Warlord or Ethnic Hero: Manipulation of the Media in Afghanistan

by Melissa Kerr Chiovenda

KERRWhen I first arrived in Afghanistan last summer to complete my dissertation fieldwork research on ethnic Hazara identity in Bamyan, reports surfaced that a few days earlier forces of Abdul Hakim Shujai, an ethnic Hazara and Afghan Local Police Commander in the Khas district, Uruzgan, had attacked several Pashtun villages in retaliation for the killing of two ethnic Hazaras.by Melissa Kerr Chiovenda

KERRWhen I first arrived in Afghanistan last summer to complete my dissertation fieldwork research on ethnic Hazara identity in Bamyan, reports surfaced that a few days earlier forces of Abdul Hakim Shujai, an ethnic Hazara and Afghan Local Police Commander in the Khas district, Uruzgan, had attacked several Pashtun villages in retaliation for the killing of two ethnic Hazaras. The Independent Human Rights Commission confirmed that he executed 16 Pashtuns. Shujai and his men were supported by US Special Operations Forces, making the situation even more concerning. Complaints by Pashtun locals to Kabul were so numerous that the government called for Shujai’s arrest.

The Independent Human Rights Commission confirmed that he executed 16 Pashtuns. Shujai and his men were supported by US Special Operations Forces, making the situation even more concerning. Complaints by Pashtun locals to Kabul were so numerous that the government called for Shujai’s arrest.

At the time I didn’t grasp the relevance of this incident, although I was worried by fact that the largely peaceful (in the current conflict) Hazaras had become involved in such ethnic strife. I do fear the potential for future ethnic violence, particularly between Hazaras and Pashtuns. Hazaras have a long history of oppression, starting in the late 1800s, when Shah Abdur Rahman brought them under firm state control by waging violent war against them. Subsequently, Hazaras occupied an extremely low social status. They were, with few exceptions, effectively denied access to higher education and meaningful political participation, and made up a sort of manual-laborer/servant class. They suffered during the Taliban era too, when several mass killings took place.

It is clear that many Hazaras harbor ambivalent feelings towards Pashtuns — many hope for peace between all ethnicities while at the same time finding past discrimination against them difficult to forget. Pashtuns also exhibit such ambivalence. During fieldwork in Pashtun-majority Jalalabad, I also found that some hope for a peaceful existence with other peoples, while others still see the Hazaras as inferior.

A month ago, an incident occurred that brought Shujai back to my attention and made me realize he was not “old news.” A Bamyan journalist, working for an international Dari news source, wrote a report revisiting the case. The journalist, and the details of his article and the news source shall remain anonymous and vague for security reasons. In the report, an article from an Australian news source was cited, which listed horrific atrocities Shujai was supposed to have committed.

The reaction from the Bamyan community was swift and harsh. Many residents chastised the reporter on the website of the article and on facebook, insisting that Shujai was a Hazara hero who, because of successfully fighting the Taliban, was a victim of Pashtun intolerance, and that the journalist had stepped out of line and betrayed Hazaras by writing the article. Numerous threatening phone calls were made and for a period of time the journalist sought shelter in a safe-house. While I do understand Hazara desires for a strong military figure in light of their history of oppression, initially I was shocked; wasn’t it the duty of a journalist to report the truth, and shouldn’t his fellow Hazaras, many claiming to be educated and open-minded, support him? But then I spoke with the journalist about the case, and he told me that he initially wrote his story in a way that did not implicate Shujai, but reported all viewpoints. His superiors, who happened to be ethnic Pashtuns, demanded that he re-write it in a way that portrayed Shujai more negatively. He himself supported Shujai and also saw him as a sort of Hazara hero, but was afraid of losing his job. I was still disappointed that so many seemed unable to accept that perhaps Shujai was guilty of at least some of the accusations. Still, ethnic implications had become so complex that the media was manipulated and feelings of prejudice on both sides ran deep.

One informant was more balanced when discussing the issue. He said surely Shujai was guilty of something, but not all of the allegations. He also said that such areas of Uruzgan were ethnically cleansed by Abdur Rahman, and “bring tears to Hazaras’ eyes” to hear them mentioned. Another informant said that while Hazaras are largely peaceful, if you oppress a people for over 100 years and then put a gun in their hand, something will happen. In the current conflict Hazaras do not fight, but they are also one of the few ethnicities that have been successfully disarmed in the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration program.

