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The graveyard of tolerance


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Photo by Reuters

In the middle of Karachi, adjacent to the central road named after a benevolent Saudi Prince, lies “Gora Qabristan” literally translated to “cemetery of the white”. In the midst of encroaching buildings whose living seek to claim more and more of what belongs to the dead, of marauding swindlers and drug dealers who hide in its shadows, of the water table that creeps up to the top and the rain water are 58 graves. They are notable for their straight simplicity; white slabs of marble lying all together, in a row, unadorned and unafraid even if set in the soil of a foreign place.

The graves belong to 58 Polish nationals who came fleeing the pogroms and conflagrations of World War II and died in the momentary resting place that became a final one. Terrors of mass killings and fleeings took place in other places in those days, and for the victims Karachi was a place of refuge. Their journey was a long one, their story one of escaping the cruelties of a Polish homeland divided up between Germany and Russia in 1939. In the years that followed, the Russians embarked on an “ethnic cleansing” program that removed socially undesirable elements from the homeland they wished to ‘purify’ and 1.5 million were sent away to Siberia and Kazakhstan. The Russian plan was to enable an intellectual and cultural evisceration of Poland so that the architecture of its society would change forever.  It was from these camps that a Polish army in exile would be culled, but civilians who were barely alive were sent to camps in the Middle East, to Tehran and also to Karachi. Between 1942-1945, these starving, often sick, refugees, running from persecution, war and genocide came to the city by the Arabian Sea before there was ever a road as wide or a prince as kind to build it. The safely arrived were settled in refugee camps in the Malir Cantonment and in the area that is now the University Road. There were 30,000 of them; Polish refugees, living, eating, studying, worshipping in a Karachi where tolerance seemed as natural as the sand in its soil.

It is useful to recount their story in the Pakistan of today, when graves have to be denied to those wrongly killed, to make people pause and balk and weep at the injustice of their deaths. The Hazara of Quetta have buried their dead, but they know no peace and can expect no tolerance. It is useful to recount this story today, when for those who cannot command mobs and sway majorities, Karachi and Pakistan is a place to flee from rather than to flee to. It is useful to recount this story today, when the grains of hatred scattered by the preachers of loathing have germinated with such parasitic obstinacy that those who watch the innocent Shias or Christians or Hindus being killed wonder in silence, instead of exclaiming in protest. When the Polish came fleeing Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, many who lived here and who welcomed them could not have imagined that Pakistan would be a reality. Perhaps they could also not have imagined that such a Pakistan, where the different and the persecuted live lives wracked with such fear, was a possibility. The 58 graves of the Polish who sought refuge in Karachi tell the story of a different possibility, of a Pakistan of tolerance that was, and perhaps could still be.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (50) Closed

