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Up Against the Wall Mahvish Ahmad

Up Against the Wall

Amid deadly attacks, Pakistan's Hazara community is closing in on itself.

HAJI NADIR RAZAIE LIFTS A FINGER AND POINTS TO THE BRICK WALL that snakes past his front porch in Hazara Town, a community in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The wall, about twenty feet from the shop owner’s home, stands ten feet high. “One morning I left for work, the same as I always did,” he tells me. “I took my normal route out of Hazara Town and went into the city to my store. When I came back at the end of the day, I took the same road back toward my home. I nearly crashed into that brick wall.”

The wall separates Hazara Town from its neighbouring communities in Quetta. It went up in February 2013, after a bomb killed almost one hundred people in a busy market here. The Frontier Corps came into Hazara Town and built the wall in a matter of hours.

Balochistan province, in southwestern Pakistan, is a perfect storm of chaos and instability. A separatist insurgency, terrorism, sectarian militants, drug lords, tribal conflict, corrupt cops, the Pakistan military and paramilitary all contribute to the violence that convulses the region on a daily basis. Bullet-riddled bodies bearing signs of torture are dumped in the streets; political activists are “disappeared”; tribal leaders backed by massive firepower carve out fiefdoms and lord over their land. But evenwithin this toxic mix of extraordinary violence, there’s a perceived hierarchy of egregiousness, and the systematic targeting of Hazaras—an ethnic and sectarian minority—is widely regarded as the most undeserved of all the undeserved killing.

Mr. Changezi and Qadir Nayel are like tour guides of the macabre: “You see that spot there?” they ask. “That’s where gunmen shot up a car and killed everyone inside.” They had picked me up from the airport in Quetta and we were heading to Hazara Town, about twenty-five minutes away from the city’s centre. Nayel helpfully pointed out that if we went in the opposite direction we’d soon hit the Afghan border.

It was a sweltering day, nothing to run interference between us and the relentless sun. The car windows were rolled down and the air was hot and dry.

My guided tour hopped from site to site of death and mayhem. The Frontier Corps—a federal paramilitary force—has checkpoints at regular intervals. “This is where the FC shot and killed those people they said were Chechen suicide bombers,” Nayel said, pointing out the window as we slowed down. It turned out the five—who were killed back in May of 2011 and included a woman who was seven months pregnant—were neither Chechens nor suicide bombers. The doctor who performed the autopsies countered the official version of the story and was later shot dead.
Changezi (who asked that his full name be omitted from the piece due to safety concerns) is a social worker, full-faced with a moustache and an easy-going manner. His work centers on migration, increasingly important given the number of Hazaras fleeing Pakistan and seeking refuge in other countries, especially Australia. Nayel is clean-shaven and serious. He’s a journalist and well-known poet, writing his verse in Hazaragi, the dialect of Persian spoken by Hazaras.
We arrive at a medical complex that had come under siege in June. A suicide bomber attacked a bus full of students from a nearby women’s university. Fourteen students were killed. When the injured were taken to hospital, militants from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an al-Qaeda affiliated anti-Shia terror group, attacked the casualty ward. By day’s end, another eleven people were dead.
The university is now barricaded, its boundary walls lined with barbed wire. Gun-toting guards stand in front of the medical complex. We turn away from the complex and head toward Hazara Town. 

HAZARAS FIRST ARRIVED in Quetta from Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century, escaping the persecution they faced under King Abdur Rahman Khan. Historically, they lived in a mountainous area of central Afghanistan known as Hazarajat. Its best-known province is Bamiyan, home to the giant, sixth-century Buddha sculptures that were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. The majority of the population in the region today is still Hazara.

Ethnic identity is an important factor in how Afghans organize themselves and ethnic chauvinism has shaped the nation’s history. While Pashtuns have dominated power and politics, Hazaras have mostly been regarded as a troublesome underclass. Couple that with their status as a sectarian minority—Hazaras are mostly Shi’ite, while the vast majority of Afghans are Sunni—and discrimination has been both deep and pervasive.