Shujai remains a question mark. He himself says he is not in hiding but is still operating in Uruzgan, fighting the Taliban. This means he has likely acquired a sort of warlord status and can operate without government support. He either has enough followers that the government cannot suppress him, or they allow him to unofficially keep a position as commander, and call for his arrest without acting to appease local Pashtuns. Whatever the case, Shujai not only demonstrates some of the problems associated with the Afghan Local Police, which can all too easily become private armies that might turn on the government, but also the complexities and potential dangers of ethnic relations.

About the author:

Melissa Kerr Chiovenda is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. She has completed a total of 18 months of fieldwork in Afghanistan, in Bamyan and Nangarhar Provinces. Prior to that, she was a high school teacher in the United States and served for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan.

At the time I didn’t grasp the relevance of this incident, although I was worried by fact that the largely peaceful (in the current conflict) Hazaras had become involved in such ethnic strife. I do fear the potential for future ethnic violence, particularly between Hazaras and Pashtuns. Hazaras have a long history of oppression, starting in the late 1800s, when Shah Abdur Rahman brought them under firm state control by waging violent war against them. Subsequently, Hazaras occupied an extremely low social status. They were, with few exceptions, effectively denied access to higher education and meaningful political participation, and made up a sort of manual-laborer/servant class. They suffered during the Taliban era too, when several mass killings took place.

It is clear that many Hazaras harbor ambivalent feelings towards Pashtuns — many hope for peace between all ethnicities while at the same time finding past discrimination against them difficult to forget. Pashtuns also exhibit such ambivalence. During fieldwork in Pashtun-majority Jalalabad, I also found that some hope for a peaceful existence with other peoples, while others still see the Hazaras as inferior.

A month ago, an incident occurred that brought Shujai back to my attention and made me realize he was not “old news.” A Bamyan journalist, working for an international Dari news source, wrote a report revisiting the case. The journalist, and the details of his article and the news source shall remain anonymous and vague for security reasons. In the report, an article from an Australian news source was cited, which listed horrific atrocities Shujai was supposed to have committed.

The reaction from the Bamyan community was swift and harsh. Many residents chastised the reporter on the website of the article and on facebook, insisting that Shujai was a Hazara hero who, because of successfully fighting the Taliban, was a victim of Pashtun intolerance, and that the journalist had stepped out of line and betrayed Hazaras by writing the article. Numerous threatening phone calls were made and for a period of time the journalist sought shelter in a safe-house. While I do understand Hazara desires for a strong military figure in light of their history of oppression, initially I was shocked; wasn’t it the duty of a journalist to report the truth, and shouldn’t his fellow Hazaras, many claiming to be educated and open-minded, support him? But then I spoke with the journalist about the case, and he told me that he initially wrote his story in a way that did not implicate Shujai, but reported all viewpoints. His superiors, who happened to be ethnic Pashtuns, demanded that he re-write it in a way that portrayed Shujai more negatively. He himself supported Shujai and also saw him as a sort of Hazara hero, but was afraid of losing his job. I was still disappointed that so many seemed unable to accept that perhaps Shujai was guilty of at least some of the accusations. Still, ethnic implications had become so complex that the media was manipulated and feelings of prejudice on both sides ran deep.

One informant was more balanced when discussing the issue. He said surely Shujai was guilty of something, but not all of the allegations. He also said that such areas of Uruzgan were ethnically cleansed by Abdur Rahman, and “bring tears to Hazaras’ eyes” to hear them mentioned. Another informant said that while Hazaras are largely peaceful, if you oppress a people for over 100 years and then put a gun in their hand, something will happen. In the current conflict Hazaras do not fight, but they are also one of the few ethnicities that have been successfully disarmed in the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration program.

Shujai remains a question mark. He himself says he is not in hiding but is still operating in Uruzgan, fighting the Taliban. This means he has likely acquired a sort of warlord status and can operate without government support. He either has enough followers that the government cannot suppress him, or they allow him to unofficially keep a position as commander, and call for his arrest without acting to appease local Pashtuns. Whatever the case, Shujai not only demonstrates some of the problems associated with the Afghan Local Police, which can all too easily become private armies that might turn on the government, but also the complexities and potential dangers of ethnic relations.

About the author:

Melissa Kerr Chiovenda is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. She has completed a total of 18 months of fieldwork in Afghanistan, in Bamyan and Nangarhar Provinces. Prior to that, she was a high school teacher in the United States and served for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan.

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