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Afghanistan's religious minorities live in fear of Taliban, brace for persecution

"I try to live in the shadows," Ali, a member of the minority Hazara community, said. "Sooner or later, they will come for me."
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When Ali, who hasn’t shaved in a month and has let his beard grow long and rugged, is out in public, he covers his face with a shawl.

"I try to live in the shadows," the Afghan photographer said via WhatsApp from Kabul. "Sooner or later, they will come for me."

Ali, 28, is Hazara, a mostly Shiite Muslim minority that was brutally oppressed by the Taliban before the hard-line Islamic regime was toppled in 2001.

Speaking on condition that he be identified by only one name, for fear of being sought out by the militant group, he said he now feared that the Taliban would "go after the people they don’t like," and "the first target will be my people."

He is among millions of Afghans who are members of religious minorities and fear that the militants' return to power will spell oppression or death.

On Tuesday, the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, warned that "Afghanistan's diverse ethnic and religious minorities are at risk of violence and repression" given the Taliban's history and reports of killings and targeted attacks in the past few months.

The Taliban have in the past targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the Afghan government, and religious leaders have been threatened with death for preaching messages contrary to the movement's strict and austere interpretation of Islam, according to a 2019 State Department report on religious freedom.

Image: A Hazara woman holds her child inside a cave where they live in the Tak Darakht village on the outskirts of Bamiyan province on March 6.
A Hazara woman holds her child inside a cave where they live in the Tak Darakht village on the outskirts of Bamiyan province on March 6.Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images file

The majority of Afghanistan's nearly 40 million people are Sunnis, and Hazaras make up about 9 percent of the country's total population, according to the nongovernmental organization Minority Rights Group International. Other religious groups, such as Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population, according to the State Department report.

Khalsa, who is Sikh and lives in Kabul, said the Taliban takeover has left her and her family worried about their future and safety. NBC News is using only her last name to protect her identity.

"We are scared that any moment, (the Taliban) may attack our house," the 26-year-old said via WhatsApp. "And we are scared that we will be forced to marry (them)."

Like the Hazaras, Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan have also faced religious persecution, discrimination and violence. The majority of the once-thriving community of thousands fled to India, Europe and America during the decades of war and the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s.

Community leaders estimate that there are only about 550 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus left, according to the State Department. Meanwhile, security threats and a lack of government protection in recent years have put the groups at even greater risk.

In March last year, gunmen raided a Sikh religious complex in Kabul, killing 25 people, Reuters reported. The Islamic State extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement that it was revenge for India’s treatment of Kashmiri Muslims.

"Some do not speak to us, and say that we are infidels," Khalsa said, referring to fellow Afghans. “They tell us that it is a sin to be with us. We want to leave but it is so difficult right now.”

There are signs that the Taliban are already targeting minorities. Amnesty International said recently that an investigation found the Taliban had murdered nine ethnic Hazara men after taking control of the country's Ghazni province last month. NBC News has not verified the reports.

Image: An Afghan waves the national flag as they celebrate the 102th Independence Day of Afghanistan in Kabul on Saturday.
An Afghan waves the national flag as they celebrate the 102th Independence Day of Afghanistan in Kabul on Saturday.Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images

The secretary general of Amnesty International, Agnès Callamard, said that the "cold-blooded" killings are a "horrific indicator" of what Taliban rule could bring.

For Ali, whose brother and sister live in Ghazni, news of those killings left him "completely numb."

"I fear they will be killed. And if they don’t kill them, they will humiliate them, tease them, and finally leave them with a life not worth living," he said.

When the Taliban were last in control, Human Rights Watch reported on two massacres in which the victims were primarily Hazaras: one in January 2001, in which 170 men were shot publicly by a Taliban firing squad and another in May 2000, in which 31 bodies were found.

While Ali and Khalsa both would like to leave Afghanistan, the country's last known remaining Jew has said that he will remain in Kabul to look after the city's last synagogue.

Zabulon Simantov had the opportunity to flee to the United States but turned it down, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper, citing the news outlet WION. Without him, the synagogue would shut down, bringing an end to Jewish life in the country, Haaretz reported.

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The Taliban takeover comes nearly 20 years after U.S.-led forces first toppled the regime in October 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 terror attacks, and other Al Qaeda members. The invasion triggered sweeping changes for mostly urban women and girls, and ushered in a constitution that enshrined equal rights for men and women.

Since the Taliban's return, thousands of Afghans have either fled or are trying to get out, leading to chaotic scenes at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport which have come to symbolize the desperation of many Afghans to leave.

Thursday's terrorist attack outside the airport which left more than 100 civilians and 13 U.S. service members dead andat least 180 injured, added to the uncertainty.

But after ISIS-K, known as Islamic State Khorasan, claimed responsibilty for the suicide bombing, crowds of Afghans returned to the airport the next day, risking everything in a bid to make it out of the country.

Afghan lawmaker Narindra Singh Khalsa, who is Sikh, was one of those desperate to leave. He was evacuated last Saturday along with 23 others to New Delhi by the Indian air force, according to Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Punjab, which has a large Sikh population.

Speaking to reporters at the airport, Khalsa broke down in tears.

"Everything that was built in the last 20 years is finished," he said. "Everything is over."