April 22 could have been a morning like any other for 40-year old Mohammad Zaman, a Shia Hazara, and father of three, who opened his car mechanic shop anywhere between 7.30 and 8.00am on Bypass Road, Quetta, and went about work. Except it wasn’t.
“Around 2pm, his friend Mohammad Ali came on his motorbike along with his bodyguard and asked him to hop along as he needed help with his car just a kilometre or two away,” says Zaman’s sister, Feroza Batool, 23, a fine arts student at the National College of Arts in Lahore.
But even before they reached the spot, elusive killers sprayed them with bullets and fled. “Both the friends died before reaching the hospital. The bodyguard barely survived and has now been shifted to a hospital in Karachi,” says Batool, who till two days back before her brother’s death, was participating in rallies in Lahore to protest the killings of her community people.
“All this happened not even two kilometres from a Frontier Corps check post, where not even a leaf can move under the law enforcement personnel’s watchful eye!” she adds. “Anyone who enters a Hazara neighbourhood has to show their CNIC.”
“Zaman was the sole breadwinner, supporting 11 people (six kids), but more than that he was a pillar of strength for all of us; today I feel a huge burden on my shoulders and I don’t know how I will manage my family,” says Batool. Her old and frail father continues to have bouts where he gets unconscious. “When he comes around he cries.”
But what is also gnawing at her is whether she’d be able to continue her studies. In her third year, Batool shifted to Lahore’s NCA last year, and has still not paid her tuition fee. Between whatever little her brother could manage to send and the money she earns by taking on commission work, she had managed the boarding and lodging in Lahore. She says there was an understanding with the college that she’d pay off her tuition fee from the money she earned from her thesis work at her graduation. “But how will I be able to support my family?” is the question that is weighing her down.
Most of the world’s 3.4 million Hazaras, with their Mongol-like features, live in Afghanistan. Over a century back, many fled that country, where they were being persecuted by the dominant Sunni Pashtun tribes and came to Pakistan. Today, nearly 600,000 of them, live ghettoized in two pockets, in Quetta — Hazara Town and Mariabad.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks, most activists think they are the same old anti-Shia elements.
The LeJ, with strong ties with the TTP, is a sworn enemy of the Shias (variously estimated at between five and 20 per cent of Pakistan’s 2017 million population) which they consider to be apostates and want to rid from Pakistan.
The situation came to a head in 2013 when more than 200 from this community were killed.
Since then, there have been sporadic attacks, but never of the magnitude seen back in 2013 and earlier. According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 13 Hazara Shias were killed in 2017 in Balochistan.
But the worrying aspect of the five attacks in the month of April alone, even if they were not of an “apocalyptic scale” as in the past, says Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and country representative of of the Human Rights Watch, was that the “anti-Shia outfits have not completely been disbanded”. In fact, he says they may well have regrouped and were trying to find a “foothold” again.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a researcher based in Washington D.C. with a keen eye on Balochistan affairs, portends “worse future attacks” in Balochistan. But unlike the rest, he is of the opinion that the present militants were more loyal to groups like the Islamic State than their traditional patrons, say the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or the Taliban.
Another reason oft given, says Fida Hussain*, a former journalist in Pakistan, who managed to land in Australia seven years ago and now drives a taxi, is: “We are seen as puppets of Iran, except the irony is that even the Iranians look upon us warily”.
Many Hazaras says there is systematic plan to bring about a demographic change in Quetta, earlier dominated by Hazaras. “Creating official hurdles for Hazaras, such as blocking their CNICs, strengthens these assumptions,” says Saleem Javed, a medical doctor and rights activist who emigrated from Quetta five years ago.
According to Abdul Khaliq Hazara, chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP), being more educated than other ethnic groups, Hazaras in Quetta often held high positions in government institutions in the past. “Now merit has been elbowed out and inefficiency is the order of the day where even a peon’s position is sold to the highest bidder. Very soon you will see a complete collapse of governance.”
Hazara also thinks there is an economic angle to their elimination. “Some Hazara businessmen and shop owners in the city centre had first been asked to sell their properties at giveaway prices. Those who refused were later killed.”
Hussain gives several names of shopkeepers whose shops worth Rs10 million, after their murder, have been sold by the heirs for as little as Rs2 million. “Over the years many Hazara businessmen have been forced to sell their shops in the main business centre of Quetta fearing they may be targetted,” says Hamida Ali, a social and political activist, belonging to the Hazara community.
The feeling of helplessness is more profound as most Hazaras feel they stand alone.
“In all these years when a Hazara shopkeeper has been attacked in broad daylight, in the heart of a shopping area, no Pashtun shopkeeper from a nearby shop has come to his rescue, despite most being armed,” says Hussain, adding that no one has even helped catch the fleeing attackers.
Hazaras say the cream of the community has systematically been eliminated. According to the government’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), at least 509 Hazaras have been killed in Quetta since 2013.
“Those killed have been doctors, engineers, teachers, students, poets and even ordinary shopkeepers and vendors; not a single person had any political affiliation!” says Khaliq Hazara, of the HDP.
The recent visit of Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to Quetta to assess the security situation and reassure the Hazaras that “those who have targeted them shall suffer twice as much” has meant different things to different people.
