Hazara Shia hounded in Pakistan

More than 180 Hazara Shia have been killed since January in what they say is an atmosphere of impunity and hatred.

Hazara Shia - Quetta
On February 16 a deadly bombing on a market left at least 84 people dead [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Quetta, Pakistan – In the shadow of the Koh-e-Murdar mountain, in a graveyard nestled in the eastern corner of the Pakistani city of Quetta, the Hazara Shia mourn their dead.

Row upon row of etched marble gravestones stand testament to the sustained targeted campaign of killings carried out against this community by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an armed pro-Sunni group that, though banned by the government, operates with impunity in the city and elsewhere.

Over the last 12 years, community leaders say, more than 1,200 Hazara have been killed in shootings and bombings in the southwestern province of Balochistan, of which Quetta is the capital. They have been targeted in their shops and offices, at vegetable markets and in their places of worship. In some of the most horrific attacks, gunmen have stopped buses, identified Hazaras by their features and names, and shot them at point-blank range on the side of the road.

In 2012, the LeJ issued a warning to the Hazara: leave Quetta by the end of the year or face death.

After killing more than 125 Hazara that year, the LeJ seems determined to make good on its promise: more than 180 Hazara Shia have been killed in two huge bombings and a series of targeted gun attacks in the first two months of 2013 alone.

“We exist now at God’s pleasure. We can rely on nothing else,” says Muhammad Ibrahim, whose three sons were killed in a recent bombing that killed at least 84 people. “We are so nervous and worried [at these attacks], and I can’t understand what is happening. We have lost so much. I do not know what the future holds.”

“We do not see any ray of hope for things to get better,” says Abdul Khalique Hazara, the chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP). “The group that is claiming these killings are Pakistanis: they are within Pakistan, they have ID cards, they are citizens of this country. And they are a banned organisation. But it is the misfortune of this country that those who are banned are never acted against by the government and intelligence agencies.”

Musarrat Hussain, vice-president of the Balochistan Shia Conference (BSC), says the failure to protect the Hazara amounts to a failure of the state in its basic duties.

“The government is responsible for securing the life, property, education and health [of citizens]. They must provide these things, and they cannot compromise on this,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is their basic duty, and our fundamental right.”

Citing “government negligence”, Qayyum Changaizee, the acting chief of the Quetta Unity Council and head of the Hazara Qaumi Jirga, agrees. “The amount of money that they have given in compensation after these tragedies, if they spent even half of it on the security services, giving them the proper equipment, support [and backing to carry out operations], then these tragedies would never happen,” he told Al Jazeera.

A community isolated

The LeJ’s campaign has isolated the Hazara to two main residential areas in Quetta, members of the community say: Alamdar Road in the east, and Hazara Town in the west. Having initially migrated to Balochistan fleeing persecution in Afghanistan in the 1880s, it seems the community is once again being pushed towards isolation.

Tayyab Ali, a Hazara whose family has been running a successful agricultural supplies business for decades, told Al Jazeera that he and his relatives try to leave the area around their house on Alamdar Road as little as possible. Conditions have gotten so bad, he said, that they have been forced to close their shop.

Muhammad Ishaq, far right, who lost five family members in the Hazara Town bombing, including his wife and two children[Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Ali’s story is not atypical – community leaders say attendance of Hazara students at Balochistan University has dropped by more than 80 percent. The Hazara, a generally well-educated and economically successful community, also own many businesses in the city and hold positions in the civil bureaucracy. Those who own shops in the main business districts, however, say they have been forced to close their establishments after several business owners were shot. Members of the civil bureaucracy, meanwhile, have requested transfers to offices closer to their areas, or been granted extended leave, documents obtained by Al Jazeera show.

“From primary education to universities, the doors to educational institutions are being closed to us,” says Changaizee. “We cannot go there. The IT university is outside our area. Students who do go have been attacked. We can’t even think of going to Balochistan University – it is on Saryab Road [an area believed to be an LeJ stronghold]. The doors to provincial government jobs have been closed to us as well. So they are cutting us off.”

The government’s response to the situation seems to be to further cement that isolation: after the last bombing, paramilitary Frontier Corps troops started to build walls and place barbed wire around the entrance points to Alamdar Road and Hazara Town.

Hazaras say they fear the walls will isolate them still further.

“This will only increase hatred,” says Muhammad Ishaq, who lost five family members, including his wife and two children, in the bombing in Hazara Town. “This way, even those who would stand with us are being separated from us.”

Hasan Khan, a former local council leader and an ethnic Pashtun resident of the Alamdar Road area, agreed, telling Al Jazeera the wall would separate people from one another and “increase hatred and misunderstandings”.

