TUCKED between Quetta and Sibi districts, the Mach valley in Bolan district is surrounded by mammoth coal-laden mountains, spread over a vast area. Coal is being extracted here since the time of the Britishers who discovered mines in Mach and elsewhere in Balochistan. And there is still a lot of wealth of coal buried beneath the mountains.
The famous Bolan River bifurcates Mach town. Inside the town, there is hardly a plain area other than the main tiny bazaar, where coal miners buy edibles and other items. The mining takes place deep down the mountains, including along the banks of Mach River. Excessive mining has brought cracks in parts of Mach and rendered the miners vulnerable to accidents.
In September 2017 when I visited Mach for the first time to work on a story on coal miners’ vulnerability following an accident in a coal mine, I asked a group of coal miners about Hazara coal miners. I was told that Hazaras coal miners have been working in the mines since the time of Britishers. At that time, they made up a greater chunk of the labor force. Upon my asking the question, non-Hazara coal miners seemed jealous. “They are a different kind of breed,” said an elderly coal miner over a cup of black tea. “Because of fear of sectarianism, they work in double shifts, day and night, and hardly come out of the coal mines due to the fear of being recognised as Hazara and inviting sectarian threat.”
Though sectarian violence has decreased the number of Hazara coal miners in Balochistan in one and half decades, there is still a sizeable number of them in Mach and other coal mines in the province, who are compelled to work as coal miners due to economic crunch. Their economic activities in Quetta have dwindled to their ghettoised communities in eastern and western parts of the city: Marriabad and Hazara Town.
Pall of gloom hangs over Hazara Town after arrival of coal miners’ bodies from Mach
Coal miners take a day-off on Fridays and those belonging to the Hazara community then go to Quetta on Thursdays and come back to work on Saturdays, says Iqbal Yousafzai, a union leader of coal miners. “The tragedy struck on the night of Sunday after their return from Quetta,” Mr Yousafzai says. “The militants tied their hands on their backs, and slaughtered them one by one.”
On Sunday, there is an eerie silence in the streets of Hazara Town, where the slain Hazaras hailed from. Roads leading to Wali Asar Imambargah are in a somber mood and shops are closed at various places. Hundreds of people are standing on the road, inside courtyard and on stairs and roof of the Imambargah.
As sun hides behind the mountains of Quetta valley, darkness starts descending with a chilly coldness. Suddenly, Edhi and Chhipa ambulances, followed by Hazara volunteers in their vehicles, start wailing in the background. Slowly and gradually, the wailing becomes louder and the ambulances, one by one, start appearing on Wali Asar Imambargah road, with the relatives sitting with their slain loved ones.
One of the mourners starts shouting in Hazargi language, which is followed by religious slogans raised by others while the bodies are being brought inside the Imambargah. “It is a black chapter in the history of Pakistan,” exclaims Syed Dawood Agha, the leader of the Shia Conference’s Balochistan chapter. “Eleven innocent coal miners have been butchered after being identified as Hazara. That is simply their crime.”
Sadiq and Nazeer, relatives of two slain coalminers, have come in ambulances from Mach where they have gone in the morning with other volunteers after getting the news of the tragedy. In Mach, they had protested on the highway along with the bodies for hours. Sadiq, referring to the body he had accompanied, says the deceased was his cousin as well as brother-in-law.
Rest of the relatives are mourning with their community, with their heads down next to the coffins. A man sitting cries out: “There are coffins of 10 families, not individuals. They had gone to the coal mine to earn a livelihood for their families. Instead, their bodies are back in the town.”
According to Mr Agha, they were informed by an electrician boy, who had managed to escape being killed by the militants. “He called us to give the tragic news,” Mr Agha says. “We sent a team of volunteers to Mach. After peacefully protesting there, they have returned with the coffins of their brethren.”
Gradually, the bodies of the slain miners are taken to their houses and the Imambargah starts emptying. “It is time now to show their faces to their parents and sisters, to remind them of Karbala,” one of mourners says, accompanying a body to the house of the victim.
The 11 coal miners had come out of their mines at night to take a ‘breath’ in their residential quarters made up of sun-dried bricks. And this is how they paid the price for breathing, in an open space, at the top of a coal-laden mountain.
Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2021