Mourners visit a hillside cemetery for Hazara victims of a July 23 suicide bombing at a protest in Kabul last month. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

Every evening at dusk the mourners come, trudging up a dusty hillside to a rudimentary cemetery with rows of jagged stones. Some are taped with photos of the dead, others lettered crudely with red paint. The black-robed women kneel and caress the stones or pour water on them in blessing. The men squat nearby, fingering prayer beads.

“We are uneducated and old, and we can do nothing. These boys were our bright and educated youth,” said Mirza Husseini, 45, an unemployed construction worker, staring glumly at the freshly dug graves one recent evening. “They were our hope for a decent future and rights for our people. Now, they have killed them.”

The bodies buried here are among the victims of a suicide bombing July 23 that targeted a peaceful protest by minority Shiite Hazaras in the Afghan capital, who were demanding that electrical power be brought to their neglected ethnic homelands. The  attack, which left 80 dead and 230 wounded, was claimed by the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State militant group.

The horrific incident has not immediately sparked a sectarian rift in the Sunni-dominated country, as many Afghans feared it might. Sunnis lined up to donate blood at hospitals afterward and attended strangers’ funerals. Leaders from every ethnic and political group condemned the bombing, the deadliest in Kabul since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.

But the explosion did more than take scores of lives, mostly youthful protesters from the Hazaras’ “Enlightenment” crusade.  It also upended their nonviolent reform movement, once seen as a model for Afghanistan’s emerging democracy, and threatened to radicalize the long-suppressed minority whose younger generation has begun flexing its political muscle.

Once controlled by warlords who traded political patronage for ethnic peace, Hazaras are restive and split among conservative old-guard leadership, moderate intellectuals and young firebrands who advocate an ambitious, confrontational agenda, egged on by an assortment of government opponents.

“The Enlightenment movement has divided us. People are angry, and their emotions are being used by various groups to create pressure on the government,” said Mohammed Alizada, a moderate Hazara legislator. “We oppose the old warlords who only made deals and never demands for the people, but we need gradual reform . . . not a hardcore agenda.”

Although the Islamic State took credit for the bombing, it was seen largely as an opportunistic aberration rather than an alarming watershed in the Sunni militant group’s operations. The real battleground remains eastern Nangahar province near the Pakistan border, where Afghan forces supported by U.S. bombers are waging an intense fight against Islamic State loyalists, mostly former tribal militants from Pakistan.

In the capital, the foreign terrorist role in the July 23 bombing has been overshadowed by political finger-pointing in the ongoing domestic drama of ethnic power struggles under the government of President Ashraf Ghani. This issue has been epitomized by the dispute between Ghani and the Enlightenment crusade.

Mistrust on both sides

The Hazara protest movement first gained traction last November, when thousands of people converged on Kabul to protest the militant beheading of a 9-year-old Hazara girl and six others. The huge, peaceful rally awoke the nation to the grievances of the long-suppressed ethnic group, which comprises about 10 percent of the populace, and it won wide support.

But the dynamics changed when the group demanded that the government reroute planned electrical power lines from Central Asia so the corridor would run through the Hazara stronghold of Bamian. After protracted negotiations, Ghani agreed to bring electricity to Bamian but leave the power corridor in another region as planned. 

The activists, emboldened by new radical leadership, said that was not enough. They accused the government of discrimination and organized a march through Kabul in May. Officials permitted the rally but used cargo containers to block the marchers from swarming across Kabul’s official district as they had done in November.

By July, community anger had intensified and a second protest was planned. The route was again cordoned off by containers, creating a bottleneck at the city’s Deh Mazang Square — an ideal situation to stage a suicide bombing. The explosions detonated in a densely packed crowd with nowhere to run.

Even before the hillside graves had been dug, hard-line Hazara leaders accused the government of abetting the bombers and failing to protect the marchers. Raihana Azad, 34, a fiery legislator, charged that officials had “paved the way” for the bombing and prevented wounded victims from reaching hospitals.

Azad, also an Enlightenment leader, bitterly accused Ghani’s government of bias against Hazaras and said the president was behaving like a tribal dictator. Yet she insisted that the movement would remain peaceful and had no wish to sabotage the democratic gains Afghanistan has made since 2001.

“We have been systematically discriminated against, and I will keep raising my voice even when nobody listens, but we are not militants and we will never resort to violence,” she said. “We want the next generation to grow up thinking that it is not a crime to be Hazara.” 

But some officials accused the protest leaders of refusing repeated invitations by the president to meet and negotiate, even after he found funds to ensure Bamian would get electricity years before the power corridor is finished. By displaying such intransigence, they said, these leaders put their followers at risk to advance a more confrontational political agenda.

“I was filled with joy when the big demonstration happened for the girl. It was a great civil exercise, but this incident has reversed it,” said one aide to Ghani, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly. “The radicals pushed too hard, and it backfired,” he said. Fearing terrorists would look for a “soft spot” to attack, officials continued trying to find a compromise. “But they said no, we will march, and tragedy happened.”

On the hilltop cemetery, visitors wandered among the graves one evening this week and kneeled to look at the names and portraits of the victims. Several showed young men with short hair and casual clothes, described in handwritten messages as engineering or psychology students.

“We have always been underfoot, and these youths died so we could stand up for ourselves,” said a 19-year-old woman who gave her name as Sharifa. “For now we have been stopped, but they have given their blood, so we cannot give up. This fight must go on.”