The ruling Taliban—mostly fundamentalist Sunni, ethnic Pashtuns—saw Hazaras as infidels, animals, other. They didn't look the way Afghans should look and didn't worship the way Muslims should worship. A Taliban saying about Afghanistan's non-Pashtun ethnic groups went: "Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan," the graveyard. And in fact, when the Buddhas fell, Taliban forces were besieging Hazarajat, burning down villages to render the region uninhabitable. As autumn began, the people of Hazarajat wondered if they'd survive winter. Then came September 11, a tragedy elsewhere that appeared to deliver salvation to the Hazara people.
Six years after the Taliban fell, scars remain in the highlands of the Hazara homeland, but there is a sense of possibility unthinkable a decade ago. Today the region is one of the safest in Afghanistan, mostly free of the poppy fields that dominate other regions. A new political order reigns in Kabul, seat of President Hamid Karzai's central government. Hazaras have new access to universities, civil service jobs, and other avenues of advancement long denied them. One of the country's vice presidents is Hazara, as is parliament's leading vote getter, and a Hazara woman is the first and only female governor in the country. The best-selling American novel The Kite Runner—now a feature film—depicted a fictional Hazara character, and a real Hazara won the first Afghan Star, an American Idol-like program.
As the country struggles to rebuild itself after decades of civil war, many believe that Hazarajat could be a model of what's possible not just for Hazaras but for all Afghans. But that optimism is tempered by past memories and present frustrations—over roads not built, a resurgent Taliban, and rising tides of Sunni extremism.
A project is now under way to gather thousands of stone fragments and rebuild the Buddhas. Something similar is occurring among Hazaras as they try to repair their fractured past, with one notable difference: There are pictures of the destroyed Buddhas. The Hazaras have no such blueprint, no sense of what a future free from persecution is supposed to look like.
Musa Shafaq wants to live in that future. He is 28, with shoulder-length black hair and typical Hazara features, not unlike those of the Buddhas. He stands at the gate of Kabul University in a red sweater, black jeans, and tinted prescription glasses. Classes are out for the day. In two months, he will graduate, a notable achievement for any Afghan given the country's instability. Because he is Hazara, his success signals a new era. Shafaq is poised to finish at the top of his class, which should guarantee him the job he most wants, a teaching post at Kabul University.