In recent years, the Marriabad graveyard has become the most crowded place in Quetta, yet an eerie silence prevails. The only sound one can hear is the billowing wind and the flutter of the Shia alam over the tombstones of all those who have perished over the years in various acts of terrorism. Their loved ones have once again taken to the streets to protest after the latest incident last Friday.
The last time a sit-in was staged by the Hazara community, one of the leaders simply told representatives of law enforcement agencies to open fire on them there and then, and be done with it. Better to die all together than one by one, every single day, he said. He also said, in what would qualify as dark humour were it not so depressing, that possibly the safest place for the Hazaras in all of Pakistan is the Marriabad graveyard. This is how dire the situation is.
They have protested in Quetta winters, with the bodies of their loved ones spread out across the highway before them, they have braved torrential rain and they have endured long days and endlessly dark nights waiting for someone to heed their plight. Every time they have heard the same rhetoric of condolences and reassurances, only to return when another massacre follows. This has happened so many times (one hundred and sixteen times to be exact) that it resembles a dark, violent and depressing version of Groundhog Day.
Their persecution dates back to the 19th century under the Afghan king Abdul Rehman, under whose reign they bore such hardship that they were compelled to migrate to Balochistan which was then part of the British Empire. This exodus continued until the late 1990s when the Taliban came into power in Afghanistan and unleashed a reign of terror against the Hazara, culminating in the Mazar-i-Sharif massacre. The Hazara, as they had done in the 19th century, found sanctuary in Balochistan in Pakistan, among others of their community who had settled there.
With the siding of Pakistan with the United States in the so-called War on Terror, the reactionary forces that Pakistan had bred for so long as proxies for the Jihad in Kashmir and ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan turned on the state itself, and found the minority Hazara to be easy civilian targets. Pakistan has a poor record at best of protecting its minorities, and what followed needs no elaboration. There has been one wave followed by another. At this point the numbers are irrelevant, the figures do not matter.
While government and security officials will rightly point out that the number of attacks have somewhat decreased over the past few months, mostly due to the security measures taken to safeguard their lives, the truth of the matter is that the Hazara are virtually caged within enclaves of Hazara Town, Marriabad and Alamdar Road, needing security escorts if they wish to commute to other parts of the city. This is an infringement upon their basic rights to freedom of movement, freedom to educate their children and a right to earn their living freely, among others.
This is also evident from the fact that in the preceding years, the Hazara have almost entirely stopped their children from attending schools, colleges and universities as their safety cannot be guaranteed. Even though the government assures them of it, the written threats slipped under their doors in the dead of the night and the telephone calls from unknown numbers warning them of their impending murder understandably does not soothe their nerves.
The government points to permanent police presence within their communities as well as check posts at key entry and exit points as well as permanent FC patrols at frequented routes by the Hazara as measures that have helped bring the number of attacks down.
These measures are hardly a long-term fix, however. The truth is that sectarian elements implicated in the murder of Shia Muslims in the country, or at least those who advocate their murder for being ‘infidels’, are very much still active in the province. Not only that, they are often seen to be enjoying state patronage.
Just last year, Ramzan Mengal, the notorious provincial chief of the far-right Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ) was allowed to freely campaign for a National Assembly seat from Quetta, and also accorded police protection for his election campaign. This is a man who has been seen leading slogans against Shias in the past and whose organisation has ostensibly been banned by Pakistan as a terrorist organisation. He has been taken into police custody in the past pending investigations into the murder of Shia Hazaras in Balochistan but has always been freed without charge. That the latest incident in Quetta follows his latest release from custody is a little more than a mere coincidence.
That is not all. State functionaries have been seen consorting with these maniacal terrorists in the recent past, with current and past interior ministers pictured meeting the top leadership of these sectarian outfits. All of which begs the question: why?
This has led to the Hazara community asking questions that make state representatives squirm when they come face-to-face with them. Why are their killers afforded state protection, allowed to run in the elections and allowed to freely propagate hate-speech against them? To these questions, they have no answer.
When they do come up with them though, the answers are the usual deflections: that the attacks are perpetrated by ‘foreign intelligence’ or fingers are pointed at India or Afghanistan. Or they simply say the attack did not target the Hazara community at all.
Balochistan Home Minister Ziaullah Langove, suggested that “no specific community was targeted…the numbers of the Hazara community were just greater.” This even after a little-known faction of the Taliban in collaboration with the militant sectarian outfit Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ), and later, ISIS, accepted responsibility for the attack, claiming it was meant to target the Hazaras. It seems the ‘elected’ state representatives of Balochistan are out of their depth, while the non-elected ones run the show. Truth is that for ISIS or LeJ, Pakistan has been made a fertile breeding ground for sectarian killers.
Let this not distract us from the facts, however: that the numbers of Hazara Shias killed in Pakistan have now reached genocidal proportions. Even constraining them to protected enclaves within Quetta has not been able to completely stem the tide of Hazara killings, and the responsibility for this monumental failure rests on the Pakistani state.
Many from the Hazara have, in recent years, attempted to flee the country; those who can afford it, fly mostly to Australia or the US and Canada as asylum seekers. Those who cannot, attempt the dangerous sea routes into Europe and Australia and many have perished in recent years when overcrowded boats have capsized in turbulent waters. There are other sordid tales of Hazara families interned at the notorious Manus and Nauru camps just off the coast of Australia, experiencing physical and psychological torture, with their lives in perpetual limbo.
The plight of the Hazaras represents a catastrophic failure on part of the Pakistani state to safeguard the lives of some of its most vulnerable citizens. It still appears that, to the Pakistani policy-makers, the utility of these ideological militant outfits still outweighs the risks associated with nurturing them. It would appear that they see the Hazaras as nothing but collateral damage in their self-styled war against ‘inimical forces’ out to undo Pakistan. Nowhere has this realisation been starker than among the Hazaras themselves, even as they take to the streets time and again to demand the most basic right to life.
At what cost will Pakistan consider permanently giving up its ties to these outfits? Civilian rage and dissent, not only among the Hazaras, but other parts of the country is on the rise, and Pakistan faces its reckoning with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) soon. It may well survive its date with the FATF, but is the Pakistan state strong enough to survive the wrath of its own citizenry that has been put too long to the slaughter to meet its own purposes?