Updated: Jul 26, 2022
Hussain Rezai, founder and director of Najiba Foundation, has been an activist alongside Afghan women for years. Two years after the loss of Najiba - his fiancée who was brutally killed in a suicide-attack by the Taliban - he founded the Najiba Foundation in Daykundi Province, his fiancée’s hometown. The Najiba Foundation was running the Najiba Public Library, the Najiba Computer Lab, the Najiba Library Girls Volleyball Team and also was implementing cultural and educational programs since July 2019 until the fall of the Government of Afghanistan to the Taliban on August 15, 2021.
In August, following the collapse of the Government of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the Najiba Foundation was attacked. In this attack, the Najiba library was partially destroyed and the Najiba Computer Lab equipment was looted by the Taliban. Since then, the Najiba Foundation has not been operational anymore. Now, Hussain is in Italy and hasn’t lost his hope. He told us his story in search of justice and defense of the most persecuted ethnic group in the history of Afghanistan, the Hazara.
Can you tell us about your story?
I would like to start from the story of the Najiba Foundation. We founded the Najiba Foundation on July 2019 to keep the memory of Najiba alive. Najiba was my fiancée. It is a tragic memory: she was brutally killed in a suicide-attack carried out by the Taliban on July 24, 2017. This attack caused the death of 36 people, including 16 employees of the Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum. Najiba Bahar, my fiancée, who had recently returned from Japan, was among them. They were going to their office early in the morning, and it was in that moment that their bus was targeted by the Taliban’s suicide-bomber. It was a shocking news not only for me, for her family, for her friends and for our whole community.
However, this is not just my story. There are hundreds and thousands of similar stories in Afghanistan. There were suicide-attacks, either in the morning or afternoon, every day. Many people in Afghanistan have experienced these terrible tragedies and particularly the Hazara people, who are still experiencing such situations. Most of the families have lost at least one of their loved ones and are now struggling with too many traumas and pains.
We have had very difficult moments in recent years in Afghanistan and yet we have them, unfortunately. Fear of being killed in suicide-attacks or in targeted killings is everywhere, especially among the Hazara people. Most of the attacks occur in the west of Kabul which is a Hazara populated area. The terroristic groups attack on Hazara people and kill them just because of their ethnicity and religion.
The idea of establishing the Najiba Foundation is the result of a pain and trauma that have accompanied us for years. So, we established the Foundation to document the cost of war, keep the memory of Najiba alive, and also to offer educational opportunities for girls and boys in Daykundi, which is one of the most under served and deprived province of Afghanistan.
Culture as a weapon against violence, extremism and the Taliban.
To fight against the Taliban, we didn’t pick the weapons. We selected education paths as a way of fighting against violence, fighting against the Taliban and other terroristic groups. We believe that education and culture are the most powerful weapons to change the world and to fight against violence and extremism. As I said before, we established the Foundation to educate our community, fight against Taliban and delegitimize their system.
I would also like to use this opportunity to talk about how we established the Najiba Library/Najiba Foundation. We first launched a campaign for collecting books, equipment and financial support in social media. Our campaign continued for almost four months on Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms. Through this campaign, we have collected around 12,000 books, some equipment as well as some financial donations from the people inside the country and a smaller amount from the Hazara diaspora from outside of Afghanistan. As result, in July 2019, exactly two years after the suicide-attack which took the life of Najiba, we officially opened the the Najiba Library in the Najiba’s hometown, in Daikundi province, in central Afghanistan.
During the first year of our activity, we realized that more than half of the Najib Library visitors and beneficiaries were girls and women. The library was warmly welcomed by the local community as there wasn’t anything similar in the whole town before that time. Then we implemented numerous educational and cultural programs including capacity building programs, women empowerment programs, reading sessions, which transformed the Najiba Library into a cultural and educational hub in the province.
Thinking of my fiancée, who had completed her master’s degree in Japan in the field of computer science in Japan, we then established a computer lab as well. The Najiba Computer Lab was teaching computer programs for students and officials in the local community. Gradually, we also started online sessions in the computer lab; with the library and computer lab connected to the internet to bridge students beyond geographic boundaries and link them with their peers in Europe, the United States of America, Australia and other parts of world. I should also not to forget to tell you that we founded the Najiba Library Girls Volleyball Team to promote women’s role in the public space and fight against gender-based discrimination and cultural barriers in the local community.
Talking about women in sport in Europe is not a surprise, but in a conservative society like Afghanistan it was not easy even before the Taliban.
In the beginning, there was a lot of resistance by families to allow their girls to be members of the girl volleyball team. We negotiated with the families and finally convinced them. We established a first girls volleyball team in the province, but later there were more than 12 girls volleyball teams in the town. This initiative was also accepted by the society. The Girls Volleyball Team could play volleyball from 2019 until the collapse of the government of Afghanistan to the Taliban on August 15, 2021. Since the Taliban seized power, education and sport have been banned for girls and women in Afghanistan. On August 18, 2021, only three days after the collapse of the government of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the Najiba Foundation was attacked by them.
