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World

Thousands Of Afghan Demonstrators Demand Justice For Dead Shiites

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A very different sort of ground campaign is taking shape in Afghanistan. Yesterday, thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Kabul. They were carrying the coffins of seven people who had been kidnapped and murdered. It's not clear who did it or why. But we do know the victims belonged to Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic minority, a group that has long been targeted. Journalist Sune Engel Rasmussen is covering this story. He's in Kabul. Welcome to the program.

SUNE ENGEL RASMUSSEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Do you have any clarity on who the victims were precisely?

RASMUSSEN: Yeah, they were relatives from the same sort of extended family. And they included two women and one 9-year-old girl called Shukria, who's become sort of a martyr for this protest movement. But apart from that, we don't know exactly who they were. We do know that they were from Ghazni Province, which is about 70 miles out of Kabul where there are large Hazara communities.

INSKEEP: Who are the Hazaras, and who's been targeting them?

RASMUSSEN: The Hazaras are a Shia minority. Most of the Afghan population is Sunni. That's normally not a big problem in everyday life. There is a lot of sectarian tolerance in Afghanistan. But the Hazaras have been targeted traditionally by the Taliban or other militant groups. And at least according to officials, this group that decapitated this family was another Sunni militant group, a splinter group who had now pledged allegiance to Islamic State. That's unconfirmed, but it seems like the bodies of these people were found in an area where the Taliban were fighting against Islamic State loyalists.

INSKEEP: And is this attack on men, women and children beyond the normal persecution, if we can say, of the Hazaras?

RASMUSSEN: It does happen on a fairly regular basis that men are abducted. And they sometimes turn up killed. Sometimes, they're released. But decapitation of women and of a 9-year-old child is, as far as I know, unheard of here.

INSKEEP: Now, when people protested the killings of these members of the Hazara ethnic group, were the protesters Hazaras, or are other people in Afghanistan rising to defend them and speak up for them?

RASMUSSEN: On Tuesday night, the bodies were brought from Ghazni to Kabul. And I went out to the mourning ceremony, which turned into sort of a protest of a thousand people more or less. And there, most of the participants - if not all of them - were Hazara. And the demands there were that they wanted the government to protect Hazaras specifically. Then yesterday, the protest morphed into a larger demonstration with participation from other ethnic groups. And the calls there were more, like, broader demands for protection from the government, more security. And they wanted actually the president to step down.

INSKEEP: Is the government acting?

RASMUSSEN: Well, the president, Ashraf Ghani, went on national TV yesterday, when the protests had dispersed a bit. And he said that the pain of the nation was also his pain. And then he tried to downplay the ethnic element of the killings and said that these were Afghans who were killed. And to judge from people that I've spoken to and from reactions on social media, people were not impressed with the speech. They said it sounded like anything any politician's ever said in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul. Thanks very much.

RASMUSSEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.