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Ethnic Clashes Hit Faryab

Minor incident blows up into full-scale rioting between Uzbeks and Pashtuns in northern province.
By Ahmad Setayesh
The two teenage boys, Shaida and Najibullah, were, undoubtedly, extremely unwise.

One day last week, the pair saw a young girl on the street in Maimana city, the capital of Faryab province, in northern Afghanistan. Perhaps struck by her beauty, perhaps just full of the mischief of youth, the pair called out to her, “I love you.”

The girl ignored them, and hurried home to tell her family.

The boys were Pashtun, the girl was Uzbek. With the region’s deep ethnic divisions already inflamed by a bitterly divisive election campaign and murky aftermath, that was all that was needed to start a conflict that quickly escalated into full-blown ethnic rioting.

The result: two people dead, 30 injured. The windows of the governor’s office were broken and shops belonging to Pashtuns in Maimana were set on fire and looted.

Two neighbourhoods were involved in the fracas – Deh Sayedan, populated predominantly by Uzbeks, and Afghankot, which is mainly Pashtun.

Toryalai, a resident of Afghankot, told IWPR that he had witnessed the encounter that sparked the trouble.

“Those boys were impolite,” he said. “They yelled ‘we love you’ to the girl. She paid no attention and kept on walking. Nothing else happened. I wonder why a small personal issue so easily became a big tribal one. It has caused financial damage, murder, and disaster to the people in Maimana.”

Toryalai places the blame squarely on the Uzbeks and, specifically, their Junbish-e-Milli party led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

“Whenever anything happens involving Pashtuns, this party tries to stir people up,” he said.

But during the riots in Maimana, Dostum himself called his Faryab supporters from his exile in Turkey, urging them to remain calm and seek legal redress, rather than taking matters into their own hands.

Mohammad Asef Paiman, head of the Faryab provincial council and a member of Junbish-e-Milli, denied that the party had anything to do with the violence.

Mohammad Aslam Godaz, a civil servant in Faryab and a relative of the Uzbek girl, gave IWPR a very different version of the incident.

“Two young men armed with pistols, and riding motorcycles, tried to abduct the girl, but were prevented by a member of her family,” he said. “The girl came home and told her family the story. They started out for the governor’s office to complain, when a young man attacked them, stabbing and killing one of the elders.”

It was only after this that the riots began, he said, acknowledging that the violence was triggered by the residents of Deh Sayedan.

“Their dignity was offended,” he said. He demanded that the murderer and the two young men be handed over to the family, and he blamed the authorities for the mayhem that had occurred.

“The police did not take action quickly enough,” he insisted. “They did nothing to prevent people from coming out into the streets. That is why the demonstrations turned violent.”

But Godaz’s version of events was disputed by two other eyewitnesses, Habib and Hajji Mohammad, who told IWPR that the original incident had happened outside their shops. They substantiated Toryalai’s account.

“Those boys were rude,” Habib said. “They should not have spoken to the girl. But they did not have a pistol and they do not own a motorcycle. They do not even know how to ride one.”

The governor of Faryab Province, Abdul Haq Shafaq, confirmed that the demonstrators had demanded that he hand over the two young men who had insulted the young girl.

“This demand is against the law,” he said. “The two rude young men who caused the clash between Afghankot and Deh Sayedan have been arrested and will be punished according to the law.”

Shafaq also insisted that the situation was now under control, and that he had put an end to any more “expressions of love” on the streets of Maimana.

But one week after the riots, Afghankot is surrounded by troops, along with national and local police. Even border troops have been deployed in the area. Afghan military helicopters fly overhead during the day.

A delegation from Kabul, led by presidential adviser Alam Rasekh, has been dispatched to Faryab province, where it is arbitrating between the two sides.

General Morad Ali Morad, commander of the 209th Shahin corps of the national army, told IWPR that the local forces could no longer control the situation.

He also confirmed that there had been armed men among the demonstrators who had shot at security forces. As a result, two Afghan soldiers were wounded.

Abdul Satar Barez, deputy governor of Faryab, used the term “insurgents” to describe the armed men, and hinted at some greater involvement by “enemies of Afghanistan”.

“There are hands behind this matter which want to turn a small issue between two families into a great tribal issue,” he said.

But given the level of ethnic tension in the north in the weeks following the August 20 presidential and provincial council elections, it required very little incitement to turn an unpleasant but essentially harmless incident into a riot requiring high-level intervention from the military and the central government.

The population of Faryab is predominantly Uzbek, with minorities from the Tajik, Pashtun, and Hazara ethic groups.

There has long been ethnic friction in the region. The Uzbeks, like many other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, have very dark memories of the Taleban period, and many extend that antipathy to the entire Pashtun population. The Taleban are drawn overwhelmingly from the Pashtuns.

The August 20 elections, which selected not only the president, but members of the local provincial council, exploited and deepened those ethnic divides. In principle, the Uzbeks supported the candidacy of incumbent president Hamed Karzai, thanks to a marriage of convenience between Karzai and Dostum.

Karzai’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is a Tajik, closely associated with the Northern Alliance. Abdullah did very well in the north, but gained only 33 per cent of the vote in Faryab, against almost 58 per cent for Karzai.

But a campaign that appealed to people’s deepest ethnic fears and prejudices could not help but worsen an already delicate situation. Faryab was a powder keg, and the two boys, with their thoughtless harassment of the Uzbek girl, supplied the match.

This comes against the backdrop of steadily deteriorating security in the north. Kunduz has become a virtual no-go zone for foreigners, following a series of attacks and the kidnapping of a British journalist, which resulted in the death of his Afghan colleague.

Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of nearby Balkh province, is also in a state of unrest, with the powerful governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, a Tajik and Abdullah supporter, squared off against Juma Khan Hamdard, a Pashtun and a backer of Karzai.

So the problems in Maimana fit into a very uneasy pattern.

“Nationalist factions are taking advantage of small tribal issues for political reasons,” said Ibrahim Amini, a poet and writer in Mazar-e-Sharif. “Our people are illiterate, with a low level of critical thinking. This is the reason behind most of the disasters in our country.”

Deputy governor Barez himself had come under pressure from Uzbek demonstrators because he lives in Afghankot and was accused of sympathising with the young men.

“Since I live in Afghankot village they think I support the perpetrators of the incident,” he said. “But it is just my house in Afghankot. I belong to all Faryab and serve my people. ”

Ahmad Setayesh is a freelance journalist based in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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