KABUL — Inside the two seized buses, terrified passengers prayed to remain in their seats. The masked gunmen had collected their identification cards and snatched their cellphones, survivors would later recall. Next, they separated males from females and Sunni Muslims from Shiite Muslims. Finally, they ordered the Shiite males — all ethnic Hazaras — off the buses.
The kidnappers then vanished into the harsh terrain of southern Zabul province with 31 men and boys, sparking concerns of a potential fresh wave of sectarian tensions in Afghanistan.
Six weeks later, their families remain in an emotional limbo.
“We don’t know what our sin is,” said Namatullah Noori, 40, after recounting what his mother, one of the surviving passengers, had told him. “From one side, they are targeting us. And from the other side, the government is not helping us.”
His 65-year-old father is among the abducted men.
In recent weeks, concerns have mounted across the nation over the emergence of the Islamic State, the Iraq- and Syria-based Sunni movement that has violently targeted Shiites and other religious and ethnic groups. Now the events that unfolded on the buses, corroborated by Afghan officials and victims’ relatives, are fanning those fears. In interviews, Afghan officials and Hazara leaders said they suspect that a rogue Taliban faction that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State is behind the abductions in Zabul.
For the nation’s minority Hazaras, the kidnappings, along with other recent attacks, are grim reminders of the persecution they endured under the rule of the mainly ethnic Pashtun and Sunni Taliban, which viewed Shiites as apostates. Since the abductions in late February, there have been at least three more mass kidnappings of Hazaras in three other provinces, according to Afghan officials and Hazara.net, a nonprofit Web site focused on the community’s rights and culture.
“Historically, we have struggled a lot to be accepted as normal citizens,” said Hayatullah Meheryar, 30, a Hazara activist. “But now these assaults show they want to restrict our development that we’ve achieved in the past 13 years.”
Throughout the 20th century, successive Pashtun-led regimes in Afghanistan targeted the Hazaras, the country’s third-largest ethnic group, making up about 20 percent of the population. Also a religious minority, they were massacred and tortured. Uprisings were viciously crushed. Their religious leaders were jailed; women were abducted. Most Hazaras languished in poverty and humiliation, forced to take menial jobs.
The Taliban carried out mass executions of Hazaras and drove them from their lands and meager livelihoods. Tens of thousands of Hazaras sought refuge in frigid mountain hideouts. In the Hazara ethnic homeland of Bamian province in early 2001, the Taliban methodically destroyed two giant Buddha statues that had survived for centuries, drawing an international outcry.
Since the Taliban regime collapsed in late 2001, however, the Hazaras have experienced a communal rebirth. Many returned from exile in Iran and other countries to forge a future here. A new generation entered universities and later found jobs with the United Nations and international firms and aid agencies. Economically, many flourished. Politically, theygained more clout.
Attacks against them had grown rare. In 2011, a suicide bomber in Kabul killed 56 Shiite worshipers, mostly Hazaras, on the holy day of Ashura in the bloodiest sectarian attack of the war. Last year, gunmen in central Ghowr province executed 15 Hazara civilians traveling in a minibus.
Now, a familiar anxiety is boiling up again within the community.
Most of the Hazaras in the two buses attacked in February were returning from Iran. Some had gone there for construction or other blue-collar jobs, and others to visit relatives.
Noori’s father and mother were inside with his 17-year-old son. They had taken him for medical treatment in Iran. When the teenager saw the gunmen, he fainted. That saved his life. The gunmen left him in the vehicle after Noori’s mother pleaded for mercy. But her pleas couldn’t save her husband.
“Who else but the Taliban can be behind this?” Noori said.
The Taliban’s central command has denied responsibility for the abductions. But the insurgency has become increasingly disjointed, with many Taliban factions acting on their own. Some have become so disgruntled that they have aligned themselves with the Islamic State to gain funds and prominence, according to U.S. military commanders who view the group as a potential threat but still at an embryonic stage in Afghanistan.
Survivors of the Zabul kidnappings told authorities that the gunmen spoke local languages and appeared to be ethnic Pashtuns from their accents. That’s a reason why officials say they think that the assailants were homegrown disciples of the Islamic State, also known as Daesh.
“These are Taliban who have changed their colors,” said Ali Akbar Qaseemi, an influential ethnic Hazara parliamentarian. “Daesh’s goal is to disintegrate the nation by creating problems among ethnic groups in Afghanistan.”
For many Hazaras, the fresh threats against them reflect the vanishing U.S. and international military presence. The abductions unfolded on major highways in areas once patrolled by foreign forces. With far fewer international troops, Afghanistan’s security forces are straining to fill the gap. Growing portions of the country are unpoliced.
“With the foreign troops gone, the Taliban see an opportunity to attack us again,” Meheryar said.
Since the abductions in Zabul, Afghan police and security forces have mounted unsuccessful operations to rescue the 31 men and boys. So far, there have been no public demands from the kidnappers.
Afghan government officials have declined to provide details of the incident or the efforts to free the victims, beyond vowing to use all means necessary to find them.
“The government is working hard on this matter,” said Ajmal Obaid Abidy, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
In the meantime, the families of the 31 men and boys have embarked on a frustrating daily quest to learn the fate of their loved ones. Some have traveled to Kabul from other cities — even from Pakistan. Each morning, they visit the offices of Hazara leaders and government officials. Each evening, they return home disappointed.
“No one is giving us any answers,” said Hussein Ali, 67, whose son is among the abducted. “We can’t do anything.”
“We are poor, working-class people,” Noori said. “We don’t know the influential people. We don’t have power.”
Esmail Kayhan’s family is struggling as much from the lack of knowledge as finances. For the past year, his father had been working construction in Iran, sending money home every month. Now, he’s among the kidnapped. Kayhan’s older brother, who works in a bakery in Saudi Arabia, was forced to take a loan to help the family.
Kayhan said he is most worried about his mother, who has heart problems, and his grandmother, who is frail. He fears the shock of learning the truth could harm them. So he keeps telling them that his father is still in Iran, dealing with some last-minute business.
The other day, he said, his mother asked him: “Why does your father keep calling you? Why doesn’t he call me?”
He shrugged and said he didn’t know.
As each day passes, the Hazara community is growing angrier — and more organized. Small protests have been launched in Kabul and other parts of the country. There have also been demonstrations in Australia and Europe. On Twitter, activists have created the hashtag #Free31Hazaras, as well as a Web site: www.bringback31hazaras.com.au.
This week, they set up tents near the presidential palace in protest. Ali, who has been in the capital for five weeks, said he has no plans to return to his home in Quetta, Pakistan.
“I will remain in Kabul until I learn whether my son is alive or dead,” he said.