I am the gravestone and the photograph
Every Friday, after the Juma prayer, people start filing into this small place at the foothills. Nobody in the community seems to miss this ritual. Other than the small mounds topped by two or three stones, a corridor stands out prominently. It is dotted with portraits of young students, ambitious bankers, committed teachers and promising lawyers on each side. Each image is full of life. A humming recitation spreads around and the sound of sobbing women can be heard clearly with the setting sun, which eventually dissolves into dusk. Welcome to the Hazara Graveyard.
Persian signboards, calligraphers and engravers are lined up along the road that leads to this necropolis. A small street turns from the corner of a marriage hall and heads up towards the hill. A few houses up, a narrow by-lane funnels to reveal an array of flags and standards that mark the skyline – a sight that beholds every observer. This cemetery surpasses any possible manifestation of tragedy. As the target killings picked up, the Hazara community decided to dedicate a part of the graveyard separately for this purpose. Before the land could be procured, this ‘section’ was already filled to capacity. Before Hazaras buried the victims of one tragedy, the news of another would reach them.
The graveyard has now expanded to three portions. After the first part, another was procured and soon it was overloaded too. Given the continued frequency of killings, the third portion is likely to run out of space at any time. All the tombstones are uniformly designed: a photo of the deceased, his date of birth, the date and place of the incident and a verse from the Quran. Each grave is a story, and a unique one. Some were killed while going to work, while others lost their lives on the highways. One Hazara was killed commuting to his business and others on their way back from university. At one corner, five graves are built in a line. These belong to five cousins who had ventured out for a friendly cricket match and were fired upon at close range.
The perpetrators of this violence have made life miserable for these Hazaras by impeding all escape routes. Caged between Alamadar Road and the neighbouring Koh-i-Murdar, the choices for expansion are very limited. For the hills are not as lethal as men with differing ideologies, the Hazaras have opted to settle towards the foothills and trust Koh-i-Murdar more than the fellow beings. Those who cross Alamdar Road are believed to have breached the limits of safety and are constantly waited for – dead or alive.
Mothers avoid sending children to school and professors now sit at home to plan their life in Australia or Punjab. Businesses have been heavily dented and Hazaras are not seen in Quetta – a city which was once their identity. After every blast or incident of targeted violence, those outside the community hastily draw a line. When a Balochistan University bus was attacked, the non-Hazara parents decided to pull out their children from the transportation used by Hazara students. Moving with the Hazaras has become synonymous with inviting death.
I am forever missed, forever loved
Zia never wanted to go to Australia. Perhaps, no Hazara ever desires to step out of these winding lanes. The small houses here buzz with care and promise the unimaginable warmth of love. Intertwined lives in inter-woven streets are known for influencing decisions and reversing stances. But then one day, a flashing ambulance halted in front of their house, a blood-stained body was taken out and it changed everything. The city where Zia grew up had turned into a port city in a far-off land – strange and hostile.
Zia had always seen his uncle dress impeccably but that day, his body was soaked in blood and riddled with bullets, his torn shirt spoke of the helplessness of a broad daylight murder. The corpse caught Zia off-guard and he changed his mind. The young heart fluttered as the bird they cage in every Hazara lawn. A jirga, similar to Qora el tai, where they decided the fate and faith of Hazara centuries ago in the vale of Bamiyan was replicated in Zia’s house. He silently left these 800,000 Hazaras who awaited death and joined those 60,000 who awaited Australian immigration. While many were privy to what may happen to Zia, no one could imagine the plight of his family.
There are two routes that lead to Australia, the legitimate route and the “frequent route”. Those who take the legitimate route have enough time and resources to wait, but the others – who choose frequent route – are normally running short of both. The frequent route starts with a Karachi- Bangkok flight. From Bangkok, they reach Kuala Lumpur via land and then board a ship for Indonesia. After a few days’ stay at Indonesia, the agents who have smuggled them thus far hand them over to the hostile waters, at the time of their choice – mostly in the dark of the night. If the immigrants are fortunate enough, they reach Christmas Island (a transit camp which serves as port of entry into Australia) and if they run out of luck, the carnivores of the Pacific feast on pacifist Hazaras.
