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Brutal beheading of nine-year-old girl sparks outrage over persecution of Afghan minority group

KABUL — The last time Ramzan Ali Tabason saw his nine-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,” Tabason, a farmer who walks with crutches, recalled in an interview last week. 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 have 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 neighbours, 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 Hazara 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


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