Lethal blackmail arsenal

Published January 10, 2021
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

IF bodies of slain loved ones can indeed be weaponised by mourning families to blackmail a prime minister, the Hazara Shias of Balochistan must be the most well-armed and lethal community in the country. But is that really the case?

To understand this point, let’s take a cursory look at what the Hazara community has gone through over the past two decades. The community is, or was, approximately 0.7 million strong. Over the past 21 years an estimated 1,500 of its members have been murdered.

The rage and the bloodlust of the murderers has not even spared unarmed women and children, including infants, what to talk of men. If the same proportion of about 220m Pakistanis had been killed as the Hazaras have lost of their own, the toll would be close to half a million.

Yes. Half a million! That would be about 10 times the total civilian, military, paramilitary and police losses combined in 20 years of the war on terrorism suffered by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Who is unaware of the trauma the loss of those approximately 50,000 plus Pakistanis caused each of us, how it touched us?

If the same proportion of about 220m Pakistanis had been killed as the Hazaras have lost of their own, the toll would be close to 0.5m.

Now imagine what pain our own Hazara compatriots live in, in perpetuity. The fear and anguish that must have made a permanent place in their hearts; the despair that must cast a long shadow over their lives and the threat they must have to bear as they go about their everyday chores.

The tragedy visiting them is endless. The number of their dead is tabulated by the Hazara Organisation for Peace and Equality (HOPE), a US-based, registered non-profit human rights organisation documenting war crimes, human rights violations, and systemic discrimination against the Hazaras.

This number does not include Hazara youths who have drowned in the high seas trying to find safer shores in South-East Asia and Australia, but it does include a young man who was murdered in Quetta after his asylum application was rejected and he was deported from Indonesia.

Whilst the number of dead is accurately recorded as is that of Hazaras wounded in assassination attempts by automatic weapons or bombs — running into the thousands certainly — there are no details of what bullet or bomb blast injuries have done to those who continue to live. For example, if they are able to work.

A number of young Hazara men, and some families, have sought asylum abroad. The painful reality is that even though a strong bond unites the community, the more educated members have greater mobility and can, and some have, moved out to safer cities within the country too. Some estimates put migration (domestic and foreign) thus far at up to 40 per cent of the community.

For the vast majority life is hellish. The state has failed them.

Of course, things weren’t always like this. The community had a sizeable presence in Quetta’s trade and commerce; owned many businesses. From visits to Quetta up to the 1990s (before mass murder visited them), I have a clear recollection of Hazara-owned shops, restaurants and even rickshaws driven by them.

Apart from trade and commerce, the Hazaras had solid representation in the armed forces, boasting a former C-in-C, Gen Muhammad Musa, a three-star PAF officer Air Marshal Sharbat Ali Changezi and many other decorated officers. My father’s dear friend and comrade-in-arms Col Barkat Ali was among the finest who wore the uniform.

The Hazaras have contributed to Pakistan’s defence, enriched its sports team, most notably football and boxing. They have performed admirably in martial arts, competing in international events and have also excelled academically.

But brutal, systematic violence targeting them has meant an economic meltdown for the community. A large proportion of their businesses outside the two enclaves (ghettos, if we are honest) they have been forced into, have been shut down or sold for a fraction of their real price.

The threat to their life and limb has restricted mobility and this has had a devastating impact on their ability to generate an income. Some among them, such as the miners who had their hands tied behind their backs and throats slit, are forced to leave their ghettos and the little security they are afforded there, in order to find manual labour.

The State has abandoned them. There is no doubt about that. Those close to the ground realities and familiar with the dynamics of Balochistan say the state’s own policies have rendered it helpless in doing anything for the Hazaras.

“First there was the need to accommodate the Afghan Taliban who came here in large numbers in the aftermath of 9/11 and brought some of their sectarian prejudices with them,” a Quetta-based journalist said.

The journalist reminded me that Afghan Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, who fought against the Soviets, was killed by the Taliban in 1995 when they controlled the Ghazni area, after being invited for talks. He was reportedly taken up in a helicopter and thrown out of it at high altitude.

“Then followed years of looking the other way after Nawab Bugti’s killing led to Baloch militancy. Some of the armed extremist Baloch religious groups helping the security forces in ‘tackling’ Baloch militancy, were simultaneously pursuing their sectarian agenda on the side,” he added.

The Hazaras have paid a very heavy price. I know of families now having to live off charity because the main breadwinner(s) was snatched away. Occasionally, they are unable to contain their pain; they do sit-ins not to inconvenience us or to blackmail anyone.

They just want us to acknowledge they are hurting. We may be helpless in protecting them but are we also helpless in displaying a bit of empathy, compassion? If we find ourselves bereft of humanity, let’s not call Hazaras blackmailers. They are not.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.


Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2021


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