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Forced out of Quetta by ethnic violence

Published May 27, 2011 12:37pm

An ethnic Hazara man is comforted by community members, after he arrived to the local hospital in Quetta to find a family member shot dead, May 6, 2011. Suspected Islamist militants on Friday opened fire on a group of Pakistani Shia in the southwestern town of Quetta, killing at least eight and wounding 15, police said, the first attack since the killing of Osama bin Laden in the country by US commandos. - Reuters Photo

KARACHI: Aly Khan fled Quetta city, provincial capital of the southwestern province of Balochistan, after several of his family members were attacked in inter-ethnic violence perpetrated by extremist groups, and moved to Islamabad to start a new life.

"It was a decision between choosing our lives or our homeland," he said. "Balochistan is our home, but we have been forced to leave the place where our elders have lived because of our sects. The Shia-Sunni conflict was exploited by Gen Zia ul Haq and later by the Taliban. The Wahabi elements have created so much terror. To save our lives, we left our home town."

Khan's relatives included a cousin who was a senior pathologist and was killed in 2009, and a professor who was attacked twice in 2005 and 2010. "Check the backgrounds of the victims and you will see that they were peace-loving citizens who were contributing to the society," he told IRIN. "They were doctors and professors, not warmongers."

Balochistan has been caught up in a nationalist insurgency for decades, with militant Baloch nationalist groups seeking autonomy for the region, and in the process targeting minority groups they believe do not support their thinking. Clashes have also occurred between militant Sunni Muslim groups and Shia Muslims over the interpretation of Islam.

On 6 May, six members of the Hazara Shia minority community were gunned down in an incident that the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), an extremist sectarian Wahabi organization, later claimed responsibility for. On 18 May, another seven were gunned down, and once again the LJ claimed responsibility.

Last year, 65 Shias were killed in Quetta when a procession became the target of a bomb blast on 3 September. Two days earlier, a blast in Lahore killed 35 others. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's report entitled State of Human Rights in 2010, 418 people were killed in various attacks on Muslim sects, including 211 in suicide bombings last year.

Over 200 Shia have been killed in Balochistan in the last three years, the report said "The Lashkar has given us the deadline to leave the province by 2012 and have warned of further attacks," said Awab.* "Even the police are helpless in this regard as they too have been under attack by these rogue elements."

Awab, an ethnic Hazara, is in the process of moving his family to Karachi. Seven members of his family, including a brother, an uncle and a cousin, were killed in last year's bombings.

Ethnic attacks on police

Contacted by IRIN, a senior official of the Balochistan police, who requested anonymity, said security had been tightened around Immambarhs (Shia mosques) and Shia graveyards for Friday prayers.

"We have been under attack not only by the separatists but also by the militant outfits," he said, adding that his colleague Deputy Inspector-General Wazir Khan Nasir had been targeted in April. "Though Khan luckily survived, we lost a constable.

"A number of our low-ranking policemen have also been targets as they belong to the Punjab Province, which the Balochs consider an enemy. How do I protect the Hazara Shia from Balochs and the Taliban, when my men can be hit and killed due to their ethnicity and no one will shed a tear because they are 'Punjabis'?" he added.

A spokesperson for the Hazara Democratic Party, who preferred anonymity, said the increasing violence against members of his community was in part due to its relative wealth, but he noted that Balochistan had been experiencing conflict between the state and Baloch separatists for some time. "We paid the price when we lost our leader, Hussain Ali Yousafi, who was killed in 2008."

Balochistan has historically had a tense relationship with Pakistan's government, in large part due to issues of provincial autonomy, control of mineral resources and exploration, and a consequent sense of deprivation, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Education hit

The violence has also affected education, according to HRW. In 2010 many teachers sought transfers, out of fear for their lives, further burdening what was already the worst educational system in Pakistan. At least 200 teachers and professors had already transferred from their schools to the relatively more secure provincial capital of Quetta or moved out of the province entirely since 2008.

The rights watchdog attributed the upsurge in violence to the 2006 assassination of the prominent Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and 35 of his close followers, and the murders of three prominent Baloch politicians in April 2009 by assailants believed to be linked to the Pakistan military.

The matter, according to Aly Khan, has been fuelled by religious differences. "Balochistan Province has Balochs and Pathans in the majority when it comes to ethnicity [while] Hazara are a minority," he said. "Then come the religious minorities. The Balochs and Pathans follow the Sunni sect, while most Hazara are Shias and most of these are residing Quetta.

"The Hazara and the Shias are a peaceful community and generally well settled," he added. "While earlier they were victims of kidnappings and robberies, now religious extremists threaten them."