“They ordered the passengers off the bus,” said Hassan, a 16-year-old construction worker who survived the September 19 sectarian attack on Hazaras, a minority Shia group in Pakistan’s southwest Balouchistan province. Carrying around forty passengers, mostly pilgrims going to Iran, the bus was stopped in the Mastung area, just an hour drive outside the provincial capital Quetta, and only half a kilometre from a Paksitani police checkpost.
“Everybody got off, but I hid under one of the seats. The gunmen did not come up to check the bus. They just ordered everyone off.”
The Hazaras were separated from the four or five Balouch passengers, who stood watching. They were lined up for an execution-style massacre.
“After that, I heard no words. They said nothing to them and just opened fire.” The gunmen sped away in two pick up trucks.
When Hassan came out of hiding and stepped out of the bus, he saw bodies and blood.
Twenty six were killed and six injured, according to media reports. But Hasan remembers only seeing three injured, among them 19-year-old Mohamed Ayaz, a carpet weaver from a family with nine siblings.
On his first pilgrimage to Iran, Ayaz was shot in the leg, but what saved him was two other bodies that collapsed on top of him absorbing the subsequent bullets.
“It is on my mind every day,” Ayaz told Al Jazeera, “because even within Quetta city, they can kill.”
The recent spate of violence targeting the minority Hazaras, Shia by sect, has left the community of about 500,000 people fearing for their safety. According to local leaders, at least 90 Hazaras have been gunned down in and around Quetta since July 30. In the most recent incidents, on October 4, at least thirteen people were killed when gunmen stormed a bus and opened fire indiscriminately.
Lashkar-e-Jangvi, an extremist group with links to al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the October 4 assault as well as several other targeted attacks on Shias – particularly Hazara Shias – in Balochistan.
“We hundred per cent believe that it is Lashkar e Jangvi (LEJ) because they always take responsibility,” says Ahmed Kohzad, General Secretary of Hazara Democratic Party.
Formed during the military regime of General Zia ul haq, LEJ was banned after the government of Parviz Musharraf annouced that Pakistan was joining the US alliance in the “war against terror”. But it has continued to operate in many parts of Pakistan, particularly in Punjab, and has been linked to the attack on Islamabad’s Marriot hotel in 2008, as well as the assault on visiting Sir Lankan cricket team in 2009. Also in 2009, LEJ members reportedly played a role in the siege on the army headquarters in Islamabad.
Imprisoned since 1997 for over 50 cases ranging from murder to terrorism, LEJ’s leader, Malik Ishaq, was freed on July 15 from jail for a lack of evidence.
In his speaking tours since his release, he has continued to incite violence against Shias, as on September 19, he was welcomed into Alipur by a “party of 800 men on motorcycles chanting anti-Shia slogans,” the Pakistani paper The Express Tribune reported.
Reacting to his release, the Imamia Students Association, a shia group, warned that his release would mean more violence against Shias.
“The planned release of terror kingpin Malik Ishaq who is also the co-founder of banned organisation Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, with the blessing of Punjab government’s weak prosecution and the court’s blind decision is likely to fuel the ruthless killings of Shias across the country,” they said.
Reza Nasim Jan, Pakistan team lead at the American Enterprise Institute, says although there is no direct evidence tying Ishaq to the rapid increase in violence, his anti-Shia rhetoric, on display during speaking tours and rallies focused in Sindh and Punjab, has not changed since his release.
“While there is no smoking gun linking Ishaq’s release with the spike in violence in Balochistan, based on the reporting of rallies and Ishaq’s speaking tour, his rhetoric remains pretty virulently anti-Shia,” he said.
“Ishaq and another Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader, Ghulam Rasool Shah, were arrested after the Mastung attack, indicating that the police, at least, were drawing connections between Ishaq’s activities and the rise in killings.”
“When you release a man accused of 70 murders, a man whose followers actively attack the state, it sends a message that you are not willing to take these guys on. And it will likely encourage further such activity,” said Jan.
Failing to provide security
“People live in strange environment of fear,” said a 26-year-old doctor who cannot be named for his own safety. A recent graduate, the doctor had worked in one of Quetta’s largest hospitals for the past year, but was forced to quit for safety reasons.
“My mother and sister would cry every day as I left for work, afraid that I might not return.”
After protests against government inaction on October 4, Pakistan’s police announced that they have launched a crackdown and rounded up nearly 100 people in a raid for the latest attack. The provincial government has also formed an investigation committeethat is expected to submit a report within 15 days.
Additionally, the government has promised increased security measures and police presence, but locals say such measures could not assure their safety.
“There are only about 1,100 policemen across Quetta for all purposes including regular policing, providing security for VIPs and other things,” Jan says. “Given how stretched authorities are, and with an active separatist insurgency in Balochistan among other issues, I doubt providing security for Hazaras is a top priority for the law enforcement.”
Despite repeated attempts, Al Jazeera could not reach a spokesman in the provincial government for comment.
‘Erosion of respect for rights’
A persecuted ethnic minority in Afghanistan, the Hazaras first migrated to current-day Pakistan in 1890’s, fleeing the wrath of Abdul Rahman Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan.
They took up residence around Quetta, then a British Garrison town.
“We struggled for Pakistan’s independence, we fought wars for this country,” says Ahmed Kohzad, General Secretary of the Hazara Democratic Party.
In 1965, when Pakistan went to war with India over Kashmir, Hazara commanders were given titles for their bravery. At least two commanders, he said, were given the title of “Lion of Kashmir.”
“But since 1999, at least 550 members of our community have been killed,” he said
Hazaras mostly live in two neighbourhoods of Quetta, Mari Abad, near an army base in the eastern part of the city, and Hazara Town, in the west. Since July, the doctor said, the residents have minimised going back and forth between the two neighbourhoods.
“People are scared to even go to the other town for funerals,” he said. “And when they go out, they make sure it’s not a Hazara bus they travel in. They recite their prayers, not knowing whether they will make it.”
According to Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, the Pakistani government has failed to address the collapse of law and order in Balochistan. Kill-and-dump operations have gone unanswered by authorities.
“The Pakistani government has clearly not taken enough steps as the attacks are increasing,” Zarifi told Al Jazeera.
“It’s very worrying that groups like Lashkar-e-Jangvi explicitly say they want to target minorities, and the government is yet to take concrete action against them. Some of their members have been detained, but without a proper trial to ensure justice.”
In July 2008, two members of Lashkar-e-Jangvi, one of them on death row, escaped from a high-security prison in Quetta. Usman Saifullah and Shafiq ur Rehman were convicted for, among other things, the raid on Shia mosque in Quetta in 2003 that killed 53 people.
“In the past ten years, we have seen a general erosion of the respect for the rights of minorities,” says Amnesty’s Zarifi. “The Human rights community in Pakistan has been crying out against this phenomenon for years: that by not doing anything in the face of those who call for violence against minorities, by not doing enough to show that Pakistani society has a history of inclusivity, it gives signals to the culture at large that this violence is ok.
“When the government does nothing against the people who call for violence on things very trivial, it clearly sends a wrong message about the value of human life.”
Hazaras have launched country wide protests, hoping the government will take more take steps to ensure their safety. Their notice has been heard at the Balochistan high court, and they hope to take their appeal to the country’s supreme court in Islamabad.
“We want the government to go after Lashkar e Jangvi,” says Kohzad. ” It’s a network of possibly 20 to 30 men, and they have wreaked fear in this city. They only thing that can bring us security is a targeted operation against them.”
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