I am the diligent optimist
After some scenic turns in the locality of Khushk Talaab (translating to dry pond in the local dialect), we reached Ibrahim’s house, guided by the kids at street-end.
In the veranda, a water tank occupied much of space alongside a homemade oven (tandoor) and a bicycle with a tilted stand. The simple yet elegant house, similar to those in Santa Fe (New Mexico), posed a question. Who would abandon such a still, laid-back lifestyle for long working hours at some metropolitan food chain in the ‘lucky country’ Down Under? The kids chased each other from one room to another. Their father was killed in Kuchlak few months ago. The question could never be asked.
Ibrahim was an employee of the police force – an organisation that promises power. One day, he reviewed his recent employments and realised that his placements were constantly shrinking and he was being restricted to areas which are comparatively safe. It dawned upon him that the city had failed to accommodate him. The vastest province of the country had no space for a few individuals who differed in ideology and features. Migration to Australia surfaced as a handy option. The decision to leave was the only difficult part. Finances came ready, in the form of his wife’s jewellery and loans from acquaintances. Within days, his passport was stamped with a visa for Thailand.
Ibrahim looked at other passengers who were Iranians, Afghans and his fellow Hazara; all they had asked for was a little space and their countrymen had out-rightly refused it. Bangkok was the high point of their journey. The Iranian families were thrilled by their new-found independence and the Afghans were excited to see life beyond killings and ruins. Malaysia was the downside and by Indonesia, they had started regretting their decision.
From Indonesia, there are two routes leading to Christmas Island. One route features whirlpools but takes 30 hours to reach the island, subject to survival. The other route is a safer option and takes anywhere between a week to 10 days. A night prior to their departure, everyone calls home and informs about their journey the next day. They hang up the phone promising to call from Australia but the phones in Quetta are held in hands a little longer. In the dark of the night, they are bundled up in trucks and start for the beach, traversing the long dark miles cross-country and in the jungle. The worn out boats appear too fragile to tread even the calm waters and are stuffed to thrice their capacity but the immigrants, illegal by now, cannot resist.
Ibrahim was sea-sick when the boat hit the whirlpool and the captain escaped. The unfortunate passengers battled for almost an age.
For those who survive the wrath of ocean, misery awaits at detention centres. The damp rooms with eternal stink are more like dungeons. The long period of confinement ends with a few returning to their homes, while fewer make it to more a permanent place.
After months of suffering at the detention centre, Ibrahim managed to call back home. His brother had also decided to try his luck in Australia. The debate ensued for long hours but Ibrahim ran out of arguments supporting his survival in Quetta. His brother left the following week and is missing to date.
Many residents of Hazara housing society sailed from Indonesia for Australia but never reached the promised land. News about the shipwreck was followed by a complete silence – echo-perfect. Back in Quetta, half of the family members believe that their loved ones are dead and half of them await miracles. Away from their houses, these family members might accept the mathematical improbability of survival, but in their homes they live with the vacant places at dinner, for somebody who has no possibility of coming back.
Ibrahim was lucky enough to see his kids again. He tried hard to find his brother but nothing worked. Nobody was bothered about this Hazara in Pakistan and no one cared in Indonesia. The true manifestation of Muslim brotherhood dawned upon Ibrahim.
There are yet others who have never been to Australia but are living transitory lives. They are the children who have no academic routine to follow. The schools are either closed or no one is willing to teach. These kids, uniquely intelligent and congenitally artistic, spend the day either sitting in front of their houses (because the mothers are too scared to lose sight) or playing video games on the computers which the expats have sent back for Skype. The intrinsic desire of these kids to leave a footprint on time compels them to give Australia a chance, even at the cost of their life. Their sittings reinforce this ambition and the plans are made secretly. Once the secret is out and reaches their families it sparks a debate, but a bomb-blast or few killings settle the whole issue in their favour for good.
