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Hazaras form a majority of the population in the central highland region of Afghanistan known as Hazarajat, and are a significant minority in the cities of Kabul and Mazar-i Sharif.2 Most are Imami Shia Muslims, recognizing the leadership of a succession of twelve Imams beginning with the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law Ali. A minority are Ismaili Shia, who look for leadership to the lineal descendants of the sixth Shia Imam, represented today by the Aga Khan. In either case, the religious identity of the Hazaras sharply distinguishes them from the Sunni Muslims who predominate in most other regions of the country and has contributed to their political and economic marginalization by successive regimes in Kabul.

The emergence in 1994 of the Taliban, militant Sunni Muslims who tend to regard Shia as not being true Muslims,3 threatened to further undermine the Hazaras' position. This fear appeared to be realized in August 1998, when Taliban forces in the multiethnic northern city of Mazar-i Sharif killed at least 2,000 civilians-most of whom were Hazaras. The killings were partly in reprisal for the summary execution in May 1997 of some 2,000 Taliban prisoners by ethnic Hazara and Uzbek forces, but there was also a sectarian component to the Taliban's actions. In the immediate aftermath of the city's occupation by the Taliban, the newly installed governor, Mullah Manon Niazi, delivered public speeches in which he termed the Hazaras infidels and threatened them with death if they did not convert to Sunni Islam or leave Afghanistan.4 Hundreds of civilians fled south toward Hazarajat, accompanied by retreating forces of the Shia party, Hizb-i Wahdat, amid rocket fire and aerial bombardment.

Most of Hazarajat, which had been governed by various factions of the Shia party Hizb-i Wahdat since 1989, fell to the Taliban in September 1998 after a crippling year-long blockade. Despite the apprehensions of many local residents, the transition involved far fewer civilian casualties than had been the case in Mazar-i Sharif. Some observers attributed this to an alliance that was forged with the Taliban by Hujjat-al-Islam Sayyid Mohammad Akbari, a Hizb-i Wahdat faction leader, shortly after the Taliban seized Bamiyan, the major city in Hazarajat and the capital of a district and province of the same name. The Taliban subsequently withdrew most non-local forces from several districts of Hazarajat, leaving them under the nominal control of Akbari appointees or other Shia commanders. Bamiyan, Yakaolang, and a few other districts were directly administered by the Taliban.5

As of February 2001, several enclaves within Hazarajat remained under the control of a Hizb-i Wahdat faction led by Karim Khalili, a leading Shia mullah. In some areas, Hizb-i Wahdat governed with the support of an allied Shia party, Harakat-i Islami. Both Hizb-i Wahdat and Harakat-i Islami are members of the United Front, a loose and often fractious coalition of mainly Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara parties, which in early 2001 together controlled about 10 percent of Afghanistan's territory. Two of these enclaves, the districts of Balkhob and Dar-i Suf, sustained aerial bombardment by the Taliban during 1999 and 2000, prompting a renewed exodus of Hazara refugees to Iran.

Yakaolang district continued to be contested after its occupation by the Taliban in September 1998. Khalili's Hizb-i Wahdat faction and Harakat-i Islami briefly retook control of Yakaolang at the end of 1998 and Bamiyan district in April 1999. However, they lost both districts in May of that year, after heavy fighting in Bamiyan. On December 28, 2000, Hizb-i Wahdat and Harakat-i Islami forces again occupied Yakaolang. The few Taliban defenders fled.6

2 The term Hazara, as used in this report, includes Sayyids, who account for about 5 percent of Hazarajat's population. Sayyids form a distinct caste within Hazara communities, based on their tradition of descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and are regarded by some in Hazarajat as a separate ethnic group. Chris Johnson, "Hazarajat Baseline Study - Interim Report (Part I)," for the U.N. Co-Ordinator's Office, March 2000, pp. 8-10.

3 Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 69.

4 In his speeches, Niazi also held the Hazaras collectively responsible for the summary executions of the Taliban prisoners. Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: the Massacre in Mazar-i Sharif," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 10, no. 7(C), November 1998, p. 11.

5 Johnson, "Hazarajat Baseline Study," p. 5 and Appendix D.

6 After Hizb-i Wahdat and Harakat-i Islami forces took control of Yakaolang, troops led by Harakat-i Islami Commander Moalim Aziz of Topchi village, in central Bamiyan, entered a local hospital and summarily executed a wounded nineteen-year-old Taliban soldier who was receiving treatment there. The Taliban soldier was identified as Amanullah, son of Ubaidullah, of Maroof district, in Kandahar province. Aziz then established his base in the hospital, which his troops looted of equipment and medicines. Although local staff hid some of the equipment in their houses, when the Taliban retook the area they looted all the remaining heavy equipment remaining in the hospital, as well as a six-month supply of medicines in the central store. Interview with witness, Kabul, January 2001.

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