The last thing Azi Zula Haideri saw as he climbed higher into the snow-choked passes of the Hindu Kush was the smoke, a signal in ash and soot that the Taliban were nearing, burning and killing as they came.
Less than a year later, in 2001, when the Taliban fell to forces supported by the United States, the world heralded it as a victory for freedom and for women oppressed by the burqa. But Mr. Haideri remembers it as something different: Salvation for himself and his people, the Hazaras.
Haideri had fled into the mountains to escape the Taliban, who butchered Hazaras by the thousands, killing them because they were Shiites and "foreigners" – descended from the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan.
Now, however, Haideri sits at a tea stand in this predominately Hazara city and agrees that there has never been a better time for his people. In contrast with the American experience in Iraq, which has unleashed deep-seated sectarian violence, Western intervention here has ended one of the more brutal chapters in this nation's history of ethnic strife.
In post-Taliban Afghanistan, it is one of the few unequivocal, though often overlooked, successes. After centuries of discrimination, abuse, and even ethnic cleansing, the country's third-largest ethnic group has at last managed to find peace and even prosperity in the new Afghanistan.
"The interim administration [in 2001] was the start of a golden period for Hazaras," says Abdul Ahad Farzam, a human-rights activist in Bamiyan. "Doors opened for Hazaras."
At times, President Hamid Karzai has had as many as six Hazaras as cabinet ministers. The governors of Herat and Bamiyan provinces are Hazaras. And anecdotal information suggests that Hazaras are achieving in higher education: One unconfirmed report suggests that Kabul University accepted 600 students from one Hazara district alone, and a professor of law and political science at Herat University says half his students are Hazaras.
From a Western perspective, the change is welcome. Hazaras "will never be reconciled with the Taliban," says Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, the professor at Herat University. "That is why the international community is building them up."
Moreover, Hazaras are perhaps the most liberal of Afghanistan's Muslim sects. A local human-rights activist remembers trying to convince local Hazara clerics that the Western concept of human rights are in concert with Islam.
"At the beginning they were suspicious, since it was new and it coincided with the US toppling the Taliban – it was seen as a campaign to bring in Western culture," says Musa Sultani, regional director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Yet by the end of the discussion, Mr. Sultani had persuaded the clerics so thoroughly that they issued a written decree supporting every point.
"Hazaras are open to change," says Sultani, who is himself a Hazara. "They are open to new ideas and are not very fanatical."
The head of the Clergy Council of Bamiyan agrees. "I have been to four or five big seminars of all the religious scholars from all parts of Afghanistan, and our clergy are more open," says Baba Mohsini, noting that Hazaras have even followed Sunni rules for prayer in the past simply to keep Sunni rulers happy.
It is this adaptability, say Hazaras and others, that has helped them to take advantage of what they were long denied. Indeed, until the Soviets arrived in the late 1970s, Afghan law kept Hazaras from entering the Army, enrolling in higher education, or securing top government jobs. A century earlier, they were sold in the markets of Kabul as slaves.
It has never been primarily a matter of religion, experts agree. With the exception of Taliban times, the Sunni–Shiite divide has never been strong in Afghanistan.
Unique among Afghans, Hazaras have Oriental features, giving momentum to the belief that the Hazaras – roughly translated as "The Thousands" – are descended from 1,000 Mongol families who stayed behind after Genghis Khan invaded Bamiyan in 1221. The intervening eight centuries have not been sufficient to erase the perception of Hazaras as Afghan outsiders.
These historical prejudices have led to the lowest and most menial of tasks – from pushing carts though the city to house cleaning – being considered as Hazaras' work. When Haideri joined the Army, he says he was asked to sweep the floors and carry large items. Asked why none of the others were given such tasks, he recalls the officer as saying: "You are a Hazara. You are not an Afghan, you are Chinese."
Even since the fall of the Taliban, discrimination lingers. When Mr. Farzam went to the Ministry of Education in 2002 to pick up paperwork for a scholarship to study in Iran, the clerk told him he was glad that "you stupid people are going out of the country to learn how to be a human being." Weeks later, Farzam learned that the scholarship had been revoked and given to someone else.
"Among educated people there has been a change. They are convinced that Hazaras can be like them," says Farzam. "Among uneducated people, they still think that we are second-class citizens."
Still, Farzam is optimistic. In a story common throughout Afghanistan, he says he knows of an old Hazara man in his neighborhood who had written "Tajik" as his ethnicity on his government identity card. But the shame of being a Hazara, Farzam says, "does not exist in the new generation."
• Mr. Sappenfield is the New Delhi correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.