By Greg Keller
MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — Maps refer to it as part of the Kabul-Behsud Highway. Motorists call it Death Road.
A 30-kilometer (18-mile) stretch of two paved lanes heading west from the town of Maidan Shahr in central Afghanistan has seen many beheadings, kidnappings and other Taliban attacks in recent years against members of the minority ethnic Hazara community. Nowadays, nearly all drivers avoid it.
The highway is the main route between the Afghan capital and Hazarajat, the informal name of the 45,000-square mile (116,550-square kilometer) region of highlands and rich pastures where Hazaras have traditionally settled. An alternate route out of Hazarajat involves a long detour to the north, and passes through areas where they have been targets of violence.
The threat of attack on Death Road is so great that Hazaras who've moved by the tens of thousands east to the capital in search of work are afraid to travel back to their home villages.
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo, an Afghan policemen stand guard at a check post in Kabul-Bamiyan road, on the outskirts of Maidan Shahr, capital of Wardak province Afghanistan, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Locals call it "Death Road." The 30 kilometer (18 mile) stretch of road heading west from here has seen so many beheadings, kidnappings and other Taliban attacks in recent years that it's become a virtual no man's land, cutting off the Hazara minority from their homeland in Afghanistan's rugged mountainous center. (Photo: Massoud Hossaini/AP)
"If it were safe, I would go back," said Sultan, 50, who fled to Kabul nine years ago after his village was torched by nomads allied with the Taliban. "Life is good in my village. There is fresh water, and the weather is good."
The situation is a reminder of how fragile Afghanistan's ethnic and sectarian balance remains less than a year before all foreign forces are to leave the country. The area has become a flashpoint for conflict between the Hazaras and Afghanistan's majority ethnic group, the Pashtuns. The Taliban are predominantly Pashtun. The vast majority of Hazaras are also Shiite Muslims, reviled as heretics by Sunni Muslim extremists such as the Taliban.
For many years, Hazaras had taken the lowest-status jobs in Afghan cities, working unskilled, backbreaking jobs on construction sites. They have done far better, however, since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. Hazaras have enrolled in universities, taken jobs with international agencies and even won the Afghan version of American Idol, "Afghan Star," the last two seasons.
Needless to say, Hazaras strongly support a continued presence of international forces after 2014, seeing it as a guarantee of the security, educational and economic gains they have made since Taliban times.
But even now, Hazaras cannot rely on international forces to protect them on Death Road.
Earlier this month, Hazara elders brought their complaints about security to the new chief of police in Maidan Shahr, the capital of Wardak province. They noted that because Hazarajat is so rural, they require construction crews from Kabul for any building projects.
"Construction of schools and clinics has stopped because it's impossible to travel on this road," said Mohammad Fahimi, the highest-ranking Hazara on the local provincial council. "The army has Humvees, weapons, bunkers. They can see the Taliban with their eyes but they're afraid to come out of the bunker. They're useless."
Since a 2011 suicide bombing that killed over 70 Hazaras in Kabul, Afghanistan has not seen the sort of large-scale massacres that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Hazaras in neighboring Pakistan each year. But smaller-scale killings like those on the road remain a source of fear.
Last August, three Hazaras were kidnapped and killed in separate Taliban attacks along the road.
Seated in his office here in the provincial capital, Fahimi flips through a worn, handwritten diary to find details of the most recent killings.
"Mohamad Hadhi, 30 years old from Bamiyan, killed because he was Hazara. Baqar Fahimi, a university student from Ghor province, killed because he was Hazara. A driver named Ziauddin from Ghazni, killed because he was Hazara," Fahimi reads aloud.
"The road is blocked, I can't travel to talk to my constituents. The people elected me but I can't to talk to them and find out what they need," Fahimi said.
At the province's brand new police headquarters, new Humvees are parked outside and about 50 recruits stand at attention in the dusty parade ground.
The police chief, Gen. Mohammad Fahim Qhiem, has promised to improve security on the road. Qhiem said the August killings remain unsolved, but he's talked with village elders among the largely Pashtun population living along the road.
"Now it is OK, the road is safe," Qhiem said.
Fahimi disagreed. He called his district, Behsud, "the worst place for Hazara safety in all of Afghanistan." He estimates that over the past 10 years some 40 percent of the district's population has fled.
The flight is fueled by the search for jobs and better education as much or more than for security. They've flooded into Kabul, 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of the Hazara's biggest city, Bamiyan. Hazaras make up only perhaps 9 percent of Afghanistan's population of 31 million, but some estimates say they now comprise half the population of the capital.
Hundreds of thousands of Hazaras have found their way to Dasht-e-Barchi, a sprawling Hazara district in western Kabul. It sprang virtually out of the desert 10 years ago, and now is home to an estimated 1.5 million Hazara.
One of them is Sultan, who like many here uses only one name. He says he hasn't been able to return to his home for years because of attacks along the road. "Twenty-four people have been kidnapped and most killed by Taliban on this road, all Hazaras."
Haji Ramazan Hussainzada, a Hazara community leader in Dasht-e-Barchi, says Hazaras are treated like "third-class citizens" in Kabul. He complains that parts of Kabul populated by other ethnic groups have more paved roads and access to schools, clinics and services.
The Hazaras say they value education very highly. "A Hazara father can go to bed with an empty stomach with no problem, as long as he can afford school for his children," Sultan said, expressing a widely held view among Hazaras. He sends two of his sons to private school at nearly double the cost of a state school.
Seated in his sunlit shopfront along Dasht-e-Barchi's traffic-choked main road, Sultan said he hopes his sons will one day become government ministers — but he's worried that anti-Hazara discrimination could work against them.
The current government has no Hazara ministers. None of the 10 candidates in April's presidential election is Hazara, though the leading two candidates have each chosen a Hazara running mate.