By DECLAN WALSH
KARACHI, Pakistan — Stranded in a dingy hotel in the heart of this port city, waiting for the smuggler’s call, Hussain felt at once trapped and poised for freedom.
Behind lay his hometown, Quetta, the city in western Pakistan that has become a killing ground for Sunni sectarian death squads that hunt Shiites. So far this year they have killed almost 200 people, and Hussain was nearly one of them. Lifting a pants leg, he displayed an eight-inch scar from a bomb blast in January.
But great danger also lay ahead. Hussain was headed for Australia, where thousands of his fellow ethnic Hazaras, Shiites who have borne the brunt of the recent violence, have sought refuge. The illegal journey — across Southeast Asia by air, ground and sea at the mercy of unscrupulous human traffickers — would be long and perilous. Several hundred Hazaras had died on that route in recent years, most when their rickety boats foundered at sea.
For Hussain, it was worth the risk.
“I’d rather die in the boat than in a bomb blast,” he said, twisting a cup of coffee nervously in a restaurant near the hotel. “At least this way, I get to choose.”
Hussain, 25, is part of a growing exodus of young Hazara men who are fleeing Pakistan as it has become apparent that their government and military cannot, or will not, protect them from violent extremists.
In Quetta, where most Pakistani Hazaras live, the attacks are led by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a fanatical group that views Shiites as heretics. With their distinctive Central Asian features and historical links to anti-Taliban forces, the Hazaras make an appealing target. After a decade of intermittent attacks, bloodshed is suddenly surging: two Lashkar suicide bombings this year killed almost 200 people, up from 125 in 2012.
That toll set off a long-overdue security crackdown, but the attacks resumed last Tuesday with a suicide attack on a Hazara politician that killed six people. To young men like Hussain, whose family runs a clothes shop, the next bomb is only a matter of time.
“We can live without the basics of life — gas, electricity and so on,” said Hussain, who asked to be identified by just part of his name in the hope of avoiding arrest on his journey. “But we can’t live with the fear.”
Hussain’s older brother was shot and killed by militants in 2008. His own brush with death came on Jan. 10, after a powerful blast ripped through a snooker hall near his house. As Hussain rushed to help, he was caught in a second explosion that killed rescue workers, police officers and journalists. He blacked out.
“I don’t remember the sound of the blast,” he said. “Just the feeling, like a sort of sonic pulse.” He awoke in the hospital with 36 stitches in one leg and learned that three of his closest friends were among the 84 dead.
It was becoming clear that the Lashkar killers could operate with impunity. “They take their time. They select. Then they shoot,” he said.
The final straw came on March 7, when the military summoned Hussain and other Hazara traders to a meeting in Haideri bazaar, a popular market. As soldiers stood guard outside, an army colonel offered the merchants some sobering advice: they needed to buy handguns, he said.
Some people reacted angrily, and began berating the military officers, demanding better protection, Hussain recalled. But he went home to make a phone call. Two years earlier, his younger brother had left for Australia, where he had gotten a job in a fast food restaurant. Now Hussain needed to hear his voice.
“Just come,” the brother said.
Three days later, Hussain had agreed to pay $6,000 to a trafficker and was on a flight to Karachi, on the first leg of a journey across Asia that would be as emotionally wrenching as it was sudden.
In the plane, he found himself comforting a weeping 16-year-old boy, also Hazara, who said he had been forced to leave by his parents. In the shabby Karachi hotel, he shared a room with “Master,” a 41-year-old shoe trader from Quetta, also bound for Australia.
With thinning hair and a quick grin, Master, who would give only his nickname, had an avuncular manner. But when conversation turned to the three bewildered daughters, aged 7, 9 and 13, he had left behind in Quetta a day earlier, the smile faded and his eyes welled up.
“I will bring them to Australia,” he said in a cracking voice. “This country is no longer for us Hazaras.”
As with many other Hazaras aiming for Australia — from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan — their starting point was Karachi. From there, the journey is arduous and uncertain. Refugees first fly to Thailand or Malaysia, often via Sri Lanka, after their agents bribe immigration officers and Pakistani border officials. The trek continues by land and sea across Malaysia and Indonesia, in cars and trains, dodging police patrols, overnighting at flophouses.
