Pakistan’s Hazara Shias living under siege

Caught between alleged state incompetence and complicity in attacks, the war against Balochistan’s Hazaras has hit home.

Hazara Killings
When families refused to bury their dead in protest, similar sit-ins were held around the world in solidarity [Reuters]

Despite a sustained, targeted campaign of killings against them, Pakistan’s Hazara Shias have been left out in the cold, fending for themselves against an armed group whose fighters were once allied to the Pakistani state, researchers, analysts and members of the Hazara community have told Al Jazeera.

On the evening of January 10, a suicide bomber targeted a snooker club frequented by Hazaras in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. The initial blast killed several people, but, ten minutes later, as people rushed to the aid of those wounded in the attack, a car bomb exploded just outside the club, killing dozens more.

When the dust settled, 96 people, mostly Hazara Shias, were dead.

The attack was only the latest in two years of sustained gun and bomb attacks against the community, and on that cold January night, Hazara community leaders told Al Jazeera, something snapped.

To protest the government’s inaction in protecting them, members of the community refused to bury their dead, staging a sit-in on Alamdar Road, the site of the latest attack.

“It was very cold – it was -7 degrees Celsius, and there were mostly women, even mothers with one-month old babies. We sat under the open sky on the road: the young, the old, women, even children, for 76 hours,” Qayyum Changaizee, the chairman of the Hazara Qaumi Jirga and one of the lead organisers of the protest, told Al Jazeera.

“I told [government negotiators] that your other choice is that you should just open fire on us. Kill us all, all 150 of us. We’ll all die together, rather than dying one-by-one, every day.

– Qayyum Changaizee,
Chairman, Hazara Qaumi Jirga

The protesters demanded that the provincial government be dismissed, and that security in Quetta be handed over to the army.

“I told [government negotiators] that your other choice is that you should just open fire on us. Kill us all, all 150 of us [at the sit-in]. We’ll all die together, rather than dying one-by-one, every day,” Changaizee said.

Even so, the protesters had little expectation that the government would cede to their demands.

“No-one felt that the protest would do anything,” said Saleem Javed, a 28-year-old Hazara rights activist from the city. “But what else could they do? There is no space left in the graveyards.”

The Quetta sit-in, however, sparked similar protests in other major Pakistani cities, and in cities around the world. Sit-ins were held in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and as far away as Washington DC, Toronto, Stockholm and Melbourne. Protesters refused to end their demonstrations until the voices of the 150 bereaved families on Alamdar Road were heard.

Eventually, they were. More than three days after the Hazara brought out their dead, the Pakistani government dismissed the provincial government, appointing the Balochistan governor to run the province for two months, and the Frontier Corps (FC) paramilitary force to formally take over law enforcement responsibilities.

A life under siege

Quetta’s Hazara have been living in a state of siege for years, activists and community members told Al Jazeera.

Over the past two years, many have been forced to shut their businesses in non-Hazara parts of the city, confining themselves to two areas: Alamdar Road, where Thursday’s attack took place, and Hazara Town.

Researchers say that over the past year, Hazara attendance at Balochistan University’s Quetta campus dropped by 95 percent, while attendance at private colleges dropped by 83 percent. Numerous business owners in the city’s main markets, meanwhile, have been shot dead in their shops. Pilgrims going to Iran by bus have been killed by roadside bombs, while ordinary citizens have been offloaded from local buses and shot dead by the side of the road.

“Hazara professors and teachers have now almost all left […] now they’re either sitting at home, or some doctors, people who have done PhDs, have migrated to Australia and are working as gardeners there now,” said Abdul Khalique Hazara, the chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party, who went on a three-day hunger strike after the latest attack.

The situation is so bad, he said, that Hazaras no longer feel safe even buying basic supplies at the city’s main vegetable market. “Often we have to get someone else to buy them for us,” he said, citing several examples of attacks on the road that leads to the market, where Hazara Shias were shot and killed at point blank range.

