Before he fell from grace former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suspended the processing of applications for asylum from Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees, on the dubious grounds that the security situation in the two countries had improved substantially – dubious both because there is no basis in international refugee law to put applicants in a state of suspended animation, and because there is good reason to believe that the situation is anything but safe for many of these refugees.
Large numbers of the Afghan refugees are Hazaras, partly Mongol people from the high country of central Afghanistan, whom many Afghans believe are descended from the armies of Genghis Khan, which marched into the area in the 12th century. Unlike the Sunni Muslim Pashtun, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and others, they are Shia, and they have been viciously persecuted by the Taliban.
In his The Places in Between, recounting his epic walk across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul in 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime, Scottish ex-military officer and former diplomat Rory Stewart, now a Conservative MP, gives some feel for what Taliban rule meant for the Hazara, the poorest of Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups.
Of the village of Yakawlang, whose “warm houses” were described in his diary by Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, who had travelled this way in the fifteenth century, Stewart writes of spending the night of his arrival there in a Médecins sans Frontières compound and says:
The next morning I walked through the bazaar to look at the ‘warm houses’ that had welcomed Babur. I found only charred empty shells. Yakawlang had been one of the largest towns in Hazarajat with a literate and politically engaged population. The Taliban attacked the town in 1998 and executed 400 men against the clinic wall. Since then 75 per cent of the population of Yakawlang had either died or fled.
In the charred empty shells of what had once been the shops in the lower bazaar, some men had set up trestle tables with small awnings. In one there were biscuit boxes, in another the hanging carcass of a cow. But it was mostly rubble, filled with the fresh faeces of men and dogs. I walked past shop after shop without ceiling or upper walls, black with soot. The smoke from the fire must have filled the narrow valley, and the rattle of the firing squad’s automatic weapons would have echoed off the steep walls.
Three days after leaving Yakawlang Stewart came to the top of the Shaidan pass and descended into the town:
The village of Shaidan looked beautiful as we [Stewart and a mastiff that had been given to him early in the journey] descended. Its fields were broad beside the river. The ornate octagonal towers of the castle stood above a mud bazaar of eighty shops that led to the courtyards of a seminary. Ancient poplars lined the landlords’ orchards. The old caves in the cliff were set with wooden windows and above them a fifteen-thousand-foot snow peak rose against a dark blue sky.
But when I reached the first building I realised that this was a ghost town. All the shops were smoothly rendered in dark soot... The fire had consumed the lintels and rafters and left crisp shells of baked mud... All the buildings were abandoned.
Six years before there had been two thousand families in Shaidan. Three years ago the Taliban killed eighty men in the bazaar. A year ago, fresh from dynamiting the giant Buddhas thirty-five kilometres away, they killed one hundred and twenty. Seven months before my arrival, they found the village abandoned and torched it. Most of the population had fled into refugee camps. Shaidan was still empty.
... Nowhere in Afghanistan did the cruelty of the Taliban seem so comprehensive or have such an ethnic focus. In a three-day walk from Yakawlang, where the Taliban had executed four hundred, to here in Shaidan, where the seventy shop fronts were reduced to blackened shells, every Hazara village I had seen had been burned. In each settlement, people had been murdered, the flocks driven off and the orchards razed. Most of the villages were still abandoned.
This is the picture painted by Stewart on the basis of first-hand observation in 2002.
Eight years later our government would have us believe that the security situation in Afghanistan has improved to such a degree that we can suspend the processing of Afghan (including of course Hazara) refugee claims and start sending people back to these disaster areas.
How safe will they be? On the basis of several weeks reviewing the Afghan War Diary made available to it by Wikileaks (see Afghanistan: the WikiLeaks), The New York Times came to the conclusion that, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001. I don’t think we should be sending anyone home just yet.
Rory Stewart, The Places in Between, Picador, 2004.