June issue 2018
The Venom Within
By Ali Arqam | Special Report | Published 5 years ago
Two Hazara localities in Quetta — Marriabad and Hazara Town — and the road that connects them, Spini Road, are heavily guarded by law enforcement agencies (LEAs). The entry points of both localities have checkposts of the Frontier Corps (FC). The security personnel there are generally very cautious and unwelcoming of non-Hazara visitors, and will only let them in after a great deal of checking. Visitors have to give details of who they are visiting and why, and often have to call that individual to get them in.
“It is very irritating for the guests who want to visit us. But this doesn’t happen only to the non-Hazara visitors. I am a member of the community and a resident of Hazara Town, but if I have to visit someone who lives in Marriabad, even I have to face questioning and provide my identity details; so I can just imagine how difficult it is for the non-Hazaras,” says Amanullah, an activist and a writer.
Spini Road has security pickets of the FC at short distances, and police vans are constantly roaming around. But none of these measures have stopped the incidence of violence against the Hazaras. Hundreds of them have been killed in targeted attacks travelling on this major link road between Marriabad and Hazara Town.
“It’s a nightmare to travel by the Spini Road, or its adjacent areas, which means you cannot step outside the two localities, nor move from one locality to another without fear of being targeted. Public transport is not safe, nor are private vehicles. Yellow cabs and rickshaws have been targeted and both men and women killed. Last year, some Hazara women were killed while travelling in a mini bus,” says a resident of Alamdar road, Marriabad.
As a consequence, the Hazaras are alienated from the rest of the population of Quetta; “This has resulted in the ghettoisation of our community,” says Jalila Haider, a lawyer and prominent human rights activist from the Hazara community. “A whole generation of Hazara boys and girls has grown up without having seen the world outside the two security enclaves, the Marriabad and Hazara Town. To them, everyone is a suspect, as they have hardly interacted with other people living in the same city. Instead of preventing the spread of hate material, abolishing militarised jihadi and sectarian organisations, just strengthening the security further by digging trenches around our localities will further add to our isolation and alienate us from the general population. This is not how we want to live.”
The violence is relentless. Also, in recent years a somewhat sinister pattern seems to be emerging, one which has more to do with profit than ideology. Hazara traders and shopkeepers have been systemically targeted in their shops at different markets which could be linked to the issue of land grabbing. This theory seems believable, as there are people who benefit when the Hazara traders get targeted, as the businesses and shops left by them are acquired by people from other ethnicities at cheaper prices.
A journalist from Quetta confirmed this, saying, “While it is a serious charge, it can’t be ruled out, as Hazara traders had their garment shops, cloth shops and mobile phone shops in Sunehri Market, Zulfiqar Market, Hashmi Market and many others. Many of these shops have been sold during these past years. But linking these targeted killings to the land grabbing aspect needs to be investigated more thoroughly because it might lead to further disharmony among the locals who belong to different ethnicities.”
Unable to travel safely across the city, to continue with their education, and to undertake normal economic activities, the Hazaras are being left with no choice but to opt to move to other cities and towns, or move abroad. Mothers have had to bid farewell to their sons, young boys and men have had to leave behind their loved ones to go to other cities for better opportunities and for survival. It is estimated that 40,000 Hazaras have left Quetta for other cities, or have opted for other countries. This has been a boon for human traffickers, who have taken advantage of this wave of illegal immigrants. And while some managed to make it, dozens of young Hazara boys and men ended up drowning en route, or were captured by the border forces in Iran, Turkey, etc. Many of them, who tried to make their way to Australia were caught and are now languishing in the camps at Nauru, a republic in the neighbourhood of Australia that is being used by them for dumping refugees and asylum-seekers.
And the miseries of those who have opted to stay behind, continue. On March 31, two men in a yellow cab had hardly travelled 200 metres on their journey from Marriabad to Hazara Town, when they were targeted near Meezan Chowk (also known as Bacha Khan Chowk). One of them died, while the other was injured. The assailants, who were on foot, escaped after the attack.
The attack evoked a protest call and sit-in by the yellow cab drivers, who were joined by the members of the Hazara community. The sit-in continued for a week in April, but ironically it got little support from the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) and the religious clergy who have, in the past, been at the forefront of all such protests. The reason given by them for their absence from the protest was the presence of elements at the sit-in who, they alleged, were raising “anti-state” slogans, criticising the security forces and agencies for their inability to protect the Hazaras and stop the elements who incite hate against them on a sectarian basis. The majority of the Hazaras are Shias, who have been under attack from the sectarian elements like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) who draw their ideological support from the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ).
Jalila Haider had a more cynical explanation for the lack of support for the sit-in from the community and the lack of coverage from the mainstream media, “Be it the government, the media or organisations like Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) or the HDP, the protest was ignored simply because there were not enough coffins this time.” Jalila was referring to the two sit ins, first in January and the second in February 2013 after deadly attacks in Marriabad and Hazara Town. The first one resulted in the deaths of 104, while 73 were killed in the second attack.
The speakers at the yellow cab sit-in demanded that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Qamar Javed Bajwa, should address the situation in Quetta the same way that he had intervened in a similar situation in Parachinar, Kurram Agency, earlier where, following his visit, strict security measures were put in place that put an end to the bomb blasts targeting the people there.
The protest ended after assurances of security and speakers like Tahir Khan, a Hazara political leader, threatened to give a worldwide protest call if the killings did not stop. They didn’t. There were three more attacks on Hazaras and on Hazara owned businesses in April, leaving five dead: an auto parts shop was targeted on April 18 killing the shop owner, another on April 22 near the Western Bypass killing two passengers, identified as Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Zaman, and the third attack on April 28 was on an electronics shop killing two more Hazara traders.