You and I
Quetta, of the early 1980s, was a different place – where Hazaras were one of many colours. The “Jihad Bonanza” not only deprived the country of an independent thinking stream but also shaped external and internal behaviours. In a subtle manner, compromise replaced competition and Quetta changed. Now disagreement meant disappearance and arguments ended in gun shots. The society had exhausted her patience for differences in thoughts and actions. The man of faith, a Fort Bragg graduate who prided himself in Islamicising the country, had in fact traded religion for worthless political gains. What then constituted the silent majority has now shrunk into a sane minority. His Frankenstein of commercial mercenaries (jihadis) bleed the country and the end is not in sight.
Sardar Nisar was the first to be attacked in Quetta and while he survived the assault, his guard and driver lost their lives. Most recently, the death count has touched the 1,000 mark. Safety has yet to return to the haunted city and peace remains a dream. The killers come with a confidence that defies the existence of law for killing Hazaras and the state, religion and society encourage this ‘noble genocide’ through their silence.
Hazaras are distributed into eight branches; four Sunni and four Shia clans. But the gunslingers are too busy to inquire after their target’s sect. For them, being Hazara equates being a Shia and this crime merits death. An economist cited their financial strength and dominance of local markets as reasons for this genocide. Some politicians have named the invisible “foreign hand” and the others associate Baloch separatists with these killings. Regardless of the reasons, almost everyone in the Hazara community insisted that they had informed the local administration about the suspects and the likelihood of attacks, but no measure was taken. The routine departmental slackness had cost them their lives and the fragile sense of security. The killers came with typical ease, did their job and left. Local administration, they point, is at best incompetent or at worst, in connivance.
The Hazaras are very composed but the undertone suggests that the other Pakistanis are more interested in watching T20 cricket, and the executive-versus-judiciary stand-off rather than feeling for them, their compatriots.
A painting at a politician’s drawing room said it all. The artist had painted an arm in the Iranian flag and the background in the Saudi flag. The red inscription on the painting, read “Shia is a heretic and should be killed.” At the bottom left, the footnote said “My countrymen’s perception about me.” It seemed from the disillusionment that the artist would have been in his late forties, but the answer came as a surprise: The painting was by “a teenager who had lost a close relative.”
I am the artist
The blood of Hazara christens Balochistan in ways other than violence. Like many others, a house in the community has been carved in the hill. When the sun starts packing up, Hazara kids gather here. Absolved from the expanding graveyard, they climb these stairs to sketch their hearts out. From an angle, these kids are like those sleepers who escaped the wrath of their fellow men on difference of faith and took it to a cave. They will reappear when light enters not only hearts and minds, but also illuminates souls.
The room remains without heating and lighting arrangements in the harsh weathers, but the students have no grievances. If it rains, they sit inside and talk about the philosophies of life. Sketch club is a Lyceum, where an Aristotle teaches his students how to live – and art – it comes by default.
Moosavi Saheb is the soul of this sketch club. He is a teacher, organiser, administrator and a bit of Mr Chips too. Starting his journey from the Arts Council, he had taught in private institutes for a few years and now runs this facility. In his share of violence, his son and daughter both received critical injuries in a bomb blast on their university bus. Nobody talks about this at the sketch club although everyone who comes here has a story.
The graduates of sketch club regularly secure scholarships at the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore and this fills Moosavi Saheb with pride. Paintings from Sketch Club were recently showcased in Australia for 40 days and won over many foreign art critics.
I am the flickering light
Why would someone kill a Hazara? The question elicited different responses from social scientists, politicians, religious leaders and economists. Apart from the analytical reasons, there are others too: The organised graveyards, well-managed colonies, self-sufficient introvert people, and children who take art seriously and life lightly are among the distinguishing factors of these people. Hazaras, probably, are too refined for us to mourn their deaths, feel their loss and protest their killings. Their existence is the sole ray of light that challenges the darkness, which we have come to we love.
We have also conveniently chosen to look the other way because we are not Hazaras and our kids will never be killed because of their facial features, dialects and faith. The perception prevails that this persecution is for Hazaras only – but the areas of Sola-acre, Nasirabad, Syedabad and Nauabad remind us that these were once safe places too.
Legend has it that the title Hazara is derived from their grouping into battalions of 1,000 men which fought Genghiz Khan. Now, with the killing of close to one thousand Hazaras, this title has been redefined.