Karachi, Pakistan – Kulsoom Hazara clutched her medal tightly as Pakistan’s national anthem played inside a sports arena in the Indian capital New Delhi.
The 27-year-old karateka from Pakistan had delivered a knockout blow to her Indian opponent to win her first international medal – a gold at the 2016 South Asian Karate Championship.
She could not hold her tears as she remembered her slain mentor and brother-in-law Sarwar Ali Hazara, who was shot dead in 2005 in what appeared to be a sectarian attack.
Kulsoom is from the Hazara minority community, which has faced persecution in Pakistan. At least 1,500 Hazaras have been killed in sectarian attacks since the late 1990s, according to figures maintained by a non-profit Hazara organisation.
But according to Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights figure available from 2012 to 2017, more than 500 Hazaras were killed in Quetta between 2012 and 2017.
Pakistan is home to more than half a million Hazaras, most of whom live in Balochistan province bordering Iran.
Last November, Kulsoom was in the media spotlight after winning a silver and a gold medal in individual and team events respectively at the South Asian Games in Nepal. Her beaming smile despite receiving a blow that broke her nose endeared her to an otherwise cricket-mad nation.
She has also grabbed a gold medal at the 2017 South Asian Karate Championship held in Sri Lanka and picked up a bronze at the 2010 South Asian Games held in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
Kulsoom resumed her training at a karate club run by Ali in the port city of Karachi. Ali was her guardian since she had lost her parents as a child.
The worsening security situation in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, had forced Ali to move to Karachi in the 1990s.
Ali introduced her to karate as a child while she was still based in Quetta. “I was five and didn’t even know how to tie my own belt when my brother-in-law held my hand and took me to my first karate lesson in Quetta,” Kulsoom told Al Jazeera at her club in Karachi.
“I lost my mother to cancer when I was two. My father died five years later. Fearing for our lives and livelihood, my brother-in-law decided to bring us to Karachi.
“I wasn’t always very passionate about karate but my brother-in-law knew I could be a champion so his encouragement pushed me to do better.”
Kulsoom made a mark as a promising athlete when she won three gold medals in 2000 at provincial tournaments. Two years later, she won a bronze in the national karate championship held in Lahore.
“It was after winning a national medal that my interest in karate grew,” the 27-year-old athlete told Al Jazeera.
She attained national fame after winning her first national gold in 2005. And her medal glory at national level continued almost uninterrupted until 2019, an unmatched feat in Pakistan, where female athletes are few and far between.
“Once I won my first national gold, my brother-in-law set his sights on making me an international karate champion for Pakistan.
“Sadly, he couldn’t live to see it happen. He became a victim of the vicious campaign against our community,” said Kulsoom with a tremble in her voice.
“When we moved from Quetta, we thought we left behind the fear and violence that crippled our lives. But it followed us to our doorstep in Karachi.”
In 2005, Ali was on his way back home after training his karate students in Manghopir area of Karachi when he was shot dead. She said unknown men had threatened Ali and told him to quit training Hazara kids.
“I was fixing the living room curtains when I heard an announcement from the neighbourhood mosque that my brother-in-law had died. It struck me like lightning. I fell off the chair, became unconscious and spent the night at the hospital.
“I had lost my mentor, my coach, my guardian.
“He was a very selfless man and felt it was his responsibility to pass on this art to as many children as possible, and not just those from our community.”
Kulsoom’s life turned upside down as Ali’s karate club in their neighbourhood of Gulistan-e-Jauhar was shut down.
However, instead of turning her back on karate, Kulsoom emerged from the crisis determined to keep on fighting and fulfil her mentor’s dream.
“I started training at home, in my room,” she said.
“I didn’t have access to YouTube or online coaching and I couldn’t learn anything new. I tried to improve whatever techniques I knew, improve my speed and improve my physique.”
Backing from the Sindh province officials helped her continue her training.
At the 2005 Islamic Women’s Games in Iran, which saw participation from 44 countries, Kulsoom failed to win a medal. But the defeat did not dampen her ambitions.
She resumed training at a karate club run by Abdul Hameed, the secretary of the Sindh Karate Association, who also took over as Kulsoom’s coach and mentor after Ali’s murder.
The club was located in Lyari, a part of Karachi known for producing boxing, karate and football stars but also notorious for gang wars which made it a virtual no-go area from 2008 to 2014.
Even at the height of the violence, Kulsoom continued to practise at the club – a run-down place with bare minimum facilities, squeaky wooden floor, cracked walls and insufficient lighting.
“Kulsoom is a role model for every kid, be it a girl or a boy, who comes to this club,” coach Hameed told Al Jazeera as his students filled in for their daily evening practice.
As the students gathered in a formation for a warm-up and training session, Kulsoom positioned herself at the front to lead the group. Two young men, on either side, waited for her cue.
“She lost her parents, her hometown, even her mentor, but she never stopped training. Even at the height of violence in Lyari, she would make the 50km round trip just for her training,” Hameed said.
“Forget about girls, so many boys who started playing at the same time as Kulsoom have quit karate but she’s is still here, still winning medals and still making us proud.”
With a chuckle, Hameed added: “When she enters the ring she’s like a tigress. She knocks down opponents within minutes. Sometimes I have to ask her to be a little considerate of her opponent.”
In addition to winning medals, Kulsoom completed a master’s degree in physical education from the University of Karachi.
Following in Kulsoom’s footsteps, several martial arts and sport champions have emerged from Quetta’s Hazara community over the past 10 years.
Nargis Hameedullah and Shahida Abbas have won medals in Karate at the Asian and South Asian Games in recent years.
Sitting by a large glass display unit filled with her medals, trophies and photos of her late mentor, Kulsoom said that she feels immense pride at being introduced as a role model for all young Pakistani girls, and not just those from the Hazara community.
She also recalled how, back in the 1990s, she was made fun of and her family was looked down upon for teaching martial arts to a girl at an all-boys karate club.
“Now, whenever I go back to Hazara Town, I’m presented with bouquets and garlands and receive invitations to girls’ schools and karate clubs,” she said with a smile.