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The graveyard of tolerance

February 22, 2013


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.