Afghanistan's Ismaili community, which suffered mass killings under the Taleban regime, is now facing persecution under the country's new transitional democratic government.
The Ismailis, who broke from the mainstream Shi'a Muslims in the 8th century and have over the years settled in several countries and in pockets of Afghanistan, particularly the Kayan valley north-west of Kabul, have long been regarded with suspicion by other groups in this conservative Muslim country because of their unorthodox religious views and practices.
Unlike other Muslims, Ismailis, who worship in secret, do not believe that a past religious leader will return to the world at a later date. Instead, they have followed an unbroken line of leaders up to the present Karim Aga Khan, who is active in international humanitarian efforts.
Though most of the Ismailis who fled the valley when the Taleban took over have returned, they face a harsh future, living in ruins with little food, and subjected to pressure from local authorities who jailed 170 of them for several weeks at the end of last year, when they tried to travel to Kabul to welcome home their leader.
The Ismailis' worst moment came in 1998 when Taleban troops overpowered their own poorly-equipped militia, entered the valley and began an orgy of killing, pillage and destruction.
"Around 400 people in the valley were killed, including refugees who had fled from other parts, all their weapons and grain and some 1,500 vehicles were taken, and only 60 of the 160 houses were left standing," Sayed Abdul Ali Shah, a local elder said, pointing to a well. "The Taleban threw three bodies into that, and their remains are still there."
"The Taleban killed anyone they met, saying we were not Muslims," another local Ali Madad told IWPR. "They killed my son and my son-in-law, and now I am sole provider for 19 people. They brought three truckloads of bodies and threw them into a ditch near Barsangan village. There are flags marking the spot now. Nobody knows how many bodies are there, but there are thought to be about 60."
Those who escaped death were forced to pay heavy taxes to the student militia during their three-year rule in the valley. "They ordered us to pay them around 90,000 afghanis (1,800 US dollars) a month, we had to buy them weapons, and we had to provide 50 men as front line troops for the Taleban," Sayed Qobat, from Barsangan village, told IWPR. "They behaved like wild animals."
Life was harsh in the valley during Taleban rule. "We were eating grass and other plants from the mountains during the past few years. We had no other food," Sayed Abdullah Shah told IWPR.
Little appears to have changed since the overthrow of the student militia. Burhanuddin, 12, was selling assorted goods packed in a small cardboard box outside the valley's main secondary school. "I earn 10 to 20 afghanis (20 to 40 US cents) a day, all I can buy with that is tea. We exist on just bread and tea. We don't cook. If we find rice, we have no oil to cook it with."
Of the 600 families who once lived in the Kayan valley, 400 have returned since the fall of the Taleban, some living in the ruins of once-prosperous homes that dotted the region, to a life full of uncertainty.
When the Taleban took over, the leader of all Ismailis in Afghanistan, Sayed Mansoor Nadiri, who lived in the Kayan valley, fled to Tashkent in neighbouring Uzbekistan where he has remained until a few weeks ago.
During his absence, many Ismailis in the area and other parts of Afghanistan turned to their local elders for advice and guidance, and some resented their leader's long absence abroad while his flock suffered at home.
Political rivalries between different power groups in the country are also involved. Local officials in the area, who are close to the Shorai-e-Nizar group from the Panjshir valley, once led by late guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massood, are reported by local Ismailis to be trying to restrict the influence of Nadiri, who was close to rival Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, and block his return to the Kayan valley.
The local military commander, Jalal Khan Salangi, appointed another Ismaili, Alaudin Shah, as local leader of the sect. Despite their efforts, ordinary Ismailis said they continued to follow Nadiri, and accused Alaudin of harsh treatment of community elders, leaving at least one of them with a broken leg and hand after a beating.
The situation came to a head at the end of last year when Ismailis learned that Nadiri was finally returning from exile. A group of 170 hired cars to take them to Kabul to meet him,but they were intercepted by Jalal Khan, accused of organising a political demonstration without authorisation, and sent back to the Kayan valley, where they were thrown into jail. The last of them were freed a few days ago after nearly one and a half months in prison.
Afghanistan's Ismailis will be hoping that the leadership issue is decided through the intervention of Karim Agha Khan, who traditionally appoints the sect's leaders throughout the world. They will also be hoping for support from the Aga Khan Development Network, AKDN, which groups a number of private development agencies and last year pledged 75 million dollars towards the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Last November, the Aga Khan visited Kabul and addressed some 500 representatives of the Ismaili community, his first formal encounter with its leaders since he acceded to the Imamat in 1957.
"The Imamat will work closely with you to establish high quality schools and health care facilities for all Afghans, whatever their religious tradition or ethnic background, and to create strong institutional capacity to enable the rebuilding of a peaceful and united Afghanistan," he told the community leaders.
Rahimullah Samander and Danish Karokhel are IWPR editor/reporters.