Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Hazarajat, Pt II

The Afghan province of Bamyan is an extraordinary place from a number of perspectives. As I’ve mentioned, it is home to the famous carved Buddhas, built 1500 years ago and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

On our last day in the province, my colleague and I (along with our translator and British bodyguard) did a bit of exploring in the web of tunnels and caves, created centuries ago when the Silk Road was alive and well and Bamyan was a center of religious study and a hub of mercantilism.
But Bamyan is also many other things, including home to the Hazara ethnic minority. The Hazaras are Shi’ite in a largely Sunni country, and look distinctly Central Asian (with physical features similar to the Kyrgyz or Uzbeks).

The mosques are unusual, with poles mounted to the roofs, pointing skyward. These poles have multi-colored flags attached to them, nervously fluttering in the wind, and looking rather like Tibetan prayer flags.

And I keep wondering if this is where the flag motif comes from: perhaps, long ago, they really were Buddhist prayer flags, and the idea was incorporated when Islam came to the area.

The Hazaras suffered terribly during the reign of the Taliban, when thousands of them were murdered (and raped) in Kabul as well as in Bamyan. Many fought and died. Others fought and finally accommodated themselves to Taliban rule, in one way or another.

Ustad Akbari is one such figure, a former Hazara warlord who initially fought the Taliban, but decided that discretion was the better part of valor (to put it charitably) and switched sides when it became apparent that the Taliban would take over Bamyan. Akbari is an incumbent in the Wolesi Jirga (parliament), and my colleague and I tried mightily to get an interview with him prior to the election, but it didn’t happen. I keep wondering how the Hazara people reconcile his collaboration with the fact that he won a seat in the last election, and how he is seen today.
A very interesting interview with Akbari can be found here at the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies web site. Akbari puts his thinking at the time this way:

“…after the fall of Hazarajat in 1998, I thought the best way to serve the Hazara people was to join the Taliban. On the inside I thought I had a better chance of being able to prevent them from slaughtering my people. This is how I came to live under their dominion for three years. It was not because I supported their policies.

Akbari still generates his share of controversy. One of my short-term observers was Ben Skinner, a journalist who writes occasionally for Foreign Policy magazine, among other publications. Ben wrote an excellent piece on Bamyani politics, emphasizing the role of women and including a priceless interview with the province’s governor, Habiba Sarabi – Afghanistan’s only female governor. In Ben’s article, the governor discusses Akbari’s backing last year of a law that included “provisions that women submit to their husband's sexual demands, and remain in the home unless accompanied by a male relative.”

Read Ben’s article for the governor’s comments on Akbari and her assessment of the election, which took place on September 18.

You can go here for one of several Hazara web sites.

Attached are a number of photos, with more to come in the next week or two...