Police opened fire to disperse protesters trying to scale the walls of the presidential palace in Kabul on Wednesday, as anger grew over the decapitation of seven civilians in southern Afghanistan by militants believed to be loyal to .
Officials said seven people had been injured when shots were fired into the air as thousands gathered in the Afghan capital to call for the resignation of the country’s president, .
In a sign of growing violence between the and self-proclaimed Isis militants, the decapitated bodies of seven Hazaras, a Shia minority, were found on Saturday in Zabul province. The victims had been taken hostage about a month ago on the road from Jaghori district in Ghazni province to Kandahar.
The Hazaras have historically suffered persecution, and many protesters on Tuesday and Wednesday demanded an end to what they called targeted killings. “The government is not taking the protection of Hazaras seriously,” said Mohammad Jawad, 29.
In the wake of the largest protests In since Ghani came to power last year, he addressed the nation in a televised speech on Wednesday. He encouraged people to calm their emotions, and promised that the government would not rest until the perpetrators had been punished. “The nation’s pain is my pain,” he said.
He also tried to downplay the ethnic element of the killings, blaming the “enemies of Afghanistan” for trying to foment sectarian hatred.
The demonstrations began on Tuesday when relatives of the victims brought the seven coffins to a Hazara neighbourhood in the capital. The coffins arrived in Kabul in the evening, draped in green cloth to the sound of wailing and thunderous shouts of “God is Great” from hundreds of mourners. One of the coffins, ferried on the hands of a group of crying women, carried nine-year-old Shukria, the youngest victim.
Mourners beat their chests and chanted “death to the Taliban” and “death to Ashraf Ghani”. As the evening wore on, the families’ grief became collective and their private cries were transformed into broader demands for protection and justice.
By Wednesday, as the protesters marched on the palace, the crowds had swollen to many thousands, including members of other ethnic groups. A man said to be Shukria’s father banged his fists against the palace gates, and his head against his daughter’s coffin.
, women were at the forefront of the demonstration. In addition to Shukria, two women were also among the victims.
“Being a woman in Afghanistan is dangerous, but being Hazara is even more dangerous,” said Leila Mohammadi, 28, who helped carry the coffins. “These women were completely innocent,” she said.
“There have been many incidents against women in Afghanistan,” said Maryam Shahi, another protester. “But nothing like these beheadings.”
The demonstrations were comparable in size to the mass rallies during last year’s contentious election. As Afghanistan becomes increasingly unstable, disillusionment with the government is driving large numbers of young Afghans, many of them Hazaras, to seek a better life in Europe.
For Hazaras, the brutality of the murders chime with traumatic memories of a violent past. They were often persecuted under the Taliban. In 2001, the Taliban executed several hundred Hazaras in Bamiyan, in one of the single worst incidents of targeted ethnic killings in recent Afghan memory.
Travel has been particularly fraught with danger for Afghanistan’s Hazaras in recent years. People have been kidnapped and murdered on the country’s roads. “Kabul has become like a prison for us,” said Ali, a protester who only went by one name.
Other protesters warned against fuelling sectarian tensions by focusing on the ethnic aspect of the killings.
“Every day Daesh [Isis] and the Taliban kill,” said Mohammad Mustafa, 22, a Tajik university student. “Today does not belong just to the Hazaras. It belongs to all people in our country.”
New splinter groups within the insurgency have pledged allegiance to Isis, but few if any have shown signs of links to the organisation in Iraq and Syria. They have, however, sought to match their namesakes in brutality.