Hajji Nizam, the Hazara leader in Karaghuzhlah.
SHINGILABAD AND KARAGHUZHLAH — An Afghan grave is rarely more than an ovoid mound of dry clay. Sometimes there are a few rocks, arranged in no particular pattern, or a few shards of chipped pottery. Occasionally, some strips of colorful cloth whiffle from an uneven wooden pole that cants over the dead.
But don’t be fooled by this lack of mnemonics. The living remember their dead very well here. Especially if the deaths were violent.
Especially if the killers have crossed one of the many ethnic divides that carve up the Afghan countryside into a volatile jigsaw puzzle.
Beneath the vaulted ceiling of his living room in the village of Shingilabad, Hajji Sultan, a Pashtun elder with henna-painted toenails, recounts murders that took place 15 years ago as though they happened yesterday.
“Hazara people from Karaghuzhlah village killed my brother and my nephew,” Hajji Sultan says. His long gray beard fades to ivory where it reaches his chest. “In broad daylight. At four o’clock, on a Thursday. They ambushed them on the road, walked them off to the desert, broke their arms, and shot them in the head, several times.”
Hajji Sultan bends his fingers to count the 22 people Hazaras killed in Shingilabad that year: “Khan, Ghazi, Qamalladin, Sakhedad, Matai, Abdul Rauf…” Half of the old man’s right thumb is missing. “Shrapnel,” he explains, but refuses to tell me which battle the shrapnel had come from, and whom he was fighting.
I drive over to Karaghuzhlah, a mile or so to the southeast. Hot spring air along the gravel road quivers with bad blood and recriminations.
In the shadow of a white mulberry tree, Hajji Nizam, the Hazara leader in Karaghuzhlah, offers a tally of his own.
“Mohammad, Alivar, Haidar, Ghulam Sakhi, Nawruz.” Hajji Nizam touches the outstretched fingers of his right hand with the index finger of his left. His grandchildren, squatting around him, listen carefully, so that they, too, can remember the names of their ancestors murdered by the Pashtuns. So that they can one day repeat them to their children. Overripe berries fall soundlessly to the ground. “We also found two dead bodies of our people near Shingilabad,” Hajji Nizam says.
The old man cannot recall the exact year the Karaghuzhlah Hazara were murdered. Was it 1998, the year the Taliban, which is made up mostly of ethnic Pashtuns, mutilated, shot, and slit the throats of some 6,000 Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif?
Or was it 1997, the year members of the Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat party joined the Uzbek Junbish-e-Milli militia in the massacre of 3,000 Pashtun Taliban soldiers in the Balkh capital?
Hajji Sultan, Pashtun elder.
In a country racked by ethnic bloodshed for centuries, what’s a year or two — and who is to say that the decade-old crimes will not repeat tomorrow? The presence of Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan is itself the product of a 120-year-old state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing of Hazaras, the Shia Muslim minority who are believed to have descended from the armies of Genghis Khan, and who are traditionally shunned by other Afghans. As part of an anti-Shia campaign, the Afghan king Abdur Rahman — the “Iron Amir,” the history books here call him — forcibly settled 10,000 Pashtun families north of the Hindu Kush in the 1890s.
Today, the resurgent Taliban is finding a foothold in the pockets of Pashtun settlements across northern Afghanistan that date back to that forced migration. Fear of ethnic violence is one of the reasons some Pashtuns in the north embrace the return of the Islamic militia. Hajji Sultan says that only during the Taliban regime did he feel protected from his Hazara neighbors.
“Maybe there are good men among them,” the Pashtun elder concedes. “But how can we trust them? They want to rape our women and kill us, kill all the Pashtuns.”
“Maybe there are good Pashtuns in Shingilabad,” responds a young Hazara man named Sayed Aref. His village, Nawaqel, is a small oasis about three miles southeast of the Pashtun settlement. Sayed Aref’s cousin, Azghar, was one of the 14 villagers Taliban soldiers killed in 1998. The soldiers put him in a ditch and emptied a Kalashnikov magazine into his body. Azghar was 13 years old.
“I think these villagers are Taliban, or helped the Taliban,” Sayed Aref says. “We see them as a threat.”
On the way back to Mazar-e-Sharif, the gravel road takes me past a smattering of settlements: Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara. Each village sits apart from the rest, isolated within its thick clay walls like a small fortress. A few minutes outside the district center, Dawlatabad, the road cuts through what is left of the village of Desham.
Ethnic Pashtuns lived here once, until the U.S.-led offensive drove out the Taliban regime in 2001. Fearing reprisals by Uzbek and Hazara militias, the villagers fled. Some say they went to Pakistan; others say they moved to Chardara, the Taliban stronghold in Kunduz province. Stray blades of wheat and pale-blue wildflowers have sprouted beneath the caved-in domes of derelict rooftops.
But beyond the ruined houses, the fallow fields are still furrowed. As though eight years count for nothing. As though the abandoned village still remembers the men who once tilled its blood-soaked earth.
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.