Men and women of all ages gathered in Kabul to protest against the government’s decision for changing the course of the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) power line to Salang pass when it originally went through Bamyan and Wardak.
If the line were to be laid on the most practical route, it would pass through the country and along the central areas of Bamyan and Wardak. This would provide the residents of central provinces – mainly populated by Hazaras, a persecuted ethnicity in Afghanistan – with electricity as well as reaching southern parts of the country. But Ashraf Ghani, the President, has diverted the route to the Salang pass. Hazaras believe this to be a manifestation of the systematic discrimination against them that has long existed.
TUTAP has become politicized. For Ghani, changing his decision would signify conceding power. For Hazaras it would mean more than just electricity. It signifies their right, power and identity. It means standing against the systematic discrimination and persecution. TUTAP has now become just a facet of their movement: the Enlightenment movement.
Tens of thousands of Hazara demonstrated peacefully in May to demand that the TUTAP route pass through Bamiyan. The government, fearing the power of these protesters, blocked the roads with shipping containers. Despite the demonstration, the government remained stubbornly resolved. Determined to stand for their rights, the protesters, mainly Hazaras, organized a second protest on July 23rd. There were security warnings from the officials to cancel the demonstration the night before.
On the Saturday, the protesters gathered and again demanded their rights. The government, again, blocked the roads with shipping containers. The demonstrators decided to remain in Kabul’s Deh Mazang Square to make their final demands.
At three o’clock in the afternoon, two suicide attackers detonated their explosives amidst the peaceful protesters who had come to ask for their rights. More than 84 people were killed and 280 injured. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, the biggest ISIS-related attack in Afghanistan so far, and its largest attack on civilians since 2009.
However, the blame lies not only with terrorists but also with the government. Although the security officials knew there were threats towards the protesters, they didn’t put much effort into securing the area. According to some reports, there were shootings from the neighborhood buildings as well. The police seemed unconcerned about these breaches of security.
Ghani was more concerned that he would be threatened by the peaceful protesters rather than he was about the protesters’ safety or possible attacks by terrorist groups. Key roads had been blocked with containers, and casualties of the explosions could not reach hospitals on time. Of those who made it, many succumbed to their injuries later because doctors did not provide adequate emergency care.
This tragedy is different to many other terrorist attacks. The victims were all people who had dared to stand for their rights: they were teachers, students, activists and people who truly cared about their society. Their deaths are a huge losses to the whole country.
Now that the Enlightenment movement has lost so many of its activists, blood has made the movement stronger. People from other ethnicities besides the Hazara are joining it. Now it is no longer a fight for electricity. It is a fight for rights, a fight against discrimination, a fight for justice.
The government’s stubbornness on TUTAP has cost the country a lot and will continue to do so if no concessions are made. However, the government’s flexibility would benefit the whole country. It is true that if TUTAP were to pass through Bamyan and Wardak, the project’s completion would require more funding and time, but its advantage in the long term is worth this. This region, compared to the Salang pass, is much safer when one considers natural disasters and general security. There is more capacity for growth in the area because of natural resources like mines and plenty of land. Cost of construction cannot be the only factor in determining where to build the line.
For the stability of the country, it is vital that the government changes its stance. If Ghani would listen to the demands of peaceful protesters, it would make people realise they do not have to resort to violence and terrorism, as the Taliban does, to influence the government. It would also go a long way to increase the credibility of the government in the eyes of the people.
Hazaras have paid with their blood in protest. But they will go on fighting for what they believe is true. If the government doesn’t respond responsibly, it will cost the region a lot, in the short and long term.