Hamida Ali, who is also deputy secretary general, women wing of the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), views General Bajwa’s visit earlier as the “last hope”. She was also among the Hazaras that met with the army chief and had asked him to resolve practical issues like ensuring economic assistance for widows or female-headed households, scholarships for children of the deceased and to make it easier for such households in obtaining /renewing CNIC cards.
An ISPR press release stated that the army has “busted many terrorists’ networks and we know how these networks are being supported by hostile agencies”. It also added that in 2018 alone, 37 security forces personnel were also killed in Quetta.
Soon after the COAS left after getting an update on the security situation and to meet with the Hazaras, Quetta saw a deluge of men on motorbikes in a brand new and different uniform, armed with latest weapons, patrolling the streets of the city.
According to news reports, 400 personnel of a new Eagle Elite Force, trained by Pakistan Army, will patrol in as many as 25 different parts of the city.
“They look good,” says a local journalist requesting anonymity, “but till the root cause — policies that fan the flame of sectarian prejudices — are not scrapped, you can bring in any number of men in smart uniforms and goggles but there will be no peace in the city.”
*Name changed to protect identity.
For the Hazara youth, the future is quite bleak, says 32-year old Altaf Safdari, who migrated to the US in 2013, but was on a visit to Quetta, last month. He remembered that during his university days he would often change routes to get to his classes. Things finally came to a head when his professor at the Balochistan University was killed six years ago and that is when he decided he could not live “looking behind my shoulders” for the rest of his life, and decided to migrate.
Safdari estimates that about 60,000 people have left Quetta since 2013.
Citing the HRCP figure, advocate Jalila Haider puts the number to be about 90,000 who have either migrated internally to other parts of Pakistan or those who could afford, fled to Europe, the US or Australia.
In Indonesia alone, says Safdari, anywhere between 8,000 to 12,000 Pakistani Hazaras are today, waiting at the UNHCR camps to get a refugee status. He adds the most common route followed by the fleeing Hazara a decade ago was to reach Indonesia legally.
Batool’s second brother left for Australia, a destination favoured by most Hazaras, in a boat illegally, after his father sold their home, five years back, leaving his wife and three kids with them. “We have no clue if he is still alive.”
In the last few years, says Changezi, illegal immigration has lessened but not because conditions in Quetta for Hazaras have improved, or it has become less riskier to flee. “The migration policies have become stringent.”
Hussain knows all too well; he reached Australia illegally by boat in 2011.
In 2013, Kevin Rudd, then prime minister, said any asylum seeker coming by boat to Australia will not be allowed to settler there regardless of whether they already had family there.
“Pakistani Hazaras wanting to enter Australia legally, are in particular, refused a visa — be it tourist, business or a student, one because they fear they will not go back,” says Hussain.
He has paid a heavy cost to reach safer shores, but with his family, including a wife and two kids still in Quetta, peace eludes him. Every morning he opens his FaceBook with foreboding, in case something bad has happened to them. “And it’s not just me; most of the Hazara men, who migrated, live with this constant niggling fear.”
Hussain met his wife and kids finally after seven years in Iran, earlier this year. “We stayed together for three months and those were perhaps the happiest days of our lives. But the separation is so painful that it took me months to get back to my regular life here in Australia,” he says, adding that no one can imagine the feeling of emptiness one feels on saying goodbye to his wife and kids. “You don’t know when or under what circumstances you will be able to meet next.” But one thing is definite, the Australian government will never allow his family to come live with him.
Though he has been in Australia now for seven years, he has only been granted temporary protection visa (TPV) instead of a permanent one. “You are not allowed to apply for most of the jobs as they say the citizens and permanent residents deserve those jobs first.”
And for people like him, to invest in property means he has to pay a much higher price than the residents and citizens.
Hussain says an uncertain future means he cannot plan for his life ahead in Australia. “All these obstacles along with the restriction on family reunion here in Australia have turned the life for refugees nothing short of a nightmare because in this situation and the circumstances back at home nobody can concentrate on work,” said Hussain with all of it taking a heavy toll on them, both economically and psychologically.
Women as bread-winners
Hamida Ali, a social and political activist belonging to the Hazara, opened a restaurant, bang in the middle of Hazara Town, last year. It is the only restaurant run by Hazara women.
“We are in a very sad predicament today. Many homes have no male breadwinners left — they have either been killed or have left Quetta. A community where children’s education was of paramount importance and child labour looked down upon, many children have had to leave school and work as waiters in restaurants and tandoors, or errand boys in medical stores or in shoe shops etc, to support their families,” she says.
In her own small way, the women she has employed are now supporting their families. “We also have a few young girls who are able to continue their studies by working there in the evening after attending classes.”
Whatever funds are left over go into funding half a dozen primary school students.
According to Adir Changezi*, a development consultant, living in Hazara Town, the situation is quite grim. “If there are ten houses in a lane, eight would have no male breadwinner in their family — either killed or have migrated.” There have been incidents when he has had to take some female or the other to the hospital in the night because there was no male member from their home to transport them.
Batool says in her lane they pooled in anywhere between Rs100 to Rs200 every month and gave it to homes where there was no bread-earner. “In our community, you will never find anyone begging, we try and look after our own.”
But living in such a closeted environment, is disturbing for Changezi who is concerned that “living and mingling with just their own community, I fear their outlook towards others will become extremely prejudicial”. He has taken a huge risk and enrolled his own kids in a school in main Quetta city where they can enjoy certain diversity.