By Mohammed Hanif
October 22, 2017
2012 was a bad year for the Hazara community in southern Pakistan. The community had been devastated by a series of targeted killings and suicide attacks. Even their future protectors weren’t safe. Police cadets belonging to the Hazara community had been targeted and killed, mid-ranking police officers belonging to the community had been assassinated.
That year I interviewed a leader of the Hazara Shia community in Quetta about the future prospects for the Hazaras. Abdul Qayyam Changezi was weary of attending funerals of his loved ones. It’s a small community concentrated in parts of Quetta so chances were that, whenever someone got killed, he either knew them or their family. Changezi had a desperate solution to save his people.
“It’s quite obvious that the government and security agencies are either not interested in protecting us, or are unable to do so,” he spoke in measured sentences without anger, as if trying to argue his way out of a mass murder. “The government should sell everything we own. Our houses, our businesses, the furniture in our houses, our pots and pans, every single thing. With that money they should buy a large ship and put all of us on that ship and push us out into the open sea. Surely there is one country somewhere out there in the world that will take us.”
The ship of Changezi’s imagination already existed and was plying its human cargo in the rough seawaters between Indonesia and Australia.
Since 2008, when the attacks against the Hazara community increased, Hazaras had been selling off their houses and businesses in search of that mythical ship. Many ended up in Malaysia and Indonesia from where they could pay four to six thousand US dollars to get on a boat that would take them to places such as Australia and New Zealand. The journey could last 50 to 60 hours and, in the words of one Hazara who attempted the journey more than six times, you either reached the promised land or became fish fodder.
The worse was yet to come.
If Hazaras thought they were having trouble coping with an atrocious year in 2012, the following year turned out to be the stuff of nightmares. Hazaras were being target-killed, their places of worship had become death traps, their community elders had been systematically eliminated.
The year 2013 became the year of mass murder. In the first two months of the year two huge blasts killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. The brutality of the mass murders was only matched by the cruel half-hearted response of the Pakistani state.
In February 2013, Hazaras refused to bury hundreds of their dead. In the bitter cold nights of winter, they sat on the streets with the coffins of their family members and friends, demanding justice, demanding protection. There were protests across the country and roads were blocked in major cities. The Pakistani government made vague promises of providing protection and managed to convince the community to hold funerals and bury their dead.
But during these protests one thing became clear: Hazaras stood alone. The only people who turned up at the protests in solidarity were the other non-Hazara members of the Shia community. Some politicians and civil society activists did show up but the level of apathy was as brutal as the bloodbath itself.
For most Pakistanis in big cities where the protests took place, Hazaras were being nothing more than a nuisance and disrupting traffic and causing delays in their daily commute. It was the same logic that their killers used to target them. It seemed that the whole country was a silent spectator, if not a cheerleader to this ongoing atrocity.
When it became clear that Hazara killings will not end in Pakistan any time soon, when it became obvious that the very people tasked with protecting citizens were facilitating their killers, the exodus began. Some Hazaras moved to other parts of the country. But the Hazara’s cursed fate is in their face. Descendents of Central Asian immigrants, they are immediately recognisable in any part of the Pakistan.
There are debates amongst human rights activists over whether Hazara genocide is ethnic or sectarian. Senior police officials often claim that Hazaras are targeted routinely because they look different. Most Hazaras have Central Asian features and they have been historically targeted in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of their ethnicity.
If you were a Hazara in Pakistan, you were a marked person. If death didn’t catch you in a bomb blast, it would come in the shape of a bullet in the back of your head.
According to some historians, in the 19th century almost half the population of Hazaras in Afghanistan was massacred. Law enforcers seem to suggest that, somehow if Hazaras didn’t look different, maybe, they will be spared. But that is not strictly true. There are many Hazaras from mixed marriages who don’t look any different, and they are still targeted. Their killers tracked them down in Karachi and killed them.
If you were a Hazara in Pakistan, you were a marked person. If death didn’t catch you in a bomb blast, it would come in the shape of a bullet in the back of your head. It didn’t matter if you worked for the police or any security agencies, it didn’t matter if you were an Olympian boxer or a famous TV actor or a much loved school teacher; all were on an arbitrary death row.
Hazara businessmen closed their shops and stayed home. Hazara government employees were told not to turn up for work and reassured that they would keep getting their salaries. Hazara university-going students abandoned their education and loitered around their neighbourhood streets. The lucky ones sold their houses and businesses and ended up in Malaysia and Indonesia, hoping to make it to Australia.
Ships to Nowhere
I met Haji Shabbir on the outskirts of Bogor, Indonesia, the hub of Hazara refugees from Pakistan. Thousands of Hazara refugees have been living and waiting here for three to four years, hoping to get asylum in a Western country. Haji Shabbir was one of those people who almost got lucky.
“We got on the boat and it travelled for about 40 hours and then the engine developed a problem,” says Shabbir. “The boat owners had given us a satellite phone so we called for a rescue and they brought us back to Jakarta and detained us in a hotel.”
At night they all escaped. Either Indonesian police had no interest in keeping them or some bribe exchanged hands. Another attempt in a boat was aborted after about 16 hours.
“Once I had to take this boat and I got stuck in the traffic and the boat left without me,” adds Shabbir. “In total I made six attempts and four years later, I am still here.”