The Najiba library was partially destroyed, and the Najiba Computer Lab equipment was looted by the Taliban. Since then, the Najiba Foundation programs including the library, computer lab, the girls volleyball team and other educational and cultural programs have been all stopped. And I decided to leave my country when I was informed that the Taliban had attacked the Najiba Foundation in Daikundi Province.
Who Was Hussain Rezai Before The Taliban?
I had worked in national and international organizations focusing on anti-corruption for the past 10 years in Kabul. Since July 2019, I had also managed the Najiba Foundation as volunteer. The situation before the fall of government to the Taliban was alarming and worrying. I remember that on the day in which the government fell into the hands of the Taliban, I was going home – without knowing what was happening – to collect and hide all my job-related documents including my ID cards, contracts and certificates as those documents could put my life at risk. I also wanted to do something to protect my small personal library as we all knew that the Taliban were against education and books. However, when I looked at my library, I noticed that there were too many books and it was not possible for me to bury them or hide them somewhere.
I decided to leave everything as it was. Then I worked on my soft data. I cleaned my computers and my phone from all kind of data I had. I copied all my data in a hard-disk drive and then gave it to one of my friends’ wife to hide it somewhere and keep it safe. Similarly, I had a look at my Facebook messenger, WhatsApp and other social media applications and deleted all the conversations in order to prevent the Taliban from understanding that I was an educated person who had worked with the government or foreigners. To do all these things I went to the place of one of my friends who lived in a corner of Kabul city. I hid myself there for more than a week. It was a nightmare not only for me, but for the entire city.
And your family?
As I Said, I was hiding in one of my friends’ home for a week. No one including my family knew where I was. We stayed at home for some weeks. No one was daring to go out to see what had happened to Kabul. It’s better to say that the people in Kabul was quarantined by the Taliban. Everyone was at their place.
A few days or a week after August 15th, I learned from one of my colleagues from the Najiba Foundation in Daikundi Province that the Najiba Foundation had been attacked by the Taliban. Since then, we haven’t had access to our office, nor to the library and the computer lab. The Foundation was not operational anymore. That’s why I left the country. In the past, I had the opportunity to stay in Europe. I was in Vienna in 2018 but I did not stay there for long. I spent some time in other European countries but in the end, I decided not to stay because I wanted to help Afghanistan and be part of the change in my country. I decided to leave my country when I felt that nothing had left for us to resist and fight against the Taliban. That decision was made when I was totally in shock for what was happening. I could not stay and look at the Taliban while they were committing atrocities and suicide attacks in the country. I also left my country under my family pressure as I was supporting a big family in Afghanistan.
Do you want to tell us about how you arrived in Italy?
I was included in the Italian evacuation plan by one of my relatives who lives in Venice and also by one of my Italian friends whom I had worked with for three weeks in Afghanistan back in 2012. Both have tried to include myself as well as my sister, my mother, my brother and the two nephews I have been taking care of for almost 8 years. Within half a day my sister and I managed to get to the Kabul Airport. You might have seen through Italian media that there was a huge crowd of desperate people outside the airport. I lost my two nephews in that crowd, but my sister and I managed to get to the airport.
It was August 23rd, 2021 when I left Kabul to Qatar on an American military plane. We spent two days and nights in Qatar in a US military camp. On August 26th, we landed in Rome International Airport. After spending a few weeks in Rome, my sister and I moved to Perugia.
During our first weeks there, we had some communication problems. The officials were not communicating with us clearly. For instance, no one was able to tell us what the plan for us was for the next weeks and next months. In addition, there was a language problem. We were expecting Italian officials to inform us about regulations and procedures for refugees. For instance, if I have a complaint, how can I address it? There were many other questions that we wanted to be answered. However, I would like to use this opportunity to thank the Italian army for their support on such difficult moments. We are now safe.
Thank you Italy!
In your opinion, what role can the European Union play today? And what about Pakistan and Iran?
I believe that a refugee crisis started long ago in Afghanistan. People have been living in fear and they are worried about their future in Afghanistan. People have lost their hope. Everyone tries to leave the country because the people have been experiencing war and uncertainty for years. Some people in Afghanistan say, “we were born in war, grew in war and will die in war” and that’s true. Afghanistan has been in war for four decades now. Everybody is tired of this war. Parents are worried about the future of their children. Over the past 20 years, even in the presence of international community troops, people were suffering from war, suicide attacks and targeted killings especially when it comes to the Hazara ethnic group, which has a long history of prosecution, discrimination and genocide in Afghanistan. They have been killed in highways, schools, mosques, sport club, wedding hall, maternity hospital, demonstrations, and many other places just because of their ethnicity and religion. People do not want the Taliban regime. They want to go to Pakistan, to Iran or Turkey and from there to Europe.
The evacuation process by US and European countries was chaotic and unsuccessful. Most of the eligible people, who are really at risk, are left in Afghanistan. I think it would be better to bring some of those people who are highly at risk, such as journalists, civil rights activists, government officials, women activists, and girls sport teams from Afghanistan to somewhere safe. I urge European countries to take a decision and secure the lives of so many.