The new round of attacks resulted in a further series of protests and sit-ins by different organisations and political groups. One such sit-in held outside the Balochistan Assembly building was led by the Hazara lawmaker, Syed Agha Raza, from the MWM. The HDP, too, organised protests and held talks with the provincial government. But, this time, Jalila opted to strike out on her own; she, along with some Hazara women, set up camp outside the Quetta Press Club on April 28, the day of the third attack, announcing a hunger strike till death if her demands were not heard.
In the last decade, Jalila Haider has been a vocal supporter of the rights of minorities, spoken out against human rights violations, enforced disappearances and killings of Baloch political workers, and participated in protests against the ethnic cleansing of her community, the Hazaras. She has also addressed a meeting of the newly formed civil rights movement, Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) in Quetta in March, which drew support from all the ethnicities in Quetta, and political and social activists across Pakistan. In a show of solidarity, Jalila’s hunger strike camp was joined by Baloch and Pashtun activists along with Hazara political workers.
When the Balochistan Home Minister, Sarfaraz Bugti, visited the hunger strike camp on the second day to convince Jalila to end her hunger strike, she told him frankly, “We know that you possess no powers. Hazaras have been killed for the last 20 years and each time we are told that we are martyrs, that we have given sacrifices. It doesn’t make sense, 3,000 Hazaras killed. Please don’t glorify our deaths by calling us martyrs. We did not choose to fight a war to get killed. We were killed on the streets, in the bazars, and during our normal journeys. We cannot roam freely, as we fear being targeted.” Jalila went on to demand that, “If the policies regarding war and terrorism are made by the armed forces, it would be better if General Bajwa visits us and tells us why we are being killed? And who would save us from the murderers? He should listen to the cries of the 3,000 widows and 10,000 orphans.”
After pleas by the provincial and the federal minister, Ahsan Iqbal, failed to get traction with Jalila, on May 1, the fourth day of the hunger strike, COAS Bajwa came to Quetta. He held two separate meetings with the elders and representatives of the Hazara Community and with the Hazara women, led by Jalila Haider.
On May 2, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Saqib Nisar, took suo moto notice of the killings of Hazaras. In the subsequent hearing on May 11, he termed these acts of killing as ethnic cleansing of the Hazara community, and instructed all the security agencies to submit reports on the killings and the forces behind these killings.
Giving details about the meeting with the COAS, Jalila said, “The Hazara community elders went to meet the COAS and took along a few Hazara women, presenting one of them as Jalila. But as soon as they (the COAS team) came to know that I was still sitting outside the press club, and had not ended my hunger strike, they approached me, and the Hazara women and I were taken to meet the COAS by Federal Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal. The COAS met us, listened to us, and assured us that he himself would look into all the issues raised by us.
“The COAS reiterated that what we were reaping today is the result of the wrong policies of the last few decades. He assured us of investigating our suspicions of inside help being provided to the killers of Hazaras from within the security forces, as we told him it was inconceivable that the killers could perpetrate such crimes so openly in the presence of such a huge security infrastructure across the city.”
Another demand put forward by Jalila was the rehabilitation of the families who have lost their loved ones in the violence. “The widows and orphans of those who were killed in the violence here, or died during the trafficking attempts, or were detained abroad, were left with little economic support. There are groups who, under the garb of charity organisations, compel women, especially the younger ones, to prostitute themselves in exchange for financial assistance; ironically, some of them do it under the cover of religion, using the concept of seegha or mut’ah. It is the responsibility of the state to work for the rehabilitation of these families, and not to leave them at the mercy of such exploitative organisations.”
The Hazara Shia’s religious clergy links the Hazara killings to the broader issue of attacks on members of the Shia sect across Pakistan, from Karachi to Kurram Agency and Gilgit Baltistan (GB). The sectarian killers of LeJ, or its new avatar in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Daesh or the Islamic State (IS), have on different occasions claimed responsibility for carrying out major attacks on Hazaras, which indicates that it’s their faith which makes them the target of attacks. In several public meetings held by the LeJ, fiery speeches have been made by the provincial leadership, such as Ramzan Mengal, in which the Hazara community has been threatened. Once, a poem was recited which boasted about scoring a century of murders, referring to one such terrorist attack in which around nearly 100 Hazaras were killed.
Jalila had, in her talk with Sarfaraz Bugti, referred to Ramzan Mengal of ASWJ roaming around freely, doing a roaring business in smuggled petroleum, and holding public meetings across Quetta and other districts. She raised the same issue in her meeting with the COAS. After the meeting with the COAS, Jalila ended her hunger strike, confident that action would be taken. And it was.
The LEAs have since intensified their efforts in eliminating elements involved in Hazara killings. On April 30, they claimed to have killed terrorists involved in the attacks on Hazaras and on policemen. This was followed by an intelligence-based operation on May 16 in the Kali Almas area of Quetta which resulted in the hunting down of LeJ leader, Salman Badini, and two others. Sadly, Colonel Sohail Abid Raja of the Military Intelligence (MI) and a soldier of the Anti-Terrorist Force (ATF) of the police were martyred in the operation.
For the moment, there is a desperately needed lull in the string of Hazara killings. But will it last is the million-dollar question. According to the National Commission for Human Rights report from 2012-2017 there were 522 Hazara deaths. Meanwhile, the Hazaras claim that 3000 members of their community have been killed over the last two decades. A significant portion of the land of both the Hazara localities — Marriabad and Hazara Town — has been allocated for the graveyards of those who have fallen victim to the venom of the jihadi and sectarian outfits. Each headstone carries the name of the deceased and the specific incident in which he/she lost their life. When I visited the graveyard, I came across several grieving fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives and children sitting besides the graves of their loved ones. A sad reflection of the tragic situation of the Hazaras.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order