Javed, the rights activist, says that the Hazaras, who are an ethnically distinct group and easily recognisable by their physical features, are “paralysed”, are unable to leave their home districts for fear of being killed.

“Anyone who tries to leave these areas and go to other areas, for anything, for jobs, to buy something, to vegetable markets, they try not to go. When they are forced to, they are not sure if they will come back.”

Javed is well-experienced in living under that kind of intimidation – after receiving a series of death threats for his work as a rights activist and doctor at the city’s main hospital, he was forced to flee the country. He is just one of approximately 50,000 Hazaras to have done so since 2001.

“When I had to go to my job, until I was back at home, my family was always worried about whether I would return alive. I experienced it myself. Every person I knew had the same situation,” he told Al Jazeera from Stockholm, the Swedish capital, where he has been living since July.

Today, however, the war has come to Alamdar Road. A year ago, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an armed Sunni group, issued a letter threatening all Hazara Shias in Quetta with death, warning them to leave the city by the end of 2012 – or face death.

“It is our religious duty to kill all Shias, and to cleanse Pakistan of this impure nation.

– Lashkar-e-Jhangvi statement

“It is our religious duty to kill all Shias, and to cleanse Pakistan of this impure nation… It is our mission in Pakistan that every city, village and other place, every corner be cleansed of the Shia and the Shia Hazara,” read the letter. “And, as before, in all of Pakistan, especially Quetta, we will continue our successful jihad against the Shia Hazara and Pakistan will become a graveyard for them.”

It was no empty threat – throughout the year, an average of three attacks took place each month, with a total of 125 people killed, said Khalique. They were ordinary Hazaras, not political or religious leaders, he told Al Jazeera: students, schoolteachers, small business owners, government servants.

“We endured these attacks for 20 years,” said Changaizee. “But in this attack, the significance was that it was at our doorsteps… So our fear was: ‘What will happen next? Will they now enter into our homes?'”

State ‘incompetence or complicity’

Ali Dayan Hassan, the Karachi-based Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that there had been a “steady increase” in attacks against Shias in general, and the Hazara in particular, during the past two years.

“This violence is one-sided. It is essentially Sunni militant groups, chiefly the Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, targeting Shias, and they are targeting ordinary Shias going about their daily lives. These are not members of militant groups… it’s regular people who are being targeted,” he said.

In 2012, more than 400 Shias were killed in target killings and bombings, making it “possibly the bloodiest year in living memory for the Shia population of Pakistan”.

The Hazara, he said, are being specifically targeted as a result of the fact that they are ethnically distinct. Also a factor, despite the fact that most of Quetta’s Hazaras migrated to the city in the mid-1800s, is Afghan Hazaras’ history of involvement with the Northern Alliance armed group against the Taliban in the 1990s.

“The LeJ is an offshoot of the SSP, and the actors that constitute the SSP and LeJ fought in that theatre of operations against the Hazaras and were part of [a massacre in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif]. And so there is a specific history of massacre and persecution that these groups have engaged in against the Hazara, both in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan,” he said.

As for how groups such as the LeJ were able to strike at the Hazara with apparent impunity, Hasan pointed to the LeJ fighters’ “historical alliance” with Pakistan’s military establishment, when they were used as instruments of a policy of supporting the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Moreover, there is also a lack of capacity to deal with such groups, given the state’s continuing war against groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which are directly targeting it, argued Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, an Islamabad-based security and policy analyst.

“The preference of the Pakistani state is to first go after those groups that challenge the Pakistani state, and just ignore the other groups. And that gives [groups such as the LeJ] enough space,” he told Al Jazeera.

Moreover, he argued, the “extremist Islamist ideology” has “become so powerful and entrenched, with roots in society”, that it is now difficult to eliminate such groups, particularly given the establishment of numerous Islamic madrassas in Balochistan and elsewhere that preach such an ideology.