The people of Hazarajat were mostly self-governed; authority was held by tribal chieftains. When King Abdur Rahman Khan decided to consolidate his hold on Afghanistan’s central and northern areas, any resistance to his state-building was fiercely put down. And so began the migration of the Hazara people into Pakistan.

There are somewhere around half a million Hazaras in Pakistan and most of them live in and around Quetta. Even in this narrow enclave, they are treated with hostility and suspicion. Like Afghans, Pakistanis are majority-Sunni, and have a highly developed sectarian consciousness. In their Shi’ism, and in their central-Asian features, Hazaras are set apart, making them easily recognizable and easily targeted.

Changezi, Nayel and I enter Hazara Town through an arched gateway. The area is home to maybe 125,000 people, the majority of whom are Hazara, all tightly packed together. The amenities, including water and sewerage, have been set up privately by the residents. Each morning, some two hundred water tankers enter the neighbourhood. (Homes in the area are not connected to the municipal water supply, so residents purchase their water privately.) The streets are mostly packed dirt, just barely wide enough for our tiny car. The buildings stand close together, mostly brick and concrete. Traffic includes cars and bikes, people of all ages, and scores of pushcarts carrying everything from toys and children’s clothes to fruits and vegetables.

In January and February of this year, two massive bombings targeted Hazara communities in Balochistan. The first took place on Alamdar Road, an older, larger Hazara settlement on the other end of Quetta. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up at a crowded snooker hall. Local residents and first responders were frantically trying to collect the dead and help the wounded, when a timer triggered explosives hidden in a vehicle, adding a second layer of carnage. More than a hundred people were killed and almost three hundred were injured.

Five weeks later, the bombing that prompted the construction of the brick wall shook Hazara Town. A water tanker full of explosives slipped past the FC checkpoint as locals went about their business, buying vegetables from the pushcarts, patronizing the dozens of tiny shops lining the street, or browsing the stores inside the two-storey plaza.

Aziz Fayyaz sells carpets on the ground level of the plaza. He recently began exporting to the dozens of people from Hazara Town who have sought refuge in Australia; when they set up house, they make sure to order carpets from their favourite shop back home. The store is glass on three sides, with hundreds of carpets rolled up and leaning against the walls. He was in the back of his store when he felt the rumble of the explosion. The noise fromthe shattering glass was so loud that it eclipsed the sound of the blast itself.

The smaller shops outside the plaza were obliterated. On the other side of the explosion, where Changezi’s parents live, the force of the blast crumpled the iron gate of their home like a piece of paper. Shards of glass from their windows flew at such a speed that they became stuck in the concrete walls of the house. There’s still one piece in the outside wall about an inch deep into the concrete. Changezi left it as a reminder. Almost one hundred people died that day; another two hundred or so were injured.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the same group that attacked the bus full of students and besieged the medical complex, claimed credit for both bombings.

THERE IS A LONG AND COMPLEX history behind Shia-Sunni relations in Pakistan. When a combined group of Sunni political parties contested the results of the 1977 elections, the military used the ensuing mass protests and violence as an excuse to grab power. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in Pakistan, deemed Sunni Islam the “correct” Islam and brought in a series of harsh Islamist policies.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was like a gift to the Sunni religious establishment in Pakistan. With massive American and Saudi funding, the Pakistani state began churning out fighters, primarily through a network of Sunni religious schools and jihadi organizations—groups that had a definite anti-Shia outlook. The men and boys coming out of these factories of jihad proved a potent fighting force against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Years later, when the war against the Soviets was over, these hardened fighters returned home with their weapons and set their sites on, among others, the Shia enemy within.

It’s long been a question why Pakistan, with its notoriously long-armed security and intelligence apparatus, doesn’t rein in these militant groups. The short answer: At first they wouldn’t, because these groups were too useful, and getting them to do the state’s bidding in places like Afghanistan and Kashmir meant turning a blind eye to their activities at home. Now, it’s nearly impossible to stop them—even when that means the violent death of scores of innocent citizens.

