in Afghanistan and wishes to see the eventual triumph of its brand of Islamic fundamentalism there. Several Iranian-backed Hazara political parties reportedly operate out of Masshad, Iran. These parties, according to Hazara mujahideen leaders in Quetta, have military fronts that control various parts of Hazarajat, in central Afghanistan.

Spokesmen for the Hazara community in Quetta are disturbed by Iran's influence among the tribe.

``Iran actually wants to divide and rule us,'' claims Jamal Nizar, one of the leaders of a Quetta-based Hazara group. ``The Hazaras are not religious fanatics by nature, but the Khomeini government is supporting the most extreme mullahs in Hazarajat, who use religion only for their own benefit.

``The problem is our lack of education,'' Mr. Nizar continues. ``Illiterate Hazaras are easily swayed by these mullahs and their slogans, but they know nothing about nationalism and democracy. Besides, there isn't just one Iran party, there are five or six, and they fight each other as much as they fight the Russians.''

Apart from religious and cultural ties, Iran has been important to the Hazaras for economic reasons. Many Hazaras spend months, even years, working in eastern Iran - where the Hazara community is reportedly 600,000, compared with an estimated 60,000 in Quetta. ``We have better employment opportunities in Mashhad than in Quetta,'' says a recent arrival in Pakistan. ``But nowadays Iran has gotten very expensive....''

Just as the Hazaras' features set them apart physically from other Afghans, so their religious beliefs set them apart culturally - for the Hazaras are an enclave of Shiite Muslims in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. Consequently, Hazaras are considered by many other Afghan tribes to be kafirs, or infidels.

``In the past the Afghan government always did its worst against the Hazaras because of our race and religion,'' Shahid says. ``We are still blamed for the destructiveness of Genghis Khan, so we have been excluded in every way from the country's facilities ... As a result we have remained poor and illiterate.''

Over the past 400 years, competing tribal groups gradually pushed them out of the more desirable lowlands into the remote valleys and slopes of the Hindu Kush mountain range. Brutal suppression in the 19th century spurred a flight to Quetta, (then part of British India), and Mashhad.

Despite their sense of victimization now and in the past, many Hazaras in Pakistan have done well for themselves. The descendants of the 19th century immigrants now own businesses and participate in government and the Pakistani armed forces.

``We are more advanced than the Hazaras who come here from Afghanistan,'' says a Hazara student, born and raised in Quetta. ``They are very poor when they get here, but we are an inspiration to them. They see that Hazaras can make a successful life for themselves.''