“The kindest explanation [of government inability to curb such attacks],” says HRW’s Hasan, “is that the state and its security agencies are criminally incompetent and incapable of providing basic security to their own citizens.

“The more cynical explanation is that the state – meaning the security establishment, intelligence agencies and paramilitaries – is complicit.”

The provincial government denied all allegations of complicity or incompentence before it was dissolved.

The problem, said Hasan, is deep-rooted in both society and state policy.

“The Pakistani military’s default reaction has been that, instead of challenging and seeking to curb militancy and extremism, they seek as a matter of policy to appease and accommodate extremists.

– Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch

“The Pakistani military’s default reaction has been that, instead of challenging and seeking to curb militancy and extremism, they seek as a matter of policy to appease and accommodate extremists. Also, because these militant groups have been allies of the state, within the security establishment there are large numbers of sympathisers or people who are tolerant of these groups and their activities.”

In interviews with Hazara activists, allegations of Frontier Corps complicity in the killings were repeatedly made by all who spoke with Al Jazeera. Several cited examples of attacks – including the offloading of Hazaras from buses, to be shot at point-blank range at the side of the city’s main international highway – having occurred within metres of FC checkposts.

The provincial government had pointed towards casualties among police and security forces inflicted by armed groups in Balochistan as evidence of their resolve. Most of those casualties, however, were linked to a separatist struggle by Baloch nationalists, not to the sectarian LeJ.

While the allegations of state complicity, ubiquitous as they are, remain unconfirmed, what is clear is that there has been a failure of the state to prosecute those involved in the killings.

“It is a one week job, if the army chooses to do so. They are a handful of people … but we cannot say anything to them, when they are protected and supported by the government. What are our people supposed to do?” asked Khalique, the HDP leader, pointing to cases where those involved in attacks have been caught by Hazaras at the scene of the crime, and have subsequently been released by the authorities.

Hasan, the HRW director, holds Pakistan’s normally activist judiciary responsible for displaying a lack of will in pursuing those involved in the violence.

“Deterrence comes from accountability – and nobody but nobody has been held accountable, either within the security agencies or in the militant groups, by the judiciary,” he said.

The lack of accountability leads to an “erosion in the writ of the state”, he added. “It is time the state started addressing that challenge, and it is time the security agencies understood that appeasing militants, being tolerant towards murder and bigotry and massacres is not an option… Your argument cannot perpetually be that ‘we don’t have the capacity, so people will die’.

“Because that makes the state untenable, if you cannot offer your citizens basic security. If your citizens cannot make themselves believe that you are even trying to protect them.”

Meanwhile, in Quetta, the paramilitary FC has now taken over law enforcement responsibilities, in a move that is more a formalisation of what has been the reality for several years, according to residents of the city.

“We will never go towards violence. But our demand is this: ‘Tell us what our crime is. Why are you killing us?’

– Abdul Khalique Hazara,
Chairman, Hazara Democratic Party

It remains unclear as to whether, with the nationwide protests and the dismissal of the provincial government, anything will change on the ground. Hazara leaders insist that they will remain peaceful, no matter what the cost.

“Our people are educated, we are liberal people,” said Khalique. “We will never go towards violence. But our demand is this: ‘Tell us what our crime is. Why are you killing us? Why are people coming into our neighbourhoods [and murdering us]?'”

What is clear is that the LeJ does not intend to stop its campaign. After making good on its promise of launching attacks within Hazara neighbourhoods if they did not flee the city by the beginning of 2013, they have now vowed to redouble their campaign against them.

“If it is the will of God, in 2013 Lashkar-e-Jhangvi will not allow any Shias to remain living in Quetta […] we will carry out such attacks that the enemy will, with the will of God, not have any escape. […] Our message to the Shias is simple: be prepared to kill, or be killed,” read the statement in which the group took responsibility for the Quetta attack.

Regardless of government action, for the Hazaras, the cold reality of impending death continues to loom in 2013.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera