Surprisingly and luckily, coal miner Rahim* is a swarthy Hazara, and he can speak lucidly the local Brahui language (one of the languages the Baloch speak), too. The reason is: he has grown up working in the coal mines of Mach town, situated in the eastern parts of Balochistan’s Bolan district. As he looks different from the distinct facial features of his Hazara community members, everybody doubts he is a Hazara and the very first question he is often asked: “Are you really a Hazara?”
“Yes. I am a Hazara,” he responds with a childlike smile.
In Quetta and elsewhere in Balochistan, a Hazara community member is easily identifiable by their looks, as they have round faces with mostly small nose and other physical features usually attributed to the Mongols, Turks and Chinese. However, Rahim looks quite different.
This is perhaps one of the reasons he is still alive. In a coal mine area of Mach town next to where Rahim works, 10 Hazara miners were butchered in the darkness of January 3 last year. The cold-blooded murder was later claimed by the militant Islamic State (IS) group.
Next to the main Quetta-Sibi highway the Gihsteri coal-laden mountainous range starts, protruding upward. One of the first coal mines is where the butchered Hazara miners used to work and reside. It is now closed. Due to constant fear, not even the non-Hazara coal miners want to work there as according to them it is the evil place that had swallowed 10 Hazara miners. “Sometimes,” the swarthy Hazara in his low and somewhat half-whispered voice says, with me listening superstitiously, “we, the coal miners, believe the coal mine is now abode of jinn-o-bhala, which is why nobody steps over there, let alone work there, in the night. At night, we hear strange and scary voices from there.”
As I head to the coal mine in the middle of the Gihsteri mountains in order to speak to Hazara miners on the first anniversary of the gruesome incident in the month of January, there is pin-drop silence. This is why most of the Hazaras in Mach town can be found working on double shifts deep down in the coal mines where death rules the roost due to precarious working conditions. To Hazaras, it makes no difference: the sectarian fear is more dangerous outside than the insecurity the coal miners face in the mines.
Over the past several years many Hazaras have left the Mach coal town though they had a lively mohalla in the bazaar of Mach town where just a few Hazara families are now left. “The killing of four Hazaras in Mach at the end of its bazaar in 2013 triggered their migration towards Quetta,” recalls Hussain Hazara, a coal mine contractor while tracing back their migration from the town.
Most coal miners, including Hazaras, in the place visit their families in Quetta on Fridays. Despite the lurking sectarian threats, many Hazara coal miners have continued to work in the mines. Since then they had hardly got down the coal-laden mountains, which corresponded to the Kurdish saying, “No friend but the mountains.” But unfortunately the last January proved it wrong. Mountains, too, turned into unsafe place for the Hazaras in Balochistan.
In recent months, a fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed concern over rights violations and poor working conditions in Balochistan’s coal mines, stating in its report that “miners in Balochistan also face the risk of targeted attacks by non-state actors”.
It is still evident in the mountains of Gihsteri where I could feel the air of insecurity during the visit to a coal mine with the swarthy Hazara.
The Hazara miners have built for themselves three mudrooms with a courtyard to stay. Here I meet two more Hazaras, other than Rahim who guided me to the place, as most of the miners continue to work deep in the mine.
There is no cellular network. Hence, in the room I sit, there is an old tape recorder as if the life had not come out of the 1990s. There are clothes, jackets and plastic bags on the pegs in which there are soaps, combs, etc. One can easily sense the pain and insecurity the Hazaras are going through. “Our fathers and elders worked in the coal mines of Mach,” says one of the small and white-faced Hazara, called Naeeem*, dressed in cream-coloured clothes, in Hazaragi, as he cannot speak Urdu, unlike Rahim. While pointing at the Hazara fellow sitting next to him, he says they have been working for 15 to 20 years as coal miners as there is nothing else for them to do.
“Heaven knows, we woke last year getting to know our 10 Hazara coal miners in the same vicinity were butchered,” he recalls, sitting on a plastic-woven carpet in the room. “One of our Hazara community members found them soaked in blood with their hands tied behind their backs early morning. They could be us, too.”
“We are too poor to quit working here,” another Hazara, Raza*, joins in when asked why they work despite the looming sectarian threat to their lives. “If we quit, we will die of hunger along with our children, as there is no other source of livelihood for us and our families.”
According to Hussain, the contractor, the number of Hazara miners in Mach coal mines has dwindled to 1,600 from 3,500 after the last year’s incident.
As for the remaining Hazaras, including the ones I speak to, there is an intercom connected to Frontier Corps (FC) personnel deployed on the mountain. They have been provided with a loudspeaker so that if something goes bad the paramilitary force personnel can reach within five minutes.
Without asking, Rahim turns on the gadget in a dimly lit room and it produces a shriek continuous sound for a while. During this continuous sound, I find the expression on his face glum, helpless and hopeless while he does not utter a word.
(Names have been changed in order to protect the identity of the persons involved)
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2022