KABUL — The last time Ramzan Ali saw his 9-year-old daughter alive was the day he put her in a van, along with her aunt and five other people from their Afghan village. They were headed for the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the little girl, Shukria, was going to spend time with her ailing grandmother.
The next time Ali saw his daughter, in mid-November, she was lying in a coffin with her severed head stitched jaggedly back onto her neck. She and the other passengers, all ethnic Hazaras from Ghazni province, had been abducted on the highway by Taliban insurgents, held captive for 27 days and then beheaded.
“She was the smartest girl in her class,” Ali, a farmer who walks with crutches, recalled in a recent interview. After spending years in Pakistan as war refugees, he and his family had returned home in 2012 to work their land again. “When I hurt my leg, Shukria told me she was going to become a doctor and fix it,” he said.
It was not the first time a group of Hazaras had been captured, and in some cases slain, by the Taliban or other predatory groups this year. Since the departure of NATO combat forces, Hazara leaders say, the growth of criminal gangs and aggressive Sunni Muslim insurgent factions has left members of their once-oppressed Shiite minority newly vulnerable to attack. In February, 31 Hazaras riding on two buses from Iran were abducted by Taliban fighters, and six were killed; a dozen other assaults have occurred since then.
But the gruesome beheading of the third-grader, whose battered image raced across Afghan social media, crystallized a sense of grievance among Hazaras and sparked the largest protest Kabul has seen since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. On Nov. 10, chanting crowds carried the seven coffins across the capital, demanding that the government provide better security for Hazara regions and the highways linking them to Kabul and other cities.
Six weeks later, despite President Ashraf Ghani’s personal pledge to take protective action and his appeal for ethnic harmony, the Hazara community is still seething. The Hazaras’ fear is compounded by their awareness that they have faced a mix of assailants, including Sunni nomad tribes, Taliban-friendly Pashtun neighbors, organized kidnapping rings, rival Taliban militias, Islamic State forces and fanatical copycats.
“Afghans of all kinds are victims of terrorists, but Hazaras are the only group targeted because of our ethnicity,” said Zaki Daryabi, an editor at the Daily Information, a newspaper in Kabul. He ticked off a list of abductions and killings in recent months, along with various suspected perpetrators. “No one knows who is behind it all, but it is not just the Taliban,” he said. “Kidnaping Hazaras for ransom is becoming a big business.”
In Ghazni, a province with a mixed Pashtun and Hazara populace, the picture is especially murky. Taliban forces hold sway in most Pashtun districts, and Hazaras say they face constant pressure to leave. Clashes between moderate and radical Taliban groups have spilled over from next-door Zabul province, where Shukria and her adult companions were held captive and killed. And Pashtun nomads have abducted Hazaras in revenge for stealing sheep.
For Hazara legislators, who swept the 2010 elections in Ghazni and envisioned building a model of modern progress there, the violence and crime have been a stunning blow. Mohammed Alizada, who represents the largest Hazara district, said the growing chaos has closed schools, shut down development projects and caused some villages to take up arms against pro-Taliban forces.
“The optimistic vision I had is gone,” Alizada said. “In the vacuum left by U.S. troops, security has deteriorated and local government is weak. We still support President Ghani, because we want the system to stay in place, but our people are very frustrated, and circumstances are conspiring against us. Shukria was just the spark, an excuse for Hazaras to raise their voices about much wider problems.”
In Kabul, where Hazaras were once ethnic underdogs relegated to pulling handcarts and cleaning houses, a decade of postwar democracy has opened new doors to education, religious expression and political rights. With more than 1 million Hazaras living in the capital now, a new generation has earned college degrees, once-suppressed Shiite holidays are celebrated across the city, and the Hazara stronghold of West Kabul has pioneered co-ed cafes and other liberal pursuits.
But the community’s fast-rising expectations are increasingly stymied by a combination of economic stagnation and ethnic discrimination, Hazara leaders say. Unemployment is rampant; Hazara day laborers cluster at corners, and college graduates are working as shop clerks and sidewalk phone-card sellers.
Despite Ghani’s commitment to inclusiveness, moreover, Hazaras represent a tiny percentage of employees and managers in most public agencies. Some critics say Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, is struggling to maintain his reformist stance amid pressure from traditional Pashtun leaders, who view power in ethnic terms and might turn toward the Taliban if rebuffed.
“The government is trying, but it’s new, and things take time,” said Mohammad Mohaqiq, a powerful former Hazara militia leader who is now a deputy to the government’s chief executive. He said that Hazaras are suffering from the same problems other Afghans face and that while they still do not enjoy equal opportunity, “space has opened up for them.”
Mohaqiq, interviewed in his ornate mansion in the capital, said he was concerned about the upsurge in violent attacks against Hazaras, but he attributed it largely to the increased presence of Islamic State forces and their radicalizing influence on some Afghan Sunni militants. “One melon passes its color to the next one,” he said with a short laugh.
For Shukria’s father and the relatives of the other travelers who were beheaded in November, the ordeal has continued long after the mutilated corpses were brought back from Zabul, paraded through the capital in protest and finally buried together in a stony village field.
The government has promised to send several hundred special police officers to open checkpoints along main roads through Ghazni, but the villagers, who met with a journalist in a nondescript hotel room deep in West Kabul, said that they do not dare travel openly between Ghazni and Kabul and that Taliban commanders control territory and supporters on all sides of their district.
“We are surrounded, with no safe way in and out,” said Nawroz Ali, the nephew of one slain traveler.
He spoke of past ethnic-cleansing campaigns by Pashtun kings who drove Hazaras from their homelands and said history is threatening to repeat itself.
“The Taliban forces us to pay tax and join jihad or be persecuted, and our Pashtun neighbors, in the name of the Taliban, are pressuring us the way they always have,” he said. “They do not consider us to be Afghans, and they want us to be gone.”