Yet the seeds of that discord have, it seems, already been sown. Several Pashtun residents of Hazara neighbourhoods raised objections to the wall to Al Jazeera – but their concern was less that they were being separated from the Hazara, and more that they were being “shut in” with them.

Kamran Naeem, one such resident, said while he was firmly against any attacks on them, the Hazara “segregate themselves” and “do not have tolerance for other people”. He asserted that after attacks on their community, Hazaras had carried out “revenge attacks” on Sunni Muslims, particularly clerics, in these areas.

Ghulam Jaan, a Pashtun who runs a gym in the area, echoed those concerns, saying armed Hazara youth set up checkpoints around their area after attacks, “harassing” people of other ethnicities.

It is a charge Hazara community leaders do not deny, though they do say they condemn any acts of violence carried out by such youths.

“We are peaceful people … Yes, there are some young [Hazaras who do this], and you can’t stop them all,” said Dr Ruqaiya Hashmi, a Hazara who is a member of the provincial assembly. “After three or four people have been killed from every home [over the years], then there is going to be a reaction. It is only human.”

‘Targeted operation’

The real need, Hazara leaders say, is for a targeted operation against the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and those in the government and security services who they allege are complicit in these attacks.

Though Hazara say the government has failed to perform a basic duty, they also believe the government has the capacity to protect them.

“Our law enforcement agencies are not so weak … It is simply a lack of will. They don’t have the will to pursue the banned organisations in a targeted operation,” says Khalique Hazara, the HDP leader.

Khalique and other community leaders pointed to several killings, including the latest bombings, where the attackers passed through Frontier Corps security checkpoints without being stopped – both before and after said attacks – as proof of the security services’ complicity.

“Instead of [walling us in in our areas], you should do a targeted operation according to the constitution. Act against those bloodthirsty few who are spreading religious extremism. Clean Quetta of these elements. All of Quetta’s citizens are disturbed by these targeted killings,” he said.

Graves of those killed in targeted attacks at the Bibi Zainab Graveyard, Quetta [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Changaizee says that while the government has made many promises, it has consistently failed to follow through.

“When security plans are made by the police or home department, they are quite comprehensive, perhaps 50 or 100 pages long. But on the ground? It’s nothing,” he said.

The provincial authorities firmly deny this charge, pointing to an operation launched after the February 16 bombing that resulted in the deaths of four people and arrest of seven others, all of whom were said to be LeJ fighters.

Akbar Durrani, the provincial home secretary, told Al Jazeera that his department and the police had also launched an operation to crack down on hate literature and had tightened controls on the transport and sale of chemicals and explosives that could be used in such attacks.

“For a community that is under attack, it is natural for them to have their own point of view on attacks,” he said. “But even in the January 10 bombing [on Alamdar Road], some of the first casualties were the seven police officers who ran to the scene after the initial explosion … Which government would create a situation like this?”

As for allegations that Frontier Corps and police have not responded to shooting incidents in markets and elsewhere, Durrani said police “may have thought the firing was celebratory. Such aerial firing is a tradition here. But there is no complicity”. Community leaders among the Hazara, however, are not convinced. They warn that unless the government action results in the attacks ceasing, things could get worse – on both sides.

“I say this openly, that if the government cannot control the city, then they should empower us as citizens, as a nation, to protect ourselves,” says Agha, the chief of the BSC. The BSC has also stated that if it were to receive a decree from the head of its order of Islamic jurisprudence, the Agha of Sistan, then it would be prepared to take up arms against the LeJ.

The HDP, meanwhile, says a campaign against religious intolerance, focused on the clerics who spread such beliefs, is needed in addition to operations against the LeJ.

“When the revolution of Afghanistan happened, the government was gone and there was chaos for 40 years. We are thinking now that if these killings in Pakistan are not stopped now, matters will be out of everyone’s control. This is not just about the Hazara,” said Khalique Hazara.

Meanwhile, at the Bibi Zainab graveyard, bodies continue to arrive. Each gravestone tells a tale – of the youth activist who refused to leave his community despite receiving death threats, the police officer killed when he ran to the site of an explosion only to be killed by a secondary blast, the two brothers killed while waiting in line at the passport office.

Locals say Koh-e-Murdar, the mountain towering over the graveyard, was originally named Koh-e-Mordar – “mountain of peacocks” in Farsi. But over the centuries the “or” has been softened, turning it into Koh-e-Murdar – the mountain of death. After the first major bomb attack this year, a Hazara activist told Al Jazeera that the Hazara protest sit-in where they refused to bury their dead was held, in part, because “there is no space left in the graveyards”.

What becomes frighteningly clear, however, on visiting the shadow of Koh-e-Murdar, is how much space there still remains for Hazaras to be buried in.

An extended version of this report will appear in the Al Jazeera magazine on March 25.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera