Hazara womend protest in Quetta on April 19. Photo by our Observer, Basit Ali.
The simple act of walking in the streets of Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s western Balochistan province, can have deadly consequences for the city’s Hazara community. The Hazaras, who are predominately Shiite Muslims, have been labelled “infidels” by Wahhabis, members of an radical branch of Sunnism who hold a significant amount of power in the region. For the past 20 years, our Observer has lived with the daily threat of violence because of his religion – a threat that claimed the life of one more victim just this Monday.
Monday’s death came on the heels of a terrorist attack on Saturday, April 14, which left nine Hazaras dead. The act was claimed by Pakistan’s extremist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group with ties to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which has targeted the region’s Hazara population. Just one week before, religious violence claimed the lives of nine other Hazaras.
Outraged by the deaths, Quetta’s Hazara community quickly organised a demonstration to protest against the local authorities inaction in the wake of the killings. Demonstrators burned tyres, as well as stoned and set fire to cars, paralysing the city for two days. Special forces were eventually deployed to restore order to Quetta. Upon their arrival, they warned that they would use all possible means to end the wave of terrorism plaguing the Balochistan region.
The announcement did little to soothe tensions. On April 17 and 19, thousands of Hazara women took to the street to call for an end to what they described as a “genocide”. The demonstration, however, did not stem the bloodshed. On April 21 two Hazara were killed on one of Quetta’s main roads. Two days later, on Monday, our Observer Basit Ali alerted us to yet another death.
Hazara womend protest in Quetta on April 19.
A little more than a century ago, a significant portion of the Hazara community in Afghanistan, which is largely Sunni, fled the country to escape lives marked by poverty and repression. Many of them settled in Pakistan, in particular Quetta. Today, there are 400,000 Hazara Shiites living there, where they work primarily in commerce.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Pakistan’s Balochistan province, which lies near the border with Afghanistan, was transformed into a base for extremist Afghans. Over time, groups of Wahhabi terrorists set up camp and the region’s Shiite minority, which is mostly comprised of Hazaras, became the target of multiple attacks.
According to Abdul Qayuum Changezi, head of the organisation Hazara Jarga, more than 600 Hazaras have been killed since 2000, the majority in the Quetta area. Over the last few weeks, experts have observed an escalation of religious violence in the area.
Suspected terrorists arrested by Hazara civilians in the wake of an attack on Saturday, April 21, which left two people dead.
"There are extremists all around us. In the end, we begin to suspect every person we cross in the street"
Basit Ali, a Hazara, lives in Quetta where he works as a photographer and activist.
Hazaras were first targeted by extremists in Quetta in 1999. Since then, there have been periods more violent than others, and certain incidents such as the July 4, 2003 suicide attack on the city’s Hazara mosque, which were deadlier than others [the attack left a total of 53 dead and 150 injured, according to figures provided by organisations defending Hazara rights], but there has never really been a moment over the past 20 years when there was no unrest.From the very beginning, extremists groups have tired to force us out of the area because they view us as ‘infidels’ [in June, 2011, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group distributed leaflets explaining that all Shiite Muslims were infidels and that Pakistan would become an enormous burial ground for Hazaras if they didn’t flee the country before 2012].We are forced to live in seclusion. After the recent attacks, during which terrorists actually sought out salespeople by going to the stores where they were employed, some people simply decided to stop working. Children have stopped going to school because there’s no guarantee that they will be safe in a Hazara institution. Women have also stopped going to the market.We’ve lost our liberty. There are no traces of the police in our neighbourhoods. We’ve had to organise amongst ourselves a way of keeping our community safe. We have a group of volunteers, some of whom are armed, that we place at regular checkpoints throughout our neighbourhoods, but it’s complicated because we don’t want to shut other residents out of the area.I don’t feel safe anywhere. I know that Hazaras are easily identified by our physical traits [Hazaras are thought to have ethnic Mongolian roots]. I have personally survived several attacks, ones that many of my close friends did not. There are extremists all around us, they live in the same city as we do, which means that the threat of being attacked is always there. In the end, after all the violence we’ve lived through, we begin to suspect every person we cross in the street.No one understands why the government is completely resigned to the ordeal our community is faced with. We live on good terms with the non-extremist Muslims in our city. We want the right to Shiite and Pakistani. Unfortunately, in Balochistan it’s the extremists who make the law.
Women protest in Hazaras, Quetta
Life as a Hazara in art
Painting of terrorists opening fire on a bus headed towards "Hazara Town" in Qutta on July 30, 2011. The attack claimed 11 lives.
All images were posted on the HazaraNewsPakistan website.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.