Quetta’s Hazaras build new life away from home, but memories of persecution still haunt them

They may have found safety in exile, but it comes at the cost of severe financial woes and emotional trauma.
Published November 30, 2022

“I never wanted to leave Pakistan, but the brutal killing of a close friend left me no choice,” says Ishaq Mohammadi, who fled his hometown of Quetta and moved to New York in 2009, when militants were carrying out targeted attacks against members of the Shia Hazara-community in the province. In January that year, Ishaq’s friend, Hussain Ali Yousufi — a prominent Hazara politician and chairperson of the Hazara Democratic Party — was shot dead in front of a travel company that he ran in Quetta.

Yousufi had been receiving death threats from unknown individuals via text messages prior to his murder, but was given no security by the government. Mohammadi says he decided to leave Pakistan after his friend’s murder because he had been receiving similar threats and feared he would be next.

According to a 2017 report by the National Commission for Human Rights, at least 509 members of the Hazara community were killed in Pakistan for their faith between 2011 and 2017. Meanwhile, successive governments, both in the centre and the province, have largely failed to protect the community from the violence, including large-scale suicide attacks and targeted killings.

In January last year, following the killings of 11 Hazara coal miners in Mach, Balochistan, then-prime minister Imran Khan said he would not be “blackmailed into visiting” protesting family members of the victims — a comment that generated widespread criticism.

For Ishaq Mohammadi, every government has been indifferent to the plight of the Hazara community. A large number of police and FC checkpoints were deployed across the city in response to the violence in 2010-11, he says, but these arrangements only served to restrict the community’s mobility instead of protecting the almost 600,000-strong Hazara population.

Ishaq recalls how the government had asked the community to only use Spini Road and avoid going to the other two main roads in the city. “But these measures were in vain. It was as if our targeted killings did not matter as long as the rest of the city was safe,” he says.

For Liaquat Ali, another exiled Hazara based in New York who worked as an editorial cartoonist back home in Quetta, the realisation that Pakistan is no longer safe for him came much earlier. “I knew what was coming for our community when in 1999, Minister for Education Sardar Nisar Ali was attacked by gunmen near his office.”

The minister, who belonged to the Hazara community, survived the attack, but his driver and bodyguard were killed. A few months after the incident, Liaquat moved to New York where his brother already lived.

Otherization of Hazaras in Quetta

Even after all these years, Liaquat recalls feeling a sense of hostility from non-Hazara communities in Quetta during the wave of violence. “They thought we were a liability to them.”

In June 2012, a blast ripped through a van transporting students of the Balochistan University of Information Technology in Quetta, killing four of the students on the spot and leaving 11 others injured.

Liaquat Ali’s niece was on the bus at the time of the attack. “She managed to survive because she was in the backseat,” he says, adding that she was a third-year medical student and was passionate about becoming a doctor. She moved to the US along with her family after this attack and had to abandon her education as well as her dream of becoming a doctor.

In the wake of the attack, the city’s all-women Sardar Bahadur Khan University callously asked the Hazara students to take a separate bus. Muhammadi says the university’s announcement was not a one-off, and this sentiment against Hazaras was common in the city. “My son who was then a first-year Intermediate student was often told by his non-Hazara peers that they fear being targeted because of him.”

Life in exile

While members of the community in exile have found safety away from home, memories of persecution continue to haunt them. Mohammadi remembers breaking down into tears when he heard his son, who now lives with him in New York, speak to a journalist about how he was ostracised by his classmates in Quetta due to his Hazara identity.

Asylees fleeing violence are often advised to use mental health resources and visit trauma centres after escaping their countries. But most Hazaras who ended up in New York never got the chance to seek psychological help as they struggle to make ends meet in an expensive city.

When Liaquat Ali moved to New York in 2000, he worked menial jobs to pay the bills. His first job in New York was at a grocery store where he could only stay for a week. “The owner did not pay me the amount he had promised at the end of the week, saying that I was under training. I quit after realising I was being exploited,” he said.

Since Ali had a background in the arts, he eventually utilised his graphic design skills and began offering designing services in New York. He set up a small designing business in 2002 and his clientele grew in no time. The business has since expanded and he now owns a manufacturing company.

But most exiles are not as fortunate. Mohammadi says he had an easy lifestyle in Quetta in terms of financial security, but has yet to find a stable job in the US. He occasionally works as a translator for Persian-language news outlets and sometimes as a cashier at grocery stores.

‘Hazaras can never trust the Pakistan embassy’

The embassy of their country of origin is usually the first point of contact for diasporas when they need assistance, but exiled Hazaras don’t trust the Pakistan embassy. Over the years, Liaquat Ali has organised a number of protests in New York against the persecution meted out to the community, including the one outside the United Nations headquarters in 2003 — the first demonstration held for Hazaras abroad. During this time, he says he has faced hostility from Pakistani authorities on more than one occasion, apparently due to his activism.

“In 2010, I received a call from a staff member at the Pakistan Consulate in New York, who threateningly asked me where I live and what I do. He kept reminding me that I have a family back in Pakistan, as if trying to warn me against protesting the persecution of my community.”

Despite repeated attempts, the Pakistani consulate in New York was unavailable for comment.

When Liaquat arrived at the Karachi airport for a visit to Pakistan in 2012, he was stopped by the authorities who told him his Pakistani visa was “fake”. Liaquat feared he may be arrested if he travelled to the country on his National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP), which is why he used his US passport and had to get a visa from New York before travelling to Pakistan. “I told them this visa has been issued by their own consulate in New York. How could it be fake? But they refused to listen to me.”

He then went to Dubai to get a fresh visa, and visited the Pakistan consulate daily for 10 days. The officials kept delaying the process and at one point, refused to grant him the visa while refunding his application fee. After much ado, he was finally granted a Pakistani visa from Dubai, but it stated that he could not visit any cantonment areas. The Head of Chancery at the consulate told him they were reluctant to issue him a visa because Afghan Hazaras falsely claim to be from Pakistan to get Pakistani visas.

“I knew all along that the mistreatment I faced at the airport and later at the consulate was due to my Hazara identity, and the head of chancery confirmed it,” he says. “This is why, as asylees, we can never trust the Pakistan embassies and consulates.”

Abandoned by fellow countrymen abroad

Hazara exiles mostly mingle within their own ethnic community, and are not connected to the rest of the Pakistani diaspora in New York. They do have some support from progressive Pakistani activists and journalists based in the city who were also forced into exile due to violence and threats, but the larger Pakistani community does not see them as one of their own.

“It was only three or four years ago that the Pakistani community in the US found out who we [Hazaras] are,” says Ishaq Mohammadi. “They previously thought we were an ethnicity from Gilgit or some other region.”

He recalls how a group of Pakistanis shouted “ghaddar!” (traitor) while passing by a protest demonstration organised by Hazara activists outside Pakistan consulate in New York. “We stayed loyal to the motherland despite being butchered en masse, yet we are termed traitors just because we ask not to be killed,” he laments.

Despite their own financial woes and emotional trauma, these exiles still consider themselves fortunate to have escaped Pakistan unharmed. The guilt of having done so does bear heavily on some, however, as they think about their loved ones who don’t have the means to leave the country and continue to be at risk of violence.

Header image: Protest demonstration against the killings of Hazara ethnic minority in Afghanistan. Afghan women holding banners and placards. Solidarity and genocide emergency. — Shutterstock.com