Through a persistent rain in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, thousands of protesters carried the coffins of seven beheaded Hazara hostages to the presidential palace, demanding greater security and an end to a wave of targeted ethnic violence.
The crowd in Kabul – huge by the standard of recent years – shouted slogans including "Death to the Taliban" and "Death to the Islamic State." They accused President Ashraf Ghani of incompetence in the face of deteriorating security and called for the resignation of his coalition government.
"For too long, we have been buried in silence," said Mohamad Ishaq Mowahidi, one of the protest organizers. "The logical way is for us to submit the coffins as a gift to the government."
Although most of the demonstration remained orderly, things got rougher as frustrations rose late in the day. When a smaller group of young protesters smashed the windows of government buildings with stones and scaled walls to enter the palace parking lot. A spokesman for Ghani, Sayed Zafar Hashemi, said 10 protesters were wounded when palace guards fired at the group, although he characterized the fire as "warning shots."
Ghani, who appeared on national television nearly 10 hours after the protesters had marched nearly 10 kilometres from the west of Kabul to the gates of his palace, urged calm and unity.
"Our enemies, by creating incidents that have ethnic and regional colour, are trying to take our unity from us," he said.
Ghani said he had been personally monitoring progress on operations to free the Hazara hostages before they were killed by the Islamic State fighters, but the hostages had been moved 56 times to evade military operations.
Negotiations about the protesters' demands, largely centred around security measures, were ongoing late into Wednesday, as Ghani and his officials held talks with their representatives.
Ghani's administration, formed after an election stalemate last year, has struggled in the face of mounting Taliban attacks across the country and the emergence of new breakaway factions and foreign militant groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Of particular concern to many of the marchers were the abductions of groups of travellers from the persecuted Hazara minority by militants in the south of the country in recent months.
While the Islamic State-affiliated foreign militants, who officials say beheaded the seven Hazaras in Zabul province last week, have little co-ordination with the Islamic State organization operating in Syria and Iraq, they have displayed similarly cruel tactics on the battlefield in Afghanistan. This fall, they blew up 10 civilians in eastern Afghanistan and filmed the act on video.
The victims who were beheaded included a 9-year-old girl and two much older people, their throats cut with metal wire. Their killings raised new concern that a wave of violence targeting Hazaras – most of whom are Shiite, making them both an ethnic and sectarian minority – was intensifying in Afghanistan.
Although the targeting of Hazaras for violence has long been a problem in the region, it had been considerably worse in Pakistan in recent years. Many in Afghanistan, including senior government officials, fear that some of the extremist groups in Pakistan have been pushed into Afghanistan after the Pakistani military carried out operations in the tribal areas this year.
The United Nations condemned the beheadings. "These senseless murders may amount to war crimes, and the perpetrators must be held accountable," Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement.
The Hazara civilians, the latest of several abducted groups, were grabbed over a month ago as they were traveling through Zabul to return to their homes in neighboring Ghazni province. Their bodies were found Saturday after Taliban fighters defeated militants loyal to the Islamic State, who they see as a rival force on their turf. The Taliban found a truck driver to deliver the bodies to a government hospital.
Ahmadullah Jan, a shopkeeper in Shajoi district of Zabul province, said the truck arrived there late Sunday afternoon, and the driver was asking around for a hospital.
"We guided them to the right direction of clinic and later we realized that they had brought Hazaras who had been killed," Jan said.
While the government wanted the bodies to be delivered for burial to their home district in Ghazni, activists from Kabul and Ghazni provinces arranged for them to arrive in Kabul late Tuesday. Hundreds of candle-carrying mourners gathered in a large meeting space in the western part of the capital city and received the caskets draped in Afghan flags. As the caskets were propped on the shoulders of young men, a ring around them sobbed loudly.
As crowd quickly grew, so did security concerns. Mourners formed lines to frisk people before they walked in but had difficulty managing the crowd.
Hundreds of mourners stayed in the rain and the cold overnight with the caskets, as calls went out for a march the next day. The mourners defied government efforts to take the bodies to a hospital.
The thousands that marched on the palace included people from all walks of life, including laborers, university students and retired people. For most of the day, the protests remained calm and well-organized, with a human chain on each side of the marchers keeping them contained and leaving the sidewalks open.
"I have come here to ask Ashraf Ghani: Seven people were murdered so brutally, what have you done?" said Ghulam Hussain, 65, who walked with a cane.
Ali Reza, an information technology worker, brought his 11-month old daughter, Bahar, tightly wrapped in a pink polka-dot jacket.
"I brought her here so she doesn't meet the fate of Shukria," he said, referring to the 9-year old girl who was among those beheaded.