Halima Bahman knows how horrific life is under the Taliban.
As an 11-year-old, she watched six members of one family get shot trying to flee when the Taliban appeared at their home in Mazar-e-Sharif one morning in 1998. They were targeting Hazaras, an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan whose members they deem to be heretics.
Among those she saw die was her close friend, Hafiza.
A few months later, when the Taliban appeared on Ms. Bahman’s own street, gathering elderly Hazara men to kill – including Ms. Bahman’s uncle – her mother was prepared.
“My mother doesn’t look like a Hazara. … She went outside and pleaded with them to not take him away because her brother was a mechanic who could help fix their cars. So they took him out of the group.
“But we don’t know what happened to the others. They took them away.”
Those memories flooded back these past two weeks, following the Taliban’s rapid offensive in retaking control of Afghanistan after 20 years of U.S. occupation.
Now living in Vaughan, Ont., Ms. Bahman works as an addictions counsellor and volunteers with the Hazara Women’s Organization, a group she co-founded last year. For weeks now, she’s received hundreds of messages a day on her phone from Hazara Afghans pleading for help in translating and writing e-mails to Canadian government officials about resettlement.
Interspersed between the desperate calls for help are reports of recent Taliban attacks on the Hazara community – attacks that go largely unnoticed by foreign media outlets, largely because they take place in Hazara-populated neighbourhoods inside and outside Kabul, where fewer journalists congregate and where Hazaras are too fearful to speak to them.
Hazaras are of Central Asian descent. Most practise Shia Islam and have been systematically discriminated against by Sunni and Shia governments alike in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
The community makes up roughly 25 per cent of Afghanistan’s population and has a long history of being persecuted by the Taliban. Over the past year, armed groups have attacked educational testing centres, a wrestling gym, an ID-card distribution centre, a mosque, a maternity ward and a girls’ school.
Their Asian-like facial features put them at even greater risk than other minority groups, said Frishta Bastan, a diversity and inclusion specialist and community organizer in Milton, Ont. “Just existing ... walking down the street, you can visibly tell who is Hazara. That’s what puts our lives in danger immediately.”
Ms. Bahman said the Hazaras are looked at “like second-class people.”
“A man getting married to a non-Hazara woman would be something to be proud of, because they’re believed to look like beautiful people, whereas our features are something to be offended by. They say things like ‘You have a flat nose or tiny eyes.’ Basically, Hazara is the synonym for ugly, and someone who is really backwards and servant-like,” Ms. Bahman said.
One message she received from a friend last week said that farmers, shopkeepers and children in Jaghouri, a Hazara rural area, had been beaten up. Another reported that a widely known and respected Hazara army general named Sarwar Ali had been publicly executed.
Many living in Hazara neighbourhoods reported experiencing door-to-door visits, including at the home of a woman whose sister used to work for national security in the previous government. “It seems like the Taliban is out to avenge those who fought them,” Ms. Bahman said.
On Monday, a Canadian Hazara woman reached out to her, saying that the Taliban had entered her brother’s home in Dashte Barchi, a Hazara-populated area in Kabul, and took away three men from the family, calling them “children of Changez” – a reference to Genghis Khan. No one knows where they are.
And in a chilling sign of what many Canadian Hazaras are saying is a looming massacre, a famed statue of Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari was bombed in the city of Bamiyan last week. Mr. Mazari was executed by the Taliban in 1995.
“For a lot of our people, Mazari was like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King,” said Ali Mirzad, an Ottawa-based senior adviser for the Canadian Hazara Humanitarian Services. “His monument was revered by a lot of people. His personality still resonates with even the younger generation of Hazaras.
“These are all signs. We know the danger that is waiting for us.”
As a leading spokesperson for the Canadian Hazara community, Mr. Mirzad said he has been lobbying Ottawa for more than a decade to raise awareness of their plight.
He said that less than two months ago, Hazaras had an opportunity to present their case to parliamentarians, at a subcommittee on international human rights of the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international development. It was at a session examining the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan.
But despite the months of advocacy in trying to ensure Hazaras were not forgotten, Mr. Mirzad said there has been no explicit mention by the federal government of including the Hazara community in the group of 20,000 Afghans being promised priority resettlement in Canada.
“Every word in the vocabulary the government is using so far, there is no mention of the Hazaras. They’re just mentioning it as a broad term for vulnerable minorities, but they are only emphasizing on LGBTQ and the Sikh and Hindu communities,” he said.
Few Hazara people can expect to be included in the group of translators and interpreters to whom Canada is offering priority resettlement, he said. Canadian armed forces were primarily stationed in Kandahar, where few Hazaras live.
Mr. Mirzad said that Ottawa reports it is working with groups from civil society but said he doesn’t know who those groups are. ”We are one of the biggest organizations in Canada that represents Hazaras, yet we have never been consulted.”
It’s that feeling of not being seen or recognized as a community that is what hurts most for Ms. Bahman, who is starting a self-empowerment group for young Afghan women in Toronto in the fall.
“The worst part of suffering is not what you’re going through. It’s when you know that no one acknowledges your pain.”
She recalled another traumatic memory from her time as a girl in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. After the Taliban threatened her uncle, her family fled their home to take shelter in a nearby mosque. “There were hundreds of Hazaras sitting there in the mosque shoulder to shoulder. It was terrifying. We stayed there until we heard bombs start exploding outside,” she said.
“Then we fled again and the next thing I remember is waking up on a mountain. My younger brother, who was 7, pleaded with my mother to kill him because he had heard that when the Taliban capture people, they skin them alive.”
Ms. Bahman said her relatives who still live in Mazar-e-Sharif knew a Taliban return to power was coming. They captured the city one day before Kabul, but they had declared months ago that all unmarried teenage girls were going to be taken from their families.
Last week, Ms. Bahman heard from her aunt, from just outside Kabul.
“She confirmed all of my cousins are safe. They are not leaving the house though.”
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