Some migrants are arrested by police officers and border guards along the way and deported back to Pakistan; others are extorted or abandoned by the traffickers, or robbed on the roadside. In many cases, they end up paying thousands of dollars more — in bribes to crooked border officers or supplemental fees to smugglers — so they can keep pressing toward Australia.
The last leg is the most treacherous. In Indonesia, migrants buy tickets aboard small, overcrowded boats bound for Christmas Island, a small Australian territory about 240 miles off the Indonesian coast, where they apply for political asylum. There, they join other boat people — Sri Lankans, Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis.
Safe arrival is by no means guaranteed. Between late 2001 and last June, 964 asylum seekers and boat crew members from various countries are known to have lost their lives on this passage, said Sandi Logan, a spokesman for the Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Habibullah, a 22-year-old student from Quetta, was nearly one of them. Last October, he joined 34 Hazara men on a boat bound for Christmas Island. Within 24 hours, the boat had sunk in a storm. Mr. Habibullah, who has only one name, says he was the sole survivor, picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat after three days clinging to floating debris.
In a harrowing written account of those events sent by e-mail, and in a phone interview from Indonesia, Mr. Habibullah described a traumatic ordeal.
He spoke of long hours in the water, whipped by waves and fearing sharks, desperately calling out to distant passing ships. But most anguishing, he said, was the sight of fellow passengers slipping under the waves, some calling out to their wives or parents.
Mr. Habibullah, suffering extreme thirst and sharp kidney pain, sustained himself by thinking of his home in Quetta. “I remembered my past, surrounded by my parents,” he wrote. “And I realized they were with me.”
It is impossible to confirm Mr. Habibullah’s account independently. But Hazara community leaders in Quetta confirmed that several men accompanying Mr. Habibullah had died, and some of their photographs have been published on blogs.
Mr. Habibullah sounded despondent. Conditions at the government detention center in Indonesia were grim, he said, and he was struggling to gain an asylum hearing from the United Nations refugee agency. Nine months after leaving home, and having spent $15,000 on bribes, transportation and smuggler’s fees, he had not reached Australia.
Still, he understood why other Hazaras wanted to make the journey. “It’s worth it,” he said.
The Australian government has tried to deter the boat people. Last year, it began transferring asylum seekers to detention centers on two remote Pacific islands while their cases are heard. Human rights groups and United Nations officials have condemned conditions at the camps, and Australian news media have reported several suicide attempts there in recent months.Responding to the criticism, Australian officials say they have increased their humanitarian refugee quota to 20,000 this year, a 40 percent increase. At the same time, in countries like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, the Australian government has started an advertising campaign seeking to persuade potential refugees to stay at home.
Yet still they keep coming. In the first weeks of April, according to official figures, the Australian Navy intercepted 10 boats carrying 760 people, most bound for Christmas Island. The majority of cases from Afghanistan and Pakistan were ethnic Hazaras, whose numbers have grown to about 25,000 people in Australia, officials say.
Before leaving Karachi, Hussain and Master took a stroll along the beach, dipping their toes in the Arabian Sea and meandering among the young families on the sand.
Hussain stressed that if not for the extremist threat, he would not be leaving Pakistan. Ten months earlier he had married his sweetheart, a local teacher, whom he had left behind. His family made a good living from its clothes business. And patriotism ran in the family — his grandfather had served in Pakistan’s army.
“This could be the last time I see Pakistan,” he said, staring out at the waves.
His younger brother had warned him of a daunting journey ahead — “Expect it to be hell,” were his words — and so he was relying on the religious items around his neck: a small leather pouch containing two folded Koranic inscriptions, from his father and his wife, and a black pendant inscribed with the words “Y’Allah Madaat” — “Oh God, help me.”
Over the following weeks, he sent several messages: from Bangkok, where he was staying in a cramped room with 16 other refugees (“Waiting, waiting, and so on,” he wrote), then, in late March, from Indonesia.
Master had been arrested in a car headed for a port in Malaysia, Hussain said. But he had managed to escape, and had arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, where he would seek a boat to Australia.
This month, a boat carrying about 90 people, most of them Hazaras, sunk en route to Australia. Hussain was depressed, but undeterred. “I’m looking forward,” he wrote. Then he added: “May God help me.”