A piecemeal genocide
By Muhammad Akbar Notezai
On July 4, 2003, gunmen entered and opened fire in a Hazara Imambargah in Quetta as the Friday prayers were proceeding, killing more than 50 and wounding many more. The incident marked an ever-increasing escalation in targeted attacks on Shia Hazaras in Balochistan. Since then, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch, more than a 1000 have died in incidents of sectarian violence, with at least 450 documented as killed in 2012 itself and another 400 in 2013 (1).
The assaults are part of an increase in targeted attacks on Shias across Pakistan. In Balochistan, Hazaras, with a population of approximately 5 million, are overwhelmingly Shia. This makes them particularly vulnerable to attack, especially since their distinctive facial features make them easily identifiable.
Hazaras first migrated to Quetta in Balochistan in the 1880s from Hazarajat in Central Afghanistan to escape prosecution by Afghan King Abdul Rehman. Today, they form one of Balochistan’s most literate and educated communities. Many of Balochistan’s Hazaras have also served as top military officials, civilian bureaucrats and politicians.
“My uncle was the founding chairman of Balochistan Public Service Commission,” proudly explained an octogenarian Shia Hazara while speaking to this author. Another asserted that remittances from Hazaras working in Australia, Iran, the Gulf and in European countries contribute immensely to Balochistan’s prosperity.
Besides Quetta, Shias in Balochistan also live in districts such as Lorlai, Khuzdar, Lasbella, Killa Saifullah, Bolan, Sibi, Zhob, Ziarat, Harnai, Jafferabad, Naseerabad and Jhal Magsi. However, their population in these areas has been dwindling owing to the spate of attacks targeting them.
The attacks have also severely crippled freedom of religious practice among the Shias in Balochistan. While the province has several places of religious importance for the Shias—the Qaddam Shah Ziarat of Hazrat Abbas in Quetta, Pir Panja, Bibi Nani and Pir Ghayab in Bolan, Shah Noorani in Lasbella and Sher Jan Agha in Nushki—the attacks have made it almost impossible for them to carry out pilgrimage.
As the July 2013 attack at the Imambargah in Quetta exemplifies, even places of worship are not immune to violence. Another major target are Shia processions. However, despite clear evidence that Shia places of worship are a target, the government of Balochistan has not taken any steps to secure them, said Syed Dawood Agha, the head of Balochistan Shia Conference: “as far the provincial government is concerned, it has not made any security arrangements for our sacred places.”
Despite being the target of attacks, the Shia Hazaras in Quetta continue to live in harmony with the city’s other ethnic communities, primarily Balochs and Pashtuns. “The attitude of the local Balochs and Pashtuns towards the Shia community of Balochistan is also welcoming and brotherly. The Shias, the Balochs and the Pashtuns have connected in matrimonial relationships. And they have also participated in the sorrows and greetings of each other,” Agha explained. Hazara Town, which is surrounded by the Baloch majority, witnessed an attack in a vegetable market on February 16, 2013. Despite the provocation, the Hazaras did not harm anyone living in neighboring areas. Similarly, Mariabad, another Hazara enclave, was also subject to two rather ugly suicide attacks recently in January 10, 2014. Despite these attacks, the Shia Hazaras remained peaceful and did not resort to violence.
The targeting of Hazara Shias has also led to their ghettoization, which in turn, further increases their vulnerability. In Quetta, they have mostly become confined to two localities: Mariabad and Hazara Town, which they are often unable to leave. Hundreds of government and private employees, businessmen, pilgrims, teachers and students belonging to the Shia Hazara community have been affected. They can neither run their businesses nor go to their offices and universities.
As the recently released Human Rights Watch documenting the plight of the Shia Hazaras in Baluchistan (2) puts it, “there is no travel route, no shopping trip, no school, or no work commute that is safe for the Hazaras.”The government’s failure to put an end to these attacks is as shocking as it is unacceptable.
Violence discouraging Hazara students:
Until recently approximately 250 Shia Hazara students were registered at the University of Balochistan, the largest state-run university in Balochistan. However, owing to attacks many Hazara students, particularly girls, have now been forced to discontinue their studies. Similarly, a suicide bomb attack on a bus carrying Shia Hazara students from the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS) in June 2012 discouraged students from continuing their studies at the Institute.
In another analogous instance, a suicide bomb attack on a bus carrying students from the Sardar Bahadur Khan Women University, Quetta in June 2013 resulted in the death of 11 students.
“Over the last fourteen years, Shia Hazara students have become victims of terrorism in Balochistan. That is why the students do not consider the universities safe,” lamented Hasan Raza Chengezi. The solution, according to Agha, lies in the establishment of educational institutes in Hazara majority areas in Quetta, if the government is unable to improve the law and order situation and provide security to Shia Hazara students. “Due to security reasons,” adds Changezai,“the Shia Hazara students have left their homes to go out of the province for the purpose of getting education.”
As many as 30,000 have fled Balochistan in the last five years. Besides the rest of Pakistan, particularly Karachi,many young Hazara Shias also seek to migrate to countries such as Australia—often illegally. This can result in tragedies. In April 2013, for instance, about 60 Shia Hazaras died when their boat capsized in Indonesian waters en route to Australia.
Even for those who manage to land on safe shores, life is not easy. They live a fearful, anxious life as illegal immigrants, often face persecution and continue to remain worried about friends and family members left behind. They are at peace neither at home nor in foreign lands.
1. We are the Walking Dead’: Killings of Shia Hazaras in Balochistan, Pakistan<Accessed August 13, 2014>