About the secondo part of your question, which is about Iran and Pakistan, I think they have very strong influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime is supported by Pakistan. Taliban are under control of Pakistan. Some scholars believe that Afghanistan is occupied by Pakistan through the Taliban. It is the country that supports, trains and equip the Taliban and also lobby for their recognition at the international level. Iran has also very strong influence among the Taliban. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has become a playground and battlefield for regional actors and superpowers.
Thank you for your useful insights, and for mentioning the Hazara. To understand the present, we need to understand the past.
I would like to know more about the history of Hazara prosecution, as it is said that more than half of Hazara were massacred in 1893. One of the main factors of discrimination and prosecution against Hazara is their religious belief. Are there any political-economic reasons as well?
Hazara is one main ethnic group in Afghanistan. From a religious perspective, the Hazara are a Shiite minority which has been under a lot of pressure, prosecution, discrimination over the past one and half century. They have experienced genocide in different periods of their history in Afghanistan. To better understand the past and current situation of Hazara, we go back to 1880 when Afghanistan was run by Amir Abdur Rahman who aimed to establish a very centralized system. At that time, there were several monarchies in Afghanistan and one of them was of Hazara origin. Several academic books report that when Amir Abdur Rahman attacked the Hazara more than 65% of the Hazara community was killed. Abdur Rahman Khan forced the religious scholars to issue a decree establishing that those who fought against Hazara had the right to kill them and take control their lands. And this is what happed.
The lands of Hazara were usurped by the supporters of the government belonging to the Pashtun ethnic group. Many of the Hazara fled to European countries and to other western countries at that time. Lots of them were sold as slaves to neighbouring countries. Yet, others concealed their identity or changed their ethnic identity and religious faith due to high levels of discrimination, intimidation and persecution in Afghanistan. In addition to that, a hate campaign against Hazara people started at that time and is continuing in different forms until now. In other words, there was a real Jihad against the Hazara people. This is what has been happening for more than a century in Afghanistan.
In a nutshell, I would like to tell you that if you want to know Afghanistan, you should know the ethnic politics or the ethnic dimension of the politics in Afghanistan. The political sphere has been dominated by Pashtun Politicians in recent centuries and for a long time the Hazara were not allowed to go to school and nor to work for the government. This situation continued, with a few exceptions, until the US and NATO toppled the Taliban first regime in 2001. The Hazara experienced the second genocide during first Taliban regime. The Taliban killed around 200 people in a day in an Hazara area in Bamyan Province. They also killed more than two thousand civilians in Mazar Sharif just because they were Hazara. You can check Human Rights Watch reports for verification.
Due to this horrible situation, 2001 has been like a sunrise for Hazara people in Afghanistan. From the legal point of view, the Afghanistan Constitution adopted in 2004 granted equal rights for all ethnic groups in Afghanistan. However, the reality tells a completely different story. In other words, discrimination as a historical problem of Hazara in Afghanistan has not stopped yet. For instance, we had a very small and symbolic presence of Hazara in the government and that was also because of the international community presence in Afghanistan. During the last twenty years, the Hazara were not allowed to work in key ministries in Afghanistan. If you talk about key ministries in Afghanistan, there are four or five main ministries: The Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance. Let me here quote a sentence from George Orwell which can better explain the situation: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others”. Despite these challenges, we have achieved a lot. For the first time, we had a free and democratic space which allowed us to protest and shout against discrimination and other problems that we had in Afghanistan. Hazara girls and boys had the chance to go to school and to university.
Along with women, following the withdrawal of international forces in Afghanistan the most vulnerable group is the Hazara community. Do you want to make an appeal?
I know that all people in Afghanistan have suffered from war. What makes the situation even more suffering for the Hazara community is that they suffer because of their ethnicity and religion. In the past years, the Taliban terroristic groups killed Hazara civilians in non-military places like schools, hospitals, wedding halls, mosques, they targeted their demonstration and attacked them in many other ways just because of their ethnic group and religious belief. That’s a genocide. The government of Afghanistan refrained from recognizing it as genocide. I don’t know why the international community is silent on the Hazara situation in Afghanistan and for what reason they do not recognize it as genocide. I think that’s because those who were in power in Afghanistan managed to mislead the international community in Afghanistan. They provided false data and fabricated wrong narratives. Let me give you an example. In 2012, I worked with an Italian freelance journalist in Afghanistan for a short period of time. He told me there was demographic map in the Italian embassy in Kabul which was showing the composition of Afghanistan population based on ethnic groups.
He told me that according to the map the Hazara population in Afghanistan accounted for only 2 or 3. However, during the Bon Conference, which took place in Germany, it was decided that 20 percent of political representation has to be given to the Hazara in the government as the Hazara population was estimated to reach around 20 percent of the total population in Afghanistan. The problem is that there are no official surveys nor valuable statistics. Those who were in power misled the international community and that’s why the international community is still silent about the situation of Hazara people in Afghanistan. So, mine is a way to fight against this situation.