While Hazaras were flocking from Pakistan to take the boat that promised to take them to safety, the Australian government changed its policy and announced that it would not accept any refugees arriving through boat. Their cases were now to be processed off-shore.
The Australian government also published advertisements in Pakistani newspapers and on internet portals, in half a dozen languages, warning refugees not to attempt the boat journey. In order to prove that they were serious about this new policy, they deported vulnerable individuals and minors who had boarded the boat and reached Australian shores.
The town of Bogor outside Jakarta and its surrounding areas have become a purgatory of sorts for Hazara refugees. All they can talk about is the status of their asylum case, even though there is little to talk about as most of them have no clue at what stage their case is. They can seek a counseling appointment with one of the UN officials where they are always told the same thing: “We are waiting, you should also wait.”
This waiting game can tire some people out. After spending three-and-a-half years in Bogor, Haji Shabbir decided that he had waited enough. “If I have to die I might as well go back to Quetta and confront my fate,” he says. He contacted the UN representatives and told them that he was withdrawing his asylum application. “If you choose to go back, the UN pays for your return ticket. I told my family and they said ‘Muharram is coming and people are trying to run away from Quetta, what kind of unlucky man are you that you are returning to Quetta!’” Haji Shabbir stuck to his decision. Then, in the middle of Moharram, when the security in Quetta is as tight as it can get, four Hazara women were shot dead while travelling in a bus. Shabbir cancelled his ticket and decided to stay put as a refugee.
Killers Are Us
What do Pakistan’s security agencies do when Hazaras are targeted? In Bogor I met Mama, a refugee who has been waiting for his fate to be decided for the past three-and-a-half years. He is a former security official from Quetta who insists on remaining anonymous and says that he should be referred to as Mama. He saw the unfolding of carnage after carnage from inside and felt utterly helpless.
Mama joined the Frontier Constabulary (FC) as a computer operator and served for four years. Later, his duties included managing the media for the paramilitary force that, along with the police and army, is tasked with maintaining law and order in Quetta city as well as the entire province of Balochistan. “FC probably has had as many people killed as Hazaras,” says Mama. “We were totally helpless. Every time Hazaras got killed, FC went after Baloch insurgents rather than targeting the actual culprits.”
He was part of many meetings and raids that took place after every major incident against the Hazaras. “In these meetings it was often said that Hazaras are rioting again rather than discussing how to protect them. After every major incident, we raided villages and rounded up dozens of Baloch youth who clearly had no hand in these attacks.
It became a vicious cycle.
First, Hazaras would be targeted and then Baloch communities would be raided. Even when they managed to arrest the actual suspects, they were handed over to the Anti Terrorist Force, they were held in lock-ups inside the military cantonment and they managed to escape these lock ups.”
Like Mama, many Hazara refugees and independent journalists believe there’s a nexus between Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agencies and the sectarian militias that have been accused of Hazara killings. A sub-inspector in the civilian intelligence agency Special Branch, who left his job to seek asylum after his police officer cousins were shot dead, claims he saw this complicity first-hand. “We chased two terrorists after a targeted attack in Quetta,” he told me. “They were on a motorbike, they drove up to the cantonment gate and disappeared. We told the military guys that two terrorists have just entered your area and we are chasing them. We were asked for our identity cards and then told in stern terms to turn back and never mention the incident to anyone.”
I had heard such stories second-hand before, it was the first time someone had claimed directly to have been himself involved in such an experience.
FC veteran Mama believes that ordinary soldiers have nothing to do with the sectarian attacks. “A law-enforcement agency cannot afford to have a religion. Ordinary soldiers have no clue what’s going on around them. It’s a section of intelligence agencies who patronise these sectarian groups. They are out of control. We have no idea where they take their orders from. It was obvious they [the sectarian groups] were taking money from Gulf [groups] who want to target Shias.”
When Maliha Ali left Pakistan, she was preparing for her ‘O’-Level exams. For the past three-and-a-half years, she has been living in Cisarua, outside Bogor, with her family and has no way of continuing with her examinations. Her father, Liaquat Ali Changezi, a former TV actor and documentary producer, decided to leave Quetta along with his family when many of his close colleagues were killed.
“There came a time when the school administration told me not to send my kids to school because they were putting the entire school at risk,” says Changezi. He was also asked by the Quetta TV manager not to show up at the office because it put his other colleagues at risk.
Having spent more than three-and-a-half years in Bogor waiting for his asylum application to be processed, Changezi feels these are years that have been taken out of his life. His daughter Maliha feels the same.
“These were the most important years of my life, I should be studying, preparing for the future, but we are sitting here waiting for some country to take us in so that we can start a new life,” says Maliha.
The biggest challenge that Hazara refugees face in Indonesia is that they are not allowed to work and, even worse, they are not allowed to attend schools. A whole generation of Hazara children is at the risk of remaining illiterate. With the help of other refugees, Changezi has set up a centre where young children can be given elementary education by Hazara volunteers.
There are a couple of other such centres which have become community hubs where people can bring their families and seek counselling.
Maliha is a volunteer teacher at one such centre. “Sometimes I think it’s ironic that I am at an age where I should be attending a school myself but instead I have become a teacher.” Then she becomes wistful about her time in Quetta and tries to console herself. “At least we can play football here. We couldn’t play in Quetta.”
Mohammed Hanif is an author and journalist. His new novel Red Birds comes out in September 2018