By Fouzia Nasir Ahmad
26 January, 2014
It was Jan 13, 2013, when 21-year-old Altaf Hussain was on his way to the dharna outside Bilawal House, Karachi to protest against Hazara killings in Quetta. “How can the rest of the world go on with their daily business, when such a terrible incident has happened to us?” he thought? “Why doesn’t the world stop after so many people have been killed?”
Hussain belongs to the Hazara community of Quetta, a city where he has spent most of his young life. “After completing my intermediate at the Tameer-i-Nau Public College in Quetta, I took a year off as things became dramatically worse for Hazaras. One day my father said to me: ‘you can’t live your life like this’. I then decided to move to Karachi with the sole purpose of continuing my education as it was impossible to do that in Quetta.”
While the Alamdar Road massacre projected the plight of the Hazara onto the national consciousness, it was by no means the beginning of the pogroms against this community.
“I remember that a long time back I was with my father at Sariab Road and he wanted me to wear dark glasses to cover my eyes. I was annoyed even though I knew that anybody can tell from our eyes that we are Hazara.
Later I realised why my father was saying that. He always wore glasses himself. Not long ago, I had to go to the Board Office in Quetta and I covered my face. I wasn’t happy doing this but I knew that this way I would be safer. Things have changed for us over time.”
The year 2008 was a turning point for Pakistan’s Hazaras, when individuals from the community began to be targeted regularly. “Government officials from our community, professionals and even police officers were killed,” recalls Hussain. “There was an incident in Jinnah Town, and then two people were killed on Samundari Road. Wherever they would see a Hazara person, they would kill him,” said Hussain.
While the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi has claimed credit for the mass casualty attacks, Hussain suspects there are also those who are seeking to exploit the situation.
“When killings are rampant, other elements take advantage too, so anyone threatened by Hazara businessmen also thought it was good opportunity to get rid of them under the umbrella of sectarian killings. For instance, the owner of a shop on Sariab Road did good business and he was targeted. Since the past five or six years, Hazara traders, who were mostly mobile phone distributors have been completely removed from the main bazaars like Sariab Road and from outside the market areas”.
Indeed, the Hazara are clearly being pushed into increasingly ghettoised neighbourhoods.
“Mehrabad in the east, and Hazara Town, are the two main Hazara pockets in Quetta,” says Hussain. “The suburbs of Quetta, like Mastung, are dangerous while Sariab Road is prohibited for us. Sectarian groups there have also targeted security personnel and even FC can’t move freely. There are two routes out of Hazara town: Kirani Road and Spinney Road, and Kirani road is blocked for us. It is open for everyone else but FC personnel does not allow Hazaras to take that road because it is risky. Everybody cannot afford private transport or taxis and people prefer to take a bus to get into town. But we can’t do that anymore.”
What astounds him is that in both Hazara Town and Mehrabad, FC personnel are present at all entry points, yet explosive material and suicide bombers managed to enter through the check posts. “If I carry a gun for my protection, I will be thoroughly checked and my arms recovered by FC but it seems that not everybody is checked. There has to be a security lapse somewhere,” says Hussain.
For Hazaras, it is not just routes but their entire association with the larger community that has been sealed.
“Earlier, we would allow outsiders to come inside our localities for water supply through tankers and sanitation purposes but now we have our own people to do that. As a community, we are cut off from the rest of Quetta. No one can travel by bus anymore and around 60 per cent of students do not go to schools and colleges anymore. It is really sad because our community is very keen on education and despite being a minority, Hazara people used to have a record participation in educational activities. I would have liked my brothers to go to the same college that I went to but it is not possible now.”
For such a small, and tightly-knit community, the attacks almost always hit close to home. “The Alamdar Road incident was not far from our house and when it happened, all I could think was how close to it my family was and how I could have lost my mother.” When the Sardar Bahadur Khan University for Women was attacked by terrorists, his sister was two buses away. After the incident her education was discontinued. She was so traumatised that I could not speak to her about it for three weeks. Our localities used to be very pleasant for any visitor. Now we can’t socialise freely with friends outside our locality. We are small minority, so even if 10 people are killed, it is a huge incident for us and each one of us gets affected.”
For Hussain, Karachi offers a respite. “We don’t have the same opportunities in Quetta. In Karachi, life is more normal for us and people are a little bit sympathetic. Here, we are not identified as Hazaras. People think we could be Chinese or Baltis”. He paused and smiled. “A friend of mine who is a charming fellow enjoys posing as a Chinese sometimes just for fun”. There are other differences as well.
“There are days one is completely despondent but then, we see a positive social response like the Bilawal House dharna. We would never see that in Quetta, but in Karachi, even Sunnis joined us. It gives us tremendous hope.”
His described how his fellow students in Karachi have a completely different exposure to him. “They are amazed to hear what I have been through in my life. They are your regular ‘burger types’ and have never seen dead bodies, blood or the victims of bomb blasts. I feel that the youth of Pakistan should know about the Hazara, their history, culture and the present situation because to live and work together, they must trust each other, and to be able to trust each other, you have to know each other”.