BAMIYAN -- The choice was straightforward for Hamidullah Asadi, a member of Afghanistan's minority Hazara community -- wait for the next deadly attack or join a growing militia in the mountains.
After spending months recovering from grave injuries inflicted by an "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) suicide bomber, he was ready to fight.
"We were forced to take up arms," said Asadi, now a spokesman for the Resistance for Justice Movement -- a band of Hazara fighters based in the rugged, snow-capped central highlands.
Comprising roughly 10-20% of Afghanistan's 38-million-person population, Hazaras have long been persecuted for their largely Shia faith by Sunni hardliners.
Asadi was a student at Kabul University in 2016 when he narrowly survived twin suicide blasts that took more than 80 lives at a rally and marked the beginning of a new wave of violence targeting the Hazaras, including assaults claimed by ISIS.
He says he is now one of thousands of armed fighters ready to be mobilised by a single call from their commander, Abdul Ghani Alipur, a popular Hazara figure.
The Hazaras have had few allies in Afghanistan over the generations, and their distinct Asiatic features make them easy targets of hardline Sunnis.
During the country's vicious civil war in the 1990s, they were mercilessly shelled in factional fighting and later massacred in the thousands amid the Taliban's ruthless conquest of the country.
Few groups, however, have taken as much advantage of the new order established after the overthrow of Taliban rule.
The Hazaras flocked to enrol their children in schools -- including their daughters -- and entered the political arena in unprecedented numbers.
But those achievements remain fragile.
The group has increasingly taken the brunt of rising violence as ISIS suicide bombers attacked their mosques, schools, rallies and hospitals in the Hazara enclave of Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul, killing hundreds.
The Taliban have kidnapped and killed Hazaras travelling on the country's perilous roads with near impunity.
If insecurity increases, the Hazaras will be even more vulnerable, said Sima Samar, a leading activist and former director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Persecuted in Pakistan, Iran
Some Hazaras have fled the capital for the provinces, including Bamiyan -- the Hazara homeland long considered one of Afghanistan's safest enclaves.
Murad Ali Haidari hoped the move would shield his family from the violence; instead, Haidari's son was killed in one of two bombings in the region in November.
Now Bamiyan is dotted with checkpoints, with security forces frequently searching cars and questioning passengers.
"We moved from Kabul to Bamiyan to have better security and live in a peaceful place," said Haidari. "Now when we leave home, it is difficult to imagine returning alive."
Even leaving the country does not guarantee Hazaras' safety.
A group of Hazara miners -- many of whom were Afghan nationals -- were massacred by ISIS in Pakistan last month.
And to the west, thousands of Hazaras who crossed the border to Iran ended up being trained and deployed with Shia militias in Syria over the past decade.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in December called the fighters the "best forces with a military background" who could be used against ISIS in Afghanistan.
'War against ignorance'
Others are hesitant about taking up arms -- for now at least.
When Hamidullah Rafi's sister Rahila was killed by a suicide bomber at an education centre in Kabul in 2018, he built a new one in her memory.
He said when the attack first happened, he wanted to take a gun and fight against the Taliban and ISIS.
"Then I thought with myself, that if I kill one person -- maybe that's Taliban or from [ISIS] group -- but I cannot kill their idea," Rafi said.
"It's a kind of war against ignorance, against the people who kill students, the people who are against education and the empowerment of the youth," he said.
Still, Rafi fears for the future.
"Will I be forced to take a gun to kill those people who are against me?" he asked. "Maybe."
Hazara militiaman Shawali Nizampoor is more certain and says the community needs to be prepared to defend itself.
"Throughout history Hazaras have been mistreated in Afghanistan," said Nizampoor, who joined Alipur's militia after leaving the country's official security forces.
"We have to be ready."