By Alena Sadiq.
“The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. When evil-doing comes like falling rain, no body calls out ‘stop!’”
Bertolt Brecht’s words seems like they were written for the Hazaras. As the political circus continues in Islamabad, genocide is happening not too far away. Pakistan and the world, however, continue to ignore the atrocities.
The Hazaras are an ethnic group of predominantly Shia Muslims in a majority Sunni Muslim Pakistan. They are concentrated in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. In a country of nearly 180 million, Quetta’s half a million Hazaras have been more vulnerable to attacks than any other Shia group in the country because of their distinctive facial features. The Hazaras are ethnically Mongolian and mostly migrants from Afghanistan and settled in Quetta as it was close to their home communities and made cross-border visits possible. They have faced persecution in Afghanistan since the late 19th century and have faced similar ordeals in Pakistan for more than a decade.
In the last decade, about 1000 Hazaras have been targeted and killed in Pakistan. The Sunni militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), has taken responsibility for most attacks. The group operates with impunity despite being a banned organization. They openly incite violence and engage in hate speech. In 2011, they circulated a letter that stated, “We will make Pakistan the graveyard of the Shi’ite Hazaras, and their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers”. The chief of LeJ, Malik Ishaq, has been prosecuted in more than 40 terrorism-related cases but has been convicted in none because of weaknesses in Pakistan’s judicial system and intimidation of judges and witnesses.
The LeJ and other militant groups operate with ease because the military establishment still sees some of these groups as means to advance Pakistan’s “strategic interest”. The LeJ, and its parent organization, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), fought alongside the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. The Pakistani army treated these groups as an asset that could help form a “friendly government” in Afghanistan. A former intelligence officer, speaking anonymously, told the Human Rights Watch (HRW), “While these people are hostiles and often attack us, it is important to maintain some level of goodwill with them as they can be useful.”
The Pakistani state has been under military rule for more than half of its existence, and thus military and intelligence agencies have amassed a lot of power. In contrast, the civilian governments are often weak, incompetent, and at times seem to share the view of the establishment that such groups can be useful. Political parties frequently seek electoral support from the LeJ in the province of Punjab, where the organization has strongholds, and are hesitant to challenge the group, fearing backlash.
The last two years have seen the worst massacres of the Hazaras. In early 2013, two bombs killed around 200 Hazaras, and the LeJ claimed responsibility for both. The Chief Minister showed utter disregard for sensitivity by saying he would send “a truckload of tissues” to the Hazaras. At the start of this year, 28 Hazaras were killed in Mastung returning from a pilgrimage to Iran. After this incident, the interior minister ignored the issue, suggesting that the pilgrims should make use of alternative means of travel, as the bus route was hard to secure. Just this month, on Oct. 5, six people were laid to rest in Hazara Town’s graveyard after a suicide bomb attack.
The ghettoization of the Hazaras continues as the government fails to provide them with security and the only place they still feel somewhat safe in is within their own community. More than 80,000 Hazaras have sought asylum abroad; many have tried to get to Australia through illegal means such as “people smugglers”. Now, with an anti-immigration government in place in Australia, the Hazara community is fast running out of options.
The situation also has an international context. When the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia united to back an Afghan resistance to the Soviets in the 1980s, they engineered the spread of a militant mindset, promoting a specific hardline Sunni school of thought. In the Middle East Institute’s report on Pakistan’s history of Islamization, Dr. Nasim Ashraf writes, “USAID paid the University of Nebraska 5.1 million dollars between 1984-1994 to develop and design textbooks to promote jihad…. Students learned basic arithmetic by counting dead Russian soldiers and AK-47 rifles”. Madrassas sprang up throughout the country and often used such textbooks to indoctrinate young minds. Iran saw Pakistan’s Islamization program as an attempt to create a Sunni State and consequently backed the Pakistani Shias in efforts to counter such plans. It is reported that organizations like LeJ obtain funding from sheikhdoms of the Middle East. Pakistan remains a sectarian battleground for Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.
As long as the people of Pakistan overlook these atrocities, and the UN remains silent on the issue, the persecution will continue. More Pakistanis need to come out in solidarity with the Hazaras and pressure the government to disband militant groups such as the LeJ. The Pakistani media must realize that the fight against extremism is a bigger issue than, say, Imran Khan’s shenanigans and work to shape the public discourse. The HRW has proposed that the Pakistani government disarm and hold accountable militant groups. It is high time that the Pakistani state ends its links with these militant outfits. The HRW has also appealed to Pakistan’s external partners, including the US and the EU, to press on the Pakistani state to uphold its responsibilities and to extend law enforcement assistance to the country. It is imperative that the United States and other major powers realize that they cannot continue to claim to be defenders of human rights and at the same time conveniently ignore the evils being funded by their allies in the Arab world.
In 1948, a critically ill man, known as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was flown from Quetta to Karachi. His ambulance broke down, and he waited for an hour for a replacement to come. If he had been facing the same situation today, it is possible the wait would have been even longer. To paraphrase the Pakistani journalist Mohammad Hanif, what is more likely though is that he would have been offloaded, asked for his ID, and shot for being a Shia Muslim.
This man was the founder of Pakistan. Would the LeJ have let him live?
The plight of the Hazaras signifies how Pakistan lost its way and became something its founding fathers certainly did not envision it to be.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article did not give attribution to Mohammad Hanif as a source for this article. DPR regrets and has corrected this error.