Decades of persecution has left the Shia minority with little space left in its graveyards but prime minister Imran Khan is in no hurry to listen
Ahmed Shah had always dreamed of bigger things. Though just 17, the high school pupil had taken a job in the coalmines of Balochistan, Pakistan’s south-western province, one of the harshest, most dangerous working environments in the world. Shah was determined to earn enough to educate himself, so he could escape the tough life of the Hazara community, the most persecuted minority in Pakistan.
But Shah never saw a brighter future. He was among 10 miners who were resting in their mud hut near the mines in the small Balochistan town of Mach when armed militants burst in. A gruesome video from the scene shows the young men blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs. A security official said their throats had been slit. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the massacre.
The prime minister, Imran Khan, called it an “inhumane act of terrorism”, but for the Hazara, minority Shia Muslims who have been targeted for three decades in Pakistan by extremists among the majority Sunni Muslims who view them as heretics, this was not enough.
Shah’s mother, Amina, was on her rounds as a healthcare worker in the nearby provincial capital of Quetta when she heard about the massacre.
“I wanted to see my son one last time, but I was told that I would not be able to bear that,” says Amina. “The killers were not humans. They killed them so brutally.”
The Hazara community, after decades of injustice and neglect by the state, were driven to act, and in a protest unlike anything seen before in Pakistan, the families of the 10 men brought the dead bodies out on to the streets, and sat beside them, in the freezing cold, to demand protection and justice.
For a full week, they did not move, stating they would not bury the bodies until the prime minister listened to their demands.
In response, Khan accused them of trying to “blackmail” him, and said he would not visit until the bodies were buried.
Ahmed Shah was one of four from his family to die in the Mach massacre. So too did his cousin Sadiq, the sole breadwinner for his wife, children and six sisters.
Sadiq, a father of two daughters, had had breakfast with his wife before dawn at his home in Quetta before leaving for Mach. One sister, Masooma Yaqoob Ali, saw the news of the Hazara miners on Facebook and stumbled upon the picture of her brother’s blindfolded body.
The Hazara have been targeted over many years by Sunni extremists, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba and now Isis. According to a 2019 report by Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights, an independent watchdog, at least 509 Hazara have been murdered for their faith since 2013. The non-profit Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that from 2009 to 2014, nearly 1,000 Hazaras died in sectarian violence. Thousands have been injured.
To curb attacks on the 600,000 Hazaras living in the towns of Mariabad and Hazara Town in Quetta, authorities have built military checkpoints, roadblocks and walls around the areas.
In 2014, the international organisation Human Rights Watch published a 62-page report on the persecution of Hazara in Balochistan entitled We are the walking dead.
“We are living in two prisons. Our men and young can’t go outside. If they go, they will be killed. Our graveyards are full of young men with barely any space left,” says Ali. “We are tired of carrying their coffins. Every year we dig mass graves. Yet prime minister Imran Khan says we are blackmailers. Khan is heartless.”
The majority of Hazara in Quetta originally came from Afghanistan and Iran to seek work in Pakistan, with many ending up in the mines of Balochistan.
For 15 years, Chaman Ali, another of the Mach victims, would travel from Afghanistan to Quetta every winter to work in the coalmines.
“I would be worried for his life when he was here and when he went to Afghanistan. I would think ‘what if he gets into the hands of the Taliban?’ I thought he was safe here, but this is where he got killed,” his sister Zara says.
Chaman Ali is survived by his wife and eight children, the youngest just three months old. Aziz and Nasim, from the Daykundi province of Afghanistan, came with Chaman Ali to work in the mines for the first time. They were also murdered.
Nasim, 22, started work to fund his education and had arrived in Pakistan just a week before he was killed. “Afghanistan is in a very bad situation and we think that something is better than nothing, which is why we come to Pakistan just to make a living,” says Abdul Rahim, Nasim’s father. Along with other members of his family, he could not get to his son’s funeral from Afghanistan, when the security forces closed routes out of the villages across Pakistan’s porous border.
Victims of the Mach massacre were all eventually buried in a mass grave at Hazara Town, on the outskirts of Quetta. The Hazara community is running out of space to bury their dead. The graveyard is full of photographs of Hazara men, women and children, many of them murdered.
Having Mongolian ancestors, many Hazara are identifiable by their distinctive appearance, and it is along the single road that leads to Mari Abad and Hazara Town that thousands have been attacked by extremist groups.
“Our generation has grown up in a cage. We make houses on the mountain and are afraid of going out to see other parts of Quetta,” says Arif Hussain Nasry, 21, founder of the Future is Young campaign. “We are even afraid to gather with Hazara from other nations and communities. We have to live to survive in these two ghettoes.”
But for Naseem Javed, an author and political activist, the attacks on the Hazara are not just about sectarianism. “I don’t think Hazara are being targeted just because of their faith,” he says. “They also are being targeted to divert the attention from the Baloch separatist movement.”
Balochistan, the most impoverished province of Pakistan and wedged between Iran and Afghanistan, has a separatist movement that has been active in the province for the past 20 years. “The region also has become a hub for international proxies, including the Taliban,” Javed adds.
Javed shows the pistol he keeps close to him in his shop, where he sells prayer mats and prayer beads. “We live under shadows of weapons and fear. None of us has a normal life. We are being slaughtered. If the security establishment has no role in this genocide, why have they not arrested any attacker?”
For many Hazara people the solution is simply to leave. Amjad Ali*, 21, has made three attempts to leave Balochistan for a new life in Europe. He was first deported from Turkey and handed over to Iran, from where he was sent back to Pakistan. The second time he was deported from Iran.
During his third attempt to reach Europe, with 25 other Hazara, Ali was caught a few miles from the border by Jaish ul-Adl, another Sunni militant group that operates mainly in south-eastern Iran. Pretending to be Iranian security forces, the jihadist group took Ali and others to a mountain camp in Pakistan, close to the Iranian border.
“They were very well updated and informed. As soon as we reached their camp they shot four Hazaras with Kalashnikovs. Two of them used to work in the Pakistan army. Two, as Jaish ul-Adl claimed, were going to be part of the Zainebiyoun brigade, an Iranian-backed militant force [fighting in Syria],” Ali told the Guardian.
The rest were held and their families sent random demands. Ali spent 55 days in the camp before his family members managed to raise thousands of dollars in ransom money for his release.
“If I get a chance now to go to Europe, I will try again,” says Ali. “There is no life for Hazara in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
* Amjad Ali’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
Source: The Guardian