It was 2009. We had left early that rain-soaked morning, long before daybreak, loading our jeep in Kabul with plastic containers of water and petrol, spare tyres and food. I brought a sleeping bag in case we broke down on the twelve-hour journey; my driver had a gun to ward off bandits and kidnappers. We were going to Bamiyan, where Genghis Khan had tried to destroy every living thing and which is the ancient home of the Hazara Shias, the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
The road was bumpy, uncomfortable, endless. Mile after mile of vast earth and sky, mud houses; women in burkas working the fields in the rain. Part of the sense of remoteness and isolation is deliberate: Bamiyan lies between the immensity of the Koh-i-Baba mountains and the Hindu Kush, making the Hazara less vulnerable to enemies.
Throughout history, the Hazara have been persecuted, scorned, outlawed, forced from their lands and religiously and ethnically cleansed. In the 1990s, the Taliban committed atrocities against them in the central and northern parts of Afghanistan, and killed their leader, Abdul Ali Mazari. Then in March 2001, they destroyed the Hazara’s vast and ancient Buddhas to world protest. But the Hazara survived and the people I met once I reached Bamiyan were not victims. They were proud, resourceful, fierce in their own way.
When I was introduced to the then governor of Bamiyan Province, Dr Habiba Sarabi, a former minister of women’s affairs in Afghanistan, she told me that even though she was the daughter of an illiterate mother, she was encouraged to read and write. She was mocked as she walked to school alone, her books tucked under her arm. But she fought for her education, and she fought for her daughter to have an education, which was denied during the Taliban years. Later, she introduced me to other Hazara activists who were fighting for their rights and their place in Afghanistan.