Alexander Feb 23, 2013 03:49pm
@Khan, you have not explained the massacres of muslims by muslims in Pakistan IN your statement! These numbers will be a world record. 180 hazaras done to death in span of 3 weeks . Please enlighten us with your views. Please for gods sake do not bring india in your views.
rich Feb 22, 2013 02:11pm
hi karachi at the time when these polish refugee lived ther was a pluralistic city with hardly a million people, and predominatly hindu the sindhi muslim were minorities and very tolerant, there were no mohajir majority not pathan population like now hence the polish catholic could live there, and remmember karachi was still under british then Richie
Younus Feb 23, 2013 02:45pm
Oh please grow up she is talking obout people of Karachi, I grow up in Karachi, people around me never care who you are or what religion you belong to.
SK Feb 23, 2013 01:41pm
The writer did not say they came to Pakistan. She very clearly indicates they came to "Karachi." The writer is not intellectually dishonest, but it seems you cannot read the article without betraying your Indian bias. That is also a little dishonest.
COMMENTS ARE CLOSED Feb 23, 2013 03:22pm
Remember when the Polish fled it was not Pakistan, it was India. The mess started after The Islamic Republic of Pakistan came into being.
krishnan Feb 23, 2013 12:11pm
This is a petty comment.She is trying to motivate Karachiwalas.
Antriksh Feb 23, 2013 12:44pm
Like a dream
ALI Feb 23, 2013 12:40pm
i respect your article but the government is happy with this situation as we read in the news papers that the situation of pakistan is not bad then bahrin or other countries so the world even be come small for terrorist. ist is not just hazara but every tribes are suffering who came here 1000 before .
pathanoo Feb 22, 2013 06:55pm
It was India (Pakistan did not exist then) and it's tradition of tolerance and "Vishwa Kutumbkum" culture, a Sanskrit word that means the world is a family, which accepted these polish escapees and gave them shelter. This still prevails, Thank God, in India. Pakistan was created against every thing that connotates these two virtues and the result is now the foregone conclusion what Pakistan has become. I can not let go without saying that the author, Rafia Zakaria, is one of the honest, unbiased and courageous journalist of Pakistan and credit to her profession. I look forward to reading her articles which are well analyzed and substantative.
aghaehan Feb 22, 2013 04:05pm
ZXY Feb 22, 2013 11:47am
It was because the majority of residents of Karachi were Hindus during that period.
Imran Feb 23, 2013 10:55am
From 1980 onwards Pakistan accepted over 3 millions Afghan refugees.Thats more than India will ever manage. So please dont give us lectures on accepting refugees.
raji Feb 23, 2013 10:40am
As long as we had hindus in karanchi and sindh it was tolerant and peaceful...look what we have done to it now now after chasing them ..
Azeema Feb 23, 2013 09:46am
very nice to know....
Imran Feb 23, 2013 09:37am
The majority of residents of India now are Hindus. Is India a tolerant place?
NM Feb 22, 2013 11:35am
What an article...
saeed Feb 23, 2013 06:22am
India is a failed nation period! This is a great article.
g.a.shirazi Feb 22, 2013 10:02pm
Thanks for the history. I always thought that was Britsh Raj's graveyard--literally.
Ahmed Feb 22, 2013 10:31pm
They thought they were coming to India? It was all India. And what difference does it make who was "ruling" India at the time. Its the same place as before and the same people (mostly).
umesh bhagwat Feb 23, 2013 12:20am
tolerance,compassion and fraternity!
SBB Feb 22, 2013 04:47pm
Rafia - The Karachi you're describing was a city run by the Sindhis, who have been extremely tolerant throughout history (the last few hundred, not just 65 years). It's too bad that this culture of tolerance is alien to those who have benefited the most from it.
paddy singh Feb 22, 2013 11:19pm
Rafia Zakaria has written a beautifully thought provoking article on Pakistan. Today
vishmed Feb 22, 2013 12:05pm
Intellectual dishonesty. There was no Pakistan when the Polish came to Karachi. It was a Hindu majority city ruled by the British. Hence the tolerance.
Tahir Feb 22, 2013 12:04pm
Criminals have niched out Karachi as the new 'lawless and wild West'. Sadly it has happened too soon when Karachi was up and coming as a hub of Pakistan's financial and cultural city. The tragedy is sadly lamented and compared to the death of a youth who was full of energy and vitality. RIP Karachi.
aghaehan Feb 22, 2013 04:04pm
Brith India to be exact. There was never anything called India.
shahgul Feb 22, 2013 11:44pm
Why go so far back in history? The Hazaras came to Pakistan during the 70's to escape persecution in Afghanistan. What about hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees, Kurds, Bangladeshis, Iranians, especially Bahais who fled the revolution. Pakistan has always been a destination for the persecuted, until now. So what is different now?
D'oh! Feb 23, 2013 05:22am
because as u r our neighbour, sometimes negitive energy from ur side cross the border to our side...
Human Feb 22, 2013 10:26am
You are actually talking about India. Pakistan did not exist before 14/08/1947. Probably explains the acceptance of the refugees.
LOL Feb 22, 2013 10:02am
Thank you for lighting a candle of hope in an otherwise roiling media, emotion charging irresponsible journalism.
Parvez Feb 22, 2013 09:44am
..............and this is why I always try and read you................brilliant.
Khan Feb 22, 2013 10:22pm
She is talking about Karachi full stop.
Khan Feb 22, 2013 10:23pm
They came to Karachi full sop.
Khan Feb 22, 2013 10:23pm
Why there is intolerance in Hindu majority India now in the form of communal riots against Muslims, Sikhs, Christians in place s like Bihar, Assam, Gujrat Delhi etc. why India rank 1& 3 position in communal riots in this century. Just google it.
NASAH (USA) Feb 24, 2013 05:07am
Pakistan is at war with its own self.
Sumant Feb 22, 2013 03:33pm
Do you think it might have been because it was undivided India and not Pakistan yet?
NASAH (USA) Feb 24, 2013 05:06am
How true the saying for Pakistan! -- the sword raised against the head of the enemy -- is first raised against your own head.
Vijay Feb 22, 2013 05:07pm
Your last line is the most telling. The only way Pakistan can/will return to tolerance and peace is when, in about three years, Islam has ceased to exist. There's no other way.
amit lunia Feb 22, 2013 11:14am
but they came to India......??? Feb 22, 2013 12:58pm
They thought they were coming it India.
Aj Feb 22, 2013 07:35pm
karachi was a hindu majority city???
Shah Rukh Khan Feb 24, 2013 05:56am
How did Jinnah succeed Sultan Salahuddin? You are right about sultan but dishonest about Jinnah. Pakistan is a reality and accept it. Jinnah was intellectually superior to congress leadership, accept it. We all and the world knows very well who, when and how madressahs were promoted in Pakistan and for which purpose. Be honest and don't confuse unsuspecting readers.
ahmed Feb 22, 2013 05:19pm is brilliant.
krishnan Feb 22, 2013 12:30pm
Good one.Apart from Karachi some Poles went to Gujarat -I think. India was undivided then.
Pinto Feb 22, 2013 06:33pm
They came to Karachi because of few reasons. 1. It was ruled by british then. 2. Karachi was boiling pot of cultural/religious mix including sizable hindus. 3. It was still india then. 4. The majority population was not exposed to Arabic culture and hence tolerant of others. 5. The larger population of Karachi was tolerant.
P.Mishra Feb 23, 2013 05:04pm
FRom where you got this statistics?
Bobs Feb 23, 2013 07:00pm
Because so some traitors llive in India wants to destroy communal harmony of India..Hindus are generally tolerant and like diversity but also they are too busy making their living to feed their family so they dont have much time to hate others...Gujrat riots are the only time when they lost their tolerance because some innocent people were burnt alive...
Kapoor Feb 23, 2013 10:24pm
You need help. Schizophrenia does not get cured by itself. God bless you.
Zimbo_Indian Feb 24, 2013 09:32am
Yes. By and large Hindus are tolerant. And yes, India is a tolerant place. Occassional incidents of communal disharmony are only to be expected in country as big as India. They are only aberrations. That is why the %age of Muslim population in India has increased from 12% to 15% since 1947. Please compare it with the ethnic cleansing of Hindus and other minorities in Pakistan. From 21% in 1947, Hindus are down to 1% today.
FactCheck Feb 24, 2013 04:01am
India also did not exist before that date. And not Bharat either. The Sub-Continent was called Indian SubContinent but the country/place was called British Raj, or a state of the British Empire.
RSS Feb 24, 2013 04:09am
No. They came to the British Empire.