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Out of Ruins, Afghan Group Builds Anew

One recent political development appears likely to benefit the most deprived part of Hazarajat, a region of barren hills and remote villages south of Bamian that U.N. reports call the "hunger belt." Several months ago, the government carved out a new province from that area called Daikundi, which will have its own public services and jobs, sparing residents multi-day journeys to more populated areas.

Moreover, after years of brain drain, the Hazara homeland is beginning to make something of an intellectual and cultural comeback as well.

Hazara children tend cows in a field near Bamian's famed giant statues of Buddha, which were vandalized by the Taliban three years ago. (Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)

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U.N.-sponsored restoration work on the Buddhas has attracted a trickle of tourists from Kabul -- though most are aid workers on short breaks who do not mind jolting roads and erratic electricity.

Last month, the first cell phone relay station was installed, creating a quantum leap in communications between Bamian and the outside world. Meanwhile, the reopening of the university in March has lured 36 young instructors back from Iran, where many educated Hazaras fled years ago, as well as 165 students to its first-semester courses in teaching and agronomy.

"This university will change everything," said Jafferi Hussain, 28, the campus administrator, sitting in his empty office in the new, bright yellow, two-story classroom building. "We want educated people to come back from abroad, though we don't have enough facilities for them yet." During summer break, he said, all the new teachers rushed to Kabul to get visas to visit their families in Iran.

Still, some Hazaras complain that not enough has been done to help the region, an issue that is sure to dominate the country's first presidential election here. Campaigning will not begin until next month, but voter registration among Hazaras has been higher than among all other ethnic groups, both in Kabul and Hazarajat.

Two senior officials of Hazara origin will figure prominently in the race: Vice President Karim Khalili, the former governor of Bamian province who is one of President Hamid Karzai's two running mates, and Mohammed Mohaqiq, the former planning minister who recently quit Karzai's cabinet to run against him.

At some levels, Mohaqiq appears to have gotten a head start. His posters are affixed to almost every shop in Bamian, and some of his aides and supporters are former Khalili loyalists who jumped ship, complaining that the longtime militia boss had abandoned his needy Hazarajat roots after joining the central government.

But in interviews last week, Hazaras working in fields, shops and aid agency offices around Bamian said their primary concern was electing a national leader who would represent their interests as a religious and ethnic minority without provoking renewed bloodshed.

"This election is very important to us. The Hazara people will still be a minority, but this means we can now be the equal of others," Mohammed Sharif, 33, said while squatting in a potato field at dusk as his children scampered among the neat rows of earth.

Sharif pointed to a range of brown hills to the south, where he said hundreds of families froze to death while fleeing winter attacks by the Taliban. When survivors returned, he said, they found their houses burned and their animals stolen. "We hear on the radio about fighting in other provinces, but we have started again from zero," he said. "We don't want to lose everything again."

Several Hazara professionals seemed disappointment in both major Hazara candidates and expressed concern that the election could fracture along ethnic lines, recreating the divisions that led to civil war and the rise of the Taliban.

Aghar, the educator in Kabul, is one of the founders of the Hizb-i-Wahdat, the main Hazara political party, and said that though it is healthy for Hazaras to be reasserting their identity after years of repression, they should be careful not to let ethnic chauvinism obstruct Afghanistan's progress toward democracy.

"I'm glad to see Hazaras getting involved in the elections, but I'm upset at the reasons behind it," he said. "We have suffered a lot, but we do not need another government based on ethnic politics. We need a government based on cooperation among all ethnic groups."

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