ADJACENT to the Pakistan-Iran border, on a four-acre piece of arid land, Pakistan House stands as a symbol of hospitality and protection extended to our Shia community — or so one would think.
A soldier from the Frontier Corps (FC), and an armoured vehicle, protect the entrance. The establishment is under the control of the Levies Force, and the FC is there only for security. But with 40 FC soldiers and 20 Levies men guarding Pakistan House, it seems rather insecure to the thousands of Shia pilgrims who stay here before travelling across the border to Iran.
My travel guide Abdul Manan, a Levies official, says: “In the past, there was nothing here for these pilgrims. They would stay in Taftan in miserable conditions, but now that has changed. Our government has built this mammoth house for them.”
As we walk into the ‘mammoth’ house, I begin to wonder if this is really a secure place for pilgrims — or something close to a prison. Apparently, around 2,000 people can be housed here. There are 20 bathrooms, four halls, two canteens and non-existent cleaning services. A hundred individuals per toilet?
However, it would be surprising if there were no jaw-dropping revelation after that repulsive statistic. Apparently, during the month of Muharram and around other holy events in the Shia calendar, the building accommodates upwards of 40,000 people. The maths is too daunting for me, but rest assured, it is horrible. To top it all off, there have been reports of FC personnel resorting to physical violence to ‘maintain discipline’. And, according to some pilgrims, some Levies officials demand money for better treatment.
Since the construction of Pakistan House last year, over 70,000 Shia pilgrims have made their way to Iran through the small town of Taftan. Speaking to a local resident, I discover that life for them is not easy either. Like most places that play host to religious masses every year, Taftan has seen better days. “Due to their (the pilgrims) security detail, the town is paralysed,” explains Abdul Wadood. “We cannot go to the bazaar for days. We live in our own town in a state of curfew.”
Security officials cannot be blamed either for taking strict measures. For instance, in 2014, around 30 pilgrims returning from Iran were hit by three suicide bombers in three different hotels — all run by Shia Hazaras. Following these attacks, law enforcement agencies have enhanced security provisions.
“We provide all kinds of facilities to the pilgrims, and we give them foolproof security,” claims the Assistant Commissioner in Taftan, Zafar Kubdani. He argues that his department is always preoccupied with the safe passage of the thousands of pilgrims. Pointing out that security is not free, he says, “We also have to give salaries to security personnel and cover fuel expenses for our vehicles that guard the convoys of pilgrims twice a month.”
Another senior official in Chaghi district echoes the assistant commissioner’s thoughts: that the administrative departments cannot focus on any other issue because their hands are full. According to the official, it does not help that they have only a single vehicle to patrol the entire border region with Iran and Afghanistan.
Back in Quetta, I speak with Liaqat Hazara, a local transport-service owner who has a contract with the government for issuing legal carnets — a document that allows legal transportation of the pilgrims. Mr Hazara says that he had his buses driving from Quetta to Taftan, but since one of his buses was destroyed in an explosion in 2014, his business has gone down. In fact, according to him, his business has been snatched away even though he has an agreement with the authorities. He can no longer serve pilgrims.
Shia pilgrims are not free to travel on their own due to security concerns. Before making the journey to the border town, the pilgrims must go to Alamdar Road in Quetta, which is dominated by the Hazara community, and then leave for Taftan in convoys. Most of these groups of people are held in Quetta for longer than planned due to administrative problems. Matters are made worse by city vendors who allegedly sell food items at a mark-up to the pilgrims who are already in a desperate situation.
Two Shia pilgrims — after a lot of convincing — agree to speak to Dawn at the Punjabi Imambargah on Alamdar Road. They explain: “This is the fifth day, and we are still waiting for our convoy to leave. We were supposed to leave much earlier, but we are still waiting. And, when we finally reach Taftan, we are then held in Pakistan House for a few days. Half of our pilgrimage is spent relocating from one horrible state of affairs to another.”
Exhausted, annoyed and desperate, they continue: “When we have to travel, we know there are problems after problems. Forget the rest, we are told to stay in the open courtyard of the Imambargah in Quetta’s weather. It is extremely difficult for us to survive in these conditions. We are, however, grateful to the provincial government for building Pakistan House, even though it does not have the capacity to host many pilgrims. It is still better than what we had in the past: nothing.”
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2018