Published in Dawn — photo by Geo
Around a hundred years ago, Afghan emir Abdul Rahman declared war on the Hazara people. The emir’s armies killed, raped, and enslaved thousands of Hazaras. As ‘mule loads’ of severed heads made their way back to Kabul, much of the community fled to Iran and what is now Pakistan.
Fast forward some years, and the men and women that once escaped an Afghan despot are now escaping Pakistan’s sectarian militants. Where once they ran to neighbouring lands, the Hazaras now content themselves with the other end of the earth. Yet even this final flight is unsafe: scores have drowned on the way to Australia, their boats capsizing amid waves and whirlpools.
One would think this history of violence should be the consensus by now — that the grief of the Hazara would be universally recognised. It is not. Two days ago, a bomb was planted in a grocer’s potato sack in Quetta. Besides 10 other innocents, the death toll included nine Hazaras and the FC soldier guarding them.
Though the usual three C’s followed — condemnation, committees, and counter-op plans — common sense told us there would be empathy for the victims, and an understanding of the root cause: sectarian murder.
But then something strange happened. Social media began lamenting the deaths of ‘Pakistani citizens’. Others asked not to play up the fact that the victims were Shia. And the home ministry put a seal on the story. ‘Our guess is that no specific community was targeted,’ said the home minister. ‘Marri Baloch and FC personnel were among those killed as well. The numbers of the Hazara community were just greater.’
There can be no argument that the FC is in the line of fire at all times. There can also be no argument that the Marri Baloch have suffered greatly in these long wars.
But this was an attack on Hazarganji market, where attacks have happened before, where the killers have explicitly cited sect as motive, where a security escort is required to buy and sell vegetables. To say the numbers just happened to be greater is to forget that Hazara vendors bringing fruit from that same market have been ‘offloaded from buses and shot one by one’ in the past.
As always, the first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one. Hazaras are killed because they are Shia. We know because their killers say so.
To say they are all ‘Pakistani citizens’ and that we are all Pakistani citizens, is not a call to action. It is a brainless bumper sticker. The students of APS Peshawar were massacred because they were the children of army officers — the killers said so. Polio workers were shot because they were thought to be driving sterility on the West’s behest — the killers said so. A generation of lawyers was wiped out from Quetta because they were ‘justice ministry employees’ — the killers said so. Yet the Hazaras of Quetta are bombed, because they are citizens of Pakistan.
It is high time we bury this idea, if only because we have no more time left. Few understand the scale of what’s happening, because so few care about what goes on in Balochistan. It is the only province where terror-linked fatalities increased in 2018. It suffers from the highest number of casualties in the country, having overtaken the tribal areas according to Nacta’s numbers. Factor in its small population, and we realise just how disproportionate the destruction has been.
At the epicentre of it all is Quetta, and at the heart of Quetta, is the Hazaras’ mortal peril. Hazaras have been targeted since 1999, and en masse since at least 2001 (i.e. over a decade before foreign powers began destabilising CPEC). Their physical features make them easy to identify, a death knell for any persecuted minority. And the city too has closed around them in a geography of death, ‘caged between Alamdar Road and Koh-i-Murdar’ per a special feature by Dawn.
No community should have to live and breathe in terror this way, let alone a wonderful, peace-loving people like the Hazaras. Yet even survival comes with its own tragic terms of reference: selling their properties for a song; watching as non-Hazara parents pull their children from the buses that Hazaras travel in; and witnessing the Hazara graveyard grow. Not a single Hazara family is left in Quetta that hasn’t suffered.
None of this is to say the state hasn’t fought back, and paid the ultimate price for it. Col Sohail Abid was martyred fighting the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s most wanted in Kili Almas last May; he left behind four children. Per a police officer posted in Balochistan, “the police and FC have set up permanent pickets, joint patrolling is routinely conducted to minimise the threat, and route protection is deployed for the safety of the zaireen”. Jam Kamal’s responsiveness sharply contrasts with another chief minister’s: Aslam Raisani vowed to send the Hazaras a truckload of tissue paper to wipe away their tears.
But where pickets may prevent the disease, the root cause is a mindset — sectarian supremacy, where the killers openly sing songs about scoring ‘double centuries’. We cannot fight it while singing the ballad of banned outfits: holding sectarians to a different standard from separatists; watching as Fourth Schedulers disappear behind four different names. Nor can we fight it without saying what it is.
Prime Minister Imran Khan recently tweeted his condemnation of the attack, and the targeting of ‘innocent people’. Yet here’s what he said in 2013: ‘I explicitly take their name and call out to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. If you carry out this terrorism in the name of Islam, then you couldn’t be greater enemies of the religion.’ In another report of the same day, he said, ‘Sectarian killings in the name of Islam are shameful.’
There it is: the name of the beast, the nature of the beast and, for the sake of this country’s soul, the need to finish it. May the Hazara people forgive us.