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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Hazara people's long suffering
Refugees from Hazara community listen to the evening news in Pakistan
The Hazara people have a strong sense of community
Daniel Lak

First they fled fighting against occupation forces from the old Soviet Union. Then they came here to escape a vicious civil war.

The coming of the Taleban five years ago saw religious persecution intensify. And now they are running away from hunger, winter and American bombs.

The Hazara people of Afghanistan are its most culturally distinct, and most persecuted. Their gentle Mongolian features set them apart from other Afghans; so does their adherence to the Shia sect of Islam.

So long as they bomb, only the Taleban get food

Traditionally they live in the central Afghan province of Bamiam, and in southwest Kabul. Now most are in exile, many in Quetta's Hazaratown district.

Dr Kasim Waheedi is typical of his people. He is slight in stature, generous and well-educated. He has lived in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and now Pakistan. And he is trying in his own small way to help his people cope with exile - he runs a primary school.

"Under the Taleban, life was unbearable for us," he said, reeling off a grim list of places where Hazaras have been massacred by fanatical Taleban commanders ready to use any excuse to kill Shia Muslims.

"I came here earlier and watched as the Taleban were founded, so I realized that many, many more Hazara people would come to Quetta . That's why I run this school."

Difficult childhoods

Thirteen-year-old Hafisa is one of his top students. She greets visitors shyly but with dignity. After an exchange of pleasantries, Dr Waheedi coaxes her to talk about her father, in jail in Kandahar for the past four years.

"We haven't seen him since he was arrested and accused of spying for Iran," she says, simply and without emotion.

Dr Waheedi looks at her with pride. "She's the head of her household now," he says. He scoffs at any suggestion that Hafisa's father was a spy and explains his arrest as "Taleban persecution".

Other children, some of them his own, come and go as Dr Waheedi talks about his students and the prospects for their lives.

"I doubt that they'll ever go back," he said, "unless the Americans really do bring a proper government with all the Afghans represented. The Hazara's deserve a major role in that, and I wonder if we'll get it?"

Workers load trucks with sacks of wheat
A refugee says food aid is not getting through

Outside the school, in the dusty streets of Hazaratown, women hurry along between the market and their homes. Many are newly-arrived refugees. The powerful sense of community here, and among the Hazara people in general, means people are more willing to help new refugees settle in.

Twenty-year-old Mafila is using the kitchen of a neighbour of Dr Waheedi. She is stirring onions and garlic and talking about life in Kandahar - the city she fled last week.

"There's no food in the shops and no water because American bombs knocked off the electricity supply to the pumps," she said. "We simply couldn't stay. We were so afraid when the bombs came every night."

She does not know of any civilian casualties but has heard rumours that ordinary people died in the bombing.

Her own children stayed inside her house. Like so many Afghan women, she is a widow. Her husband died of "a fever", she said. "our hospitals aren't very good."


The distinctly Shia call to prayer sounds as Mafila is speaking, summoning the faithful to a nearby mosque, or Imambargha, as the places of worship are known in this branch of Islam.

The sound is more plaintive, and occasional Persian words are heard amongst the Arabic of the Holy Koran.

I have seen no food, I have seen only hungry children

After prayers, five women file into the open courtyard of the building and resume spinning wool into yarn - a job that earns a dollar a day. Khadija is 45, named after the first wife of the Holy Prophet Mohammed. That Khadija was a successful businesswoman whose camel caravans traded up and down the Arab world of 1300 years ago.

Her modern namesake is destitute, an escapee from Kabul with an 80-year-old husband and four children to feed on a pittance.

When I tell her that some British political leaders have suggested that enough food is getting into Afghanistan - despite the bombardment - she gets angry and shouts at me.

"I have seen no food, I have seen only hungry children," she said. "Someone died of hunger in this mosque last week. Where is this food? Where is this relief?

"So long as they bomb, only the Taleban get food. We Hazara people always suffer. Always. When will that ever change?"

The BBC's Daniel Lak in Quetta
reports on the refugee crisis
See also:

10 Oct 01 | South Asia
Ethnic divisions fuel Afghan fears
16 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Can enemies rule together?
11 Oct 01 | Middle East
Fleeing the war zone
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