Hazaras fear for the future as foreign troops exit Afghanistan
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The choice was straightforward for Hamidullah Asadi, a member of Afghanistan's minority Hazara community -- wait for the next deadly attack or join a growing militia in the mountains.
After spending months recovering from grave injuries inflicted by an Islamic State (IS) suicide bomber, he was ready to fight.
"We were forced to take up arms," said Asadi, now a spokesman for the Resistance for Justice Movement -- a band of Hazara fighters based in the country's rugged, snow-capped central highlands.
"Our expectations of those who were supposed to defend us were not met."
Afghan security forces are struggling to hold off an increasingly powerful Taliban as international troops withdraw from the county, with peace talks between the warring sides slow-moving.
Fearing the government will collapse and the country descend again into civil war, Hazaras are starting to prepare for the worst.
Comprising roughly 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan's 38-million population, Hazaras have long been persecuted for their largely Shiite faith by Sunni hardliners in a country wracked by deep ethnic divisions.
Asadi was a student at Kabul University in 2016 when he narrowly survived twin suicide blasts at a rally that killed over 80 people and marked the beginning of a new wave of violence targeting the Hazaras, including assaults claimed by the Islamic State group.
He says he is now one of thousands of armed fighters ready to be mobilised by a single call from their commander, Abdul Ghani Alipur, a popular Hazara figure with a Robin Hood reputation.
The militia boasts of patrolling roads and launching brazen raids on Taliban areas to abduct the relatives of militants, later used as bargaining chips to release Hazara hostages.
The growth of the militia and similar armed outfits are increasingly problematic for the Afghan government, which is wary of allowing independent fighting forces to build up, but also fears a crackdown would ignite confrontation with the communities that support them.
- Easy targets -
During the country's vicious civil war in the 1990s, they were mercilessly shelled in factional fighting and later massacred in the thousands amid the Taliban's ruthless conquest of the country.
Few groups, however, have taken as much advantage of the new order established after the overthrow of Taliban rule.
The Hazaras flocked to enrol their children in schools -- including their daughters -- and entered the political arena in unprecedented numbers.
But those achievements remain fragile.
The group has increasingly taken the brunt of rising violence as IS suicide bombers attacked their mosques, schools, rallies and hospitals in western Kabul's Hazara enclave of Dasht-e-Barchi, killing hundreds.
The Taliban have also kidnapped and killed Hazaras travelling on the country's perilous roads with near impunity.
"Even with the presence of the US troops or NATO troops in Afghanistan, they were already vulnerable," said Sima Samar, a leading activist and former head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Murad Ali Haidari hoped the move would shield his family from the violence; instead, Haidari's son was killed in one of two bombings in the region in November.
- Dotted with checkpoints -
Now Bamiyan is dotted with checkpoints, with security forces frequently searching cars and questioning passengers.
"We moved from Kabul to Bamiyan to have better security and live in a peaceful place," said Haidari.
"Now when we leave home, it is difficult to imagine returning alive."
Even leaving the country doesn't guarantee their safety.
A group of Hazara miners -- many of whom were Afghan nationals -- were brutally massacred in an attack claimed by IS in Pakistan last month.
And to the west, thousands of Hazaras who crossed the border to Iran ended up being trained and deployed with Shiite militias in Syria over the past decade.
The Iranian foreign minister last month called the fighters the "best forces with a military background" that could be used against IS in Afghanistan.
Still, others are hesitant about taking up arms -- for now at least.
When Hamidullah Rafi's sister Rahila was killed by a suicide bomber at an education centre in Kabul in 2018, he built a new one in her memory.
"It's a kind of war against ignorance, against the people who kill students, the people who are against education and the empowerment of the youth," said Rafi.
Like many in Dasht-e-Barchi, he pays several private guards out of his own pocket, citing the government's inability to secure the area.
But Rafi fears when the US pulls out of Afghanistan his hand may be forced.
"Will I be forced to take a gun to kill those people who are against me?" he asked. "Maybe."
Hazara militiaman Shawali Nizampoor is more certain, and says the community needs to be prepared to defend itself.
"We have to be ready."