On a winter evening in January, a stranger walked into a crowded pool hall strapped with explosives and detonated his suicide jacket. Moments later, neighbours and store-owners awakened by the ground-shaking blast rushed towards the ugly scene; the smell of death and scattered body parts and pieces of the wall and pool tables; reminders of a life that was associated with relaxation after a hard days’ work. Several minutes later, when the police, the ambulances and local television news crews had arrived, a motorcycle parked diagonally across from the pool hall exploded, killing and injuring those who had come to help. On the night of January 10, an estimated 93 people died and more than 121 were injured in the carnage that took place on Quetta’s Alamdar Road. The attack was claimed by banned group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.
As has been the case, the victims’ grieving relatives were preparing the bodies of their loved ones for burial in a nearby cemetery. Hundreds from the community had come out to accompany the 86 coffins but instead they paused and placed the coffins carefully back on the road and sat down. Leaders of the Hazara community announced they were not going to move an inch until the Pakistani government placed Quetta under the control of the army and dismissed the provincial government of the time.
Within hours of the twin attacks in Quetta, a small group of men gathered on the corner of New York city’s 65th Street and Fifth Avenue and on the east side of Central Park, down the street from the Pakistani consulate building. They were joined by women and children bundled up for a New York winter night; word had spread of a sit-in protest like the one in Quetta. By 10pm, hundreds gathered as officers from the New York Police Department appeared to manage the peaceful sit-in protest.
There is 'hope'
In New York, the US-based Hazara Organisation for Peace and Equality (Hope) arranged for simultaneous protests to take place in major cities like London, Sydney, Toronto, and Washington D.C., with the help of local New York Shia activists. According to HOPE, between 19-23 cities world over sat in protest with Quetta’s Hazaras for over three days — which including 1,300 Pakistani and Afghan Hazaras living in the United States.
“I have lost many friends and family — I cannot even count on my hands and feet the number of people I have lost,” said Liaquat Ali, 50, a member of HOPE, on the second night of the protest. Ali, a Hazara, moved to the US 10 years ago. “We are Pakistani and we are still treated this way.”
HOPE began as a source of information on Hazaras in the region and has moved on from its initial purpose into a voice for the Hazaras. Syed*, one of its founders who requested anonymity as well as for his US location to be withheld for fear of threats to his family members in Quetta, explained that the purpose of the organisation changed as attacks increased on Hazaras in Pakistan. HOPE has estimated that 1,300 Hazaras have been killed and 3,000 injured since 1999, which does not include the number of deaths that have taken place during sea migrations of Hazara refugees to Australia. Currently, HOPE does not have a website and shares information on Hazara.net, a website catering to news pertaining to the community.
For as long as I could remember there had always been good relations between the Hazaras and the Baloch and Pashtun populations — as long as their traditions were respected, Syed said. The Hazaras in Quetta were businessmen and professionals while the Baloch and Pashtun were mainly landowners.
“Hazaras cannot leave their enclave. And their businesses have been destroyed,” he said.
“These terrorists are not missing. I mean their targets are met 100 per cent — how is this possible? Then they call and claim responsibility for the attacks. This is happening inside a country with one of the most powerful armies in the world.”
Syed also questions how Lashkar-i-Jhangvi knows exact locations of their targets and how they obtain modern explosives to attack Hazara Shias.
HOPE collects data based on information vetted from people on the ground in Balochistan, Syed said, adding that “we need to document this for information and historical reasons. We have the Holocaust as a great example of what documenting history can mean to a persecuted people”.
However, Syed said h+6e did not know what collection of the data could mean for Hazaras in the future. “I would not even know where to begin or who to go to if we were to approach an international organisation with our data on the Hazara genocide,” he said.
“We know people in higher positions but they are afraid. The coming elections will not change much. Right now, the information is collected and we just share it. Justice is unchartered waters for us at the moment.”
For Syed, the January attacks were a reality check. Pakistan was a place where he wanted to return to one day but now he says this may not be in the future for him or for other Hazaras.
“I was disturbed for days. There were so many casualties,” he said. “What I understand of war is that men die, but what is beyond my understanding is when those who are peaceful die. There was not a single person hurt, not a single stone thrown, they just sat there with the dead, quiet in sub-zero conditions. And this protest was the most moving experience for me. The support for the sit-in surprised me and I think Pakistanis were surprised too. Nobody understood Hazaras before that — not even in Pakistan.”
Elections and the Hazaras
This May, Pakistan is going to polls but to the Hazara community, the election means little, if not nothing, for its future. The community has only a handful of candidates, most of whom are being fielded by the Hazara Democratic Party.
“When we look at the elections, the dynamics are too complicated. They would not be able to stop the targeted killings,” Syed said.
One of the Hazara candidates for Quetta’s National Assembly seat is Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid’s Ruqaiya Hashmi. A doctor and a former soldier, Hashmi has been getting threatening phone calls and letters sent to her offices, but she appears determined to stand up to extremists, a view she has reiterated in recent interviews.
However, the community’s diminishing influence and vulnerability in the face of threats remains a challenge to Hashmi and other Hazara candidates.
No end in sight?
On the third night of the New York protest, and on the cold and sunny morning on the fourth day in Quetta, the political situation had changed; then prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf met with community leaders to discuss the terms of ending the sit-in. Subsequently, the premier dismissed the provincial government, imposing governor rule in Balochistan after which the sit-in was called off and the bodies were buried.
By then it was past midnight in New York, almost 50 women, children and men gathered near the corner of the Pakistani consulate were passing around cups of warm coffee from Dunkin Donuts and halal kebab rolls wrapped in foil. The women and children were segregated; there were makeshift mattresses made from layers of thick blankets, and carpets donated from local Shia mosques. Liaquat Ali was waiting on the corner — for a phone call from Quetta. His phone rang and the small group of Hazaras congregated around him.
“It’s over!” Ali exclaimed, an imam recited a short prayer, which was followed by a simultaneous sound of “Ameen” from the crowd. And just quickly as they had trickled in on the first chilly night of the protest, they left to go back to their warm homes. The corner of 65th and Fifth Avenue stood empty and life went on in New York. The same, however, could not be said for the Hazaras in Quetta.