Kabul, Afghanistan – Amena says her family came to the Afghan capital from Bamiyan province in search of better opportunities and safety six years ago. They settled in Dasht-e-Barchi, a predominantly Hazara Shiite Muslim neighborhood in western Kabul.
Last month, 85 people, mostly students aged 11 to 17, were killed in bombings outside Sayed-ul-Shuhada High School in Barchi. Among them was Amena’s teenage niece.
“We came here for work, but all we found was death,” said Amena, 50, adding that her family are now considering returning to their home district, Waras, to where a number of killed schoolgirls came.
The relative safety of the neighborhood – home to around one million people – has attracted Hazaras like Amena from across the war-torn country as well as those returning from refugee life in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.
Barchi became a haven for the Hazara population as the South Asian nation slipped into civil war in the 1990s and Kabul became a battleground for armed groups fighting for control of the country.
We’re not going anywhere. We have honor, we can’t be afraid
But in recent years, the neighborhood has become the target of brutal attacks, many claimed by ISIS (ISIL), prompting calls from a hazara genocide that people say the Kabul administration has failed to address.
In recent years, the government has made efforts to secure Barchi by allowing additional security for the neighborhood during the annual Ashura commemorations. The commemorations of the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson have been attacked at least three times since 2011. President Ashraf Ghani has also condemned every attack in the region.
For the people of Barchi, however, these efforts were not enough. Barchi is told, no place is safe. Armed groups attacked educational testing centers, a wrestling gym, an identity card distribution center, a mosque, a maternity, and last month, girls’ school.
At least seven people were killed in two on Saturday separate explosions in the zone.
Discrimination against the Hazaras
The Hazaras in Afghanistan have faced decades of state-sponsored abuse and discrimination, most recently under the Taliban between 1996-2001. In neighboring Pakistan, they are attacked by armed groups for their largely Shia beliefs, while in Iran they face blatant racism as obvious Afghan refugees and conscription in Tehran’s foreign wars.
Analysts and officials believe attacks used by ISIL to stoke sectarianism in the multi-ethnic country, at a time of growing insecurity and reports of regional leaders establishing local armed militias along ethnic lines for fear of the Taliban returning to power after the imminent US withdrawal.
The US withdrawal is part of the peace accord signed with the Taliban, which had waged a brutal armed rebellion since their withdrawal from power in the US-led invasion in 2001. The Taliban have since reduced their attacks against US forces but continue to target Afghan forces across the country.
Despite threats, the neighborhood – with its mostly dirt roads that stretch for miles – remains a vibrant and bustling home for hundreds of thousands of people who know their ethnicity and location make them obvious targets. .
Fereshta, a student from Maidan Wardak province, admits the terror looming over one of Kabul’s most congested neighborhoods.
“You can’t escape fear, it’s everywhere,” the 20-year-old said outside a small neighborhood grocery store.
Economic diversity of the territory
Fereshta blames everyone from the Taliban – who were known to attack and kill thousands of Hazaras during their five-year reign – to ISIS, to the Afghan government for the growing insecurity of the Hazaras.
“When an area is attacked several times over the past five years and the government does not actively try to secure it, it raises many questions,” said an academic from the region, who declined. be named for security reasons, mentioned.
Zainab Zafarkhil moved from Iran to Dasht-e Barchi in 2007. At the time, his family’s decision to move to the neighborhood was fairly straightforward. It was sure.
“There was a time when a suicide bombing in Barchi was unthinkable. It was the safest place in all of Kabul, ”said the 22-year-old student. But the recent attacks made him think of leaving the area.
Zafarkhil’s family is an example of the region’s economic diversity, which has simple mud houses where unpaved roads turn to mud during cold winters, and giant, multicolored malls where young people buy Gucci abayas. contraband and the latest iPhones.
His family is lucky. As business owners and government employees, the Zafarkhils have the economic means to relocate to any other part of the city, but for thousands of other families in Barchi, especially those from remote provinces like Ghor, Maidan Wardak and Ghazni, this is just not an option.
Hussain and his wife, Bas Gol, moved their family from Lal Wa Sarjangal district to central Ghor province seven years ago, just before the violence began to escalate.
They came to Barchi in 2014 in the hope of providing their sons with better educational and economic opportunities than those offered to them in Ghor. However, husband and wife know that it would be nearly impossible to return safely to a province home to more than 130 armed groups.
“Going back would just cost us more money. We just have to hope for the best here. Hussain says that even if his family returned to Lal Wa Sarjangal, there would not be enough economic opportunities to support the family.
What attracts people to Dasht-e-Barchi?
Qayoom Suroush, a Kabul-based researcher, says that, like Hussain and his wife, tens of thousands of families have moved from other provinces to Barchi specifically for economic, security and cultural reasons.
“In Barchi you are among your own, you don’t have to worry about social acceptance here because everyone is like you,” Suroush says of the cultural incentive that attracts so many Hazaras to the world. district.
Many residents of Al Jazeera spoke about the importance of being close to their families and how living in Barchi makes it much easier for them to attend local religious and political gatherings which are considered essential parts of their social life.
In addition, having spent the last 16 years living and studying in Barchi, Suroush says that the quality of education offered to young people in Barchi is also very important for people coming from some of the less safe and less secure areas. developed in the country.
“Education is very important to the Hazara people. In Barchi, you can get quality education at a much better price than in other areas of Kabul, ”he said. Like Suroush, other residents pointed to the dozens of schools, language courses and college entrance exam preparation centers along the main road.
Even for those who can somehow afford to return to their home province, it often means moving from one insecure area to another.
“Pashtuns against Hazaras”
Farzana Azghari has lived in Barchi for most of her life.
“We moved here before I could even pray,” the 19-year-old told Al Jazeera. It was then that her triplet sisters, Raihana, Habiba and Hakima were born. Like other young girls who grew up in Barchi, the Azghari sisters initially had few fears. They felt safe and protected in their enclave.
But over the past two years, Farzana and other residents of Barchi have said that Shuhada High School is under threat, so much so that the students themselves have started patting everyone who enters the premises.
“For two years neither of us carried a backpack to school,” Azghari said of the fear that had consumed the people of Barchi.
When the school was attacked, it was Raihana who failed to make it out alive. She is said to be buried, along with dozens of other young girls, on a hill that has been divided among the victims of each of the various attacks that took place in Barchi.
Azghari says these attacks are orchestrated by groups who want to turn “the Pashtuns against the Hazaras and the Hazaras against the Pashtuns.”
The government has stepped up accusations from the Taliban for the attacks, including school explosions. But the armed group refutes the allegations. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the school.
Recently, Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s special representative for reconciliation in Afghanistan, said ISIL forces are responsible for the attack on the school. ISIL has claimed responsibility for the majority of attacks against the Hazara people, Shiite places of worship and ceremonies, and attacks on Barchi in particular.
Fereshta, the student, lost her own friend in an explosion. Her teenage friend was among 30 people killed in the October 2020 bombing of the Kowsar-e Danesh educational center in Barchi.
But she says the Hazara people of Barchi will persevere.
“We’re not going anywhere. We have honor, we cannot be afraid, ”Fereshta told Al Jazeera.
“We will show the world that Afghanistan is not a graveyard for the Afghan people.