Pakistan’s Hazara: ‘It’s like living in jail’
Surge in sectarian violence puts Pakistan’s minority Hazara community in state of fear and frustration.
By Purvi Thacker
In a room, empty except for an old cupboard with an orange dupatta-covered suitcase on top, Muhammed Reza Wakil, senior vice chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) looks at the computer screen.
Wakil is housebound, his contact with the outside world restricted largely to Skype calls, because of concerns he has for his safety as a member of the Hazara community.
There has been an undercurrent of change taking place within the Hazara community after the kidnapping, torture and killing of a 6-year-old Hazara girl, Sahar Batool.
Sahar, the daughter of a gardener, was taken from outside her home on October 28 and murdered. Her body was later found in a garbage dumpster. The event has left an already vulnerable community clamouring for justice.
Wakil expresses the frustration of those he represents who fear the child’s murder will be not be classified as part of the minorities’ persecution but as a local crime instead.
“This is different from a religious procession during Muharram which takes place outside the Hazara enclaves in Quetta,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“Sahar’s body was found in a garbage dumpster within the cantonment area, which is supposedly secure.”
The Hazaras, a Persian-speaking Shia minority, immigrated to Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan from Afghanistan more than a century ago. Descendants of the Kushans, whose lineage also has Mongol influence, their communities are today found in parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India and central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
Easily discernible due to their Central Asian features, the Hazaras have experienced increasing persecution, during the current wave of sectarian violence, spreading across Pakistan. According to the Human Rights Watch report published in 2014, “We Are the Walking Dead“, several hundred have been killed in steadily worsening violence since 2008.
Speaking from his residence in Alamdar Road, Quetta, Wakil feels like a prisoner saying: “I can’t even go to the market to buy vegetables or sugar without fearing for my life so I take what I get within a one block radius, however overpriced and whatever the quality. It’s like living in jail.”
‘Shot point blank’
The Frontier Corps (FC), the auxiliary paramilitary force in charge of securing Quetta has been deployed along the two Hazara residential colonies, which lie on either end of Quetta city.
Routinely, “non-Hazaras” wishing to enter Alamdar Road and Hazara Town are checked for paperwork before being allowed entry to either enclave. Given the brutality of Sahar’s death, the community is sceptical about the effectiveness of such basic security checks.
Saroop Ijaz, a consultant at HRW in Pakistan tells Al Jazeera: “In terms of immediate measures, the provision of security for Hazaras has to be paramount. The state of Pakistan has failed abysmally in securing any convictions of those arrested for sectarian killings.”
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the country’s most feared sectarian hardliner group has in the past claimed responsibility for regional attacks.
Halima Bibi is from a Hazara family who fled the growing violence in Quetta for a new life in the US.
“My brother, the right-hand man of top Shia leader Syed Ghulam Raza Naqvi, was shot point blank in broad daylight a year ago and the LeJ admitted to killing him,” she tells Al Jazeera.
“I have yet to see some justice.”
Hazara families, who have escaped the tensions and resettled overseas, continue to fear for the safety of family and friends. Sitting cross-legged on a Persian carpet in her living room in Queens, New York, Halima cries for her two brothers, who are unable to leave the region due to financial constraints.
Like most others, her brothers have quit their jobs and taken leaves of absence. If they want to go to the hospital or get groceries, they have to hide their faces if they leave home before 4pm, she says. In Quetta, most Hazara men keep a low profile and are discreet in their movements, especially outside the enclave area where they are easy targets.
Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), tells Al Jazeera: “The Hazaras are under severe threat. The government seems to be helpless, as sectarian hardliner outfits have taken root in Balochistan. They are obviously being supported by external and internal entities. There is no real proof but strong indications.”
Many Hazara business people have rented out their shops in the thoroughfare of Mizan Chowk, the central market where they used to make a living selling commodities like shampoo and chewing gum, brought in from neighbouring Iran.
“Travelling even a few kilometres has become a risk, but we have to earn to survive. So we rent it out to the locals,” Wakil says.
Challenge of ‘extreme sectarianism’
Christian, Sikh, Hindu and Hazara communities each experienced incidents of violence in the first six months of 2014, including sectarian killing, rape, murder, forced conversion, and abduction.
Senator Farooq Naek, a member of the Pakistan parliamentary delegation to the ongoing joint hearing of Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the UN General Assembly, has said that the country’s constitution guarantees equal rights for all its citizens without discrimination.
Asad Gilani, the minister for urban planning and development in Balochisan, told Al Jazeera that the government is aware of the situation and is taking remedial steps.
“Special development packages have recently been approved. We are building a special park for the Hazaras. If we can’t provide them with 100 percent security, we can at least provide them with facilities,” Gilani says.
Current figures indicate that Pakistan’s diverse minority now make up 12 percent of the population.
According to Ijaz, the persecution of Hazaras is perhaps the most acute example of the general problem of intolerance in Pakistan.
“Putting an end to extreme sectarianism has become a seminal challenge for the Nawaz government,” Ijaz tells Al Jazeera.
The situation in and around Balochistan, remains volatile. The Pakistan government states its aim as seeking viable solutions to counter fighters. Jahangir of HRCP tells Al Jazeera: “It requires long term commitment by the government and security forces to challenge militant groups. Some effort is being made but not enough as there is no clarity on strategy.”
From the confines of his room in Quetta Wakil ponders his security situation and that of the Hazara community.
“If I pack my bags and leave,” he says, “what will the remaining 600,000 Hazaras in Quetta think? What will happen to their hope if their representative deserts them?”
Source & copyright: Al Jazeera