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Abdul Ali Mazari
Shi’a Martyr

Mazari was the leader of the Hazara, a religious and ethnic minority in Afghanistan. In death, he has become a martyr and hero. The word Hazara meant “battalion” or “one thousand” in Persian. Probably a Persian king garrisoned Mongol-Turkish horse archers in Afghanistan and they stayed. Mazari’s beard was pretty substantial for a Hazara; most look Asiatic, with sparse facial hair and cowboy eyes. In Afghanistan looking different can be dangerous. Bushy beards are a masculine and pious display amongst Pashtuns, so lacking them is a social handicap, even illegal under the Taliban. Also, Hazara are Shi’a, a sect of Islam that split off after the martyrdom of Imam Ali. Mazari’s murder made him a martyr to a people who identify themselves as persecuted and celebrate martyrdom.

Most Hazara live in Bamian, a crossroads province in the center of the country, mountainous, inaccessible, and easy to defend. Oppressed by Pashtuns and nomads for centuries, the Hazara actually benefited from the breakdown in established order. They built a militia with strong centralized leadership and drove their enemies out.

Over the years, thousands of poor Hazara migrated to the cities where they took low-paying jobs. Urban Hazara had a much worse experience than their Bamian cousins. Mujahideen and Taliban alike persecuted them. In Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, the Hazara organized militias to defend themselves. When Mullah Omar captured Kabul in 1996, he encountered a Hazara militia under the command of Abdul Ali Mazari. Mazari met with the Taliban to negotiate, but they took him prisoner. Later they claimed he reached for a gun, but more likely they just murdered him as one more heretic.

Hatred between the Taliban and the Hazara became a death struggle. Mullah Omar launched an ethnic cleansing style campaign in Bamian, but it went slowly because of the terrain. When he took the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997, the Hazara rose up and massacred the Taliban garrison, shooting down thousands in the streets. It was the single greatest disaster suffered by the Taliban. When they recaptured the city the next year the Taliban avenged themselves, murdering thousands. The US invasion saved the Hazara from what would have been bad years, suffering at the hands of the Taliban. Today, they are promised representation in Karzai’s government.