Human rights activists accuse the state of being, at best, willfully blind to militant activities and, at worst, colluding with them because elements within the military and intelligence services actually share goals with these groups. At this point, militant organizations are entrenched, many of them with political as well as social welfare wings. Even if there was a consensus that these groups must be uprooted, a country like Pakistan—with weak institutions, little ability to effectively combat crime and terrorism, and almost non-existent accountability—is in no position to do anything about it.

There’s a sad irony to the Hazaras’ involvement in this mess: despite living in a province that has a strong and sometimes violent history of separatism, Hazaras pride themselves on their track record of military service and patriotism. Hazaras have a fierce allegiance to a state that’s willing to bargain with their safety and dismiss their loyalty.

HAJI NADIR RAZAIE is small and wiry, with short grey hair. When I first come across him, he is sitting on a lawn chair in front of his massive house, chatting with a neighbour. Razaie came to Hazara Town about twenty-five years ago and opened an appliance store, eventually expanding his business beyond the community’s borders and joining the chamber of commerce. He says back in those days there was no tension; the various ethnic groups—the Balochs, Pashtuns, Hazaras—all got along. But security has been declining for the last decade or so, and the past two years have been particularly bad. Fear within the community has seeped outward and morphed into a fear of the community—being too close to Hazaras makes outsiders feel like targets-by-association. Razaie was forced to sell his stores in Quetta at a pittance and isolate himself inside Hazara Town. He is back to where he was twenty-five years ago.

Hazara Town abuts Faisal Town, an ethnically diverse neighbourhood. In the past, residents of both communities mixed freely. They shared streets and boundary walls and used each other’s roads as shortcuts. Razaie’s house sitson the main link road between Hazara Town and Faisal Town. But when the brick wall went up after February’s blast, Hazara Town was cut off. Razaie says he no longer talks to his Faisal Town neighbours. They no longer have a “taluq,” an Urdu word that refers not just to a sense of connection but a deeper feeling of attachment.
We sat quietly for a while and I looked at the wall. It was deep brown and sturdy, with some spray-painted graffiti and chalk images. I watched as cars drove up to it, made U-turns and drove back. Razaie gave a sad smile: “People are still not used to it.”

Just then, his youngest son walked by. He’s fourteen and works in his father’s store. He stopped and shook hands with the various men who made up our circle. I tried to make small talk but the boy didn’t have much to say. Razaie said his son has become quiet in recent days. He stopped going to school. “Even our children are silent because of the fear. When we’re out, then we don’t even talk in our language. Maybe someone will hear us and decide to shoot us in the street.”

PRIVATE EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS are increasingly important in Hazara Town, as fewer and fewer young people attend school outside the neighbourhood. Recent research shows that virtually all Hazara students have dropped out of Balochistan University’s Quetta campus. Private schools have seen similar dropout rates. It goes back to the twin fears described by Razaie—the fear within the community and the fear of the community.

There is one government-run girls’ school in Hazara Town. Normally the school has about 3,000 students. They used to have all kinds of activities—sports teams, debate society, field trips. But these days, only about half the girls show up for class. Most of them have dropped out, especially the older ones. Parents are terrified to send their children to school.

Farkhanda Fakhera is the headmistress. Her office, a large concrete room with a high ceiling, overlooks an open courtyard. Fakhera sat behind her desk in a full black headscarf and face veil. Only her eyes were visible. She doesn’t usually dress this way inside the school; there are no men here except for one ancient guard who sits outside the main gate. But I arrived with Changezi and Nayel in tow and so she put on her niqab before she sat down to speak with me.

Staff and students at the Government Girls’ School were particularly edgy the day I visited. The previous week, the guard arrived just after dawn, as usual. He opened the main gate and stepped into the courtyard, where he found a letter addressed to the headmistress. The envelope had her name on it. The letter was a threat. It greeted Fakhera with peace and then proceeded to inform her that Islam forbids girls’ education and that she needed to shut the school down in order to put an end to the immodest display. It threatened her with dire consequences and said she would be responsible if anything bad happened to the girls.

The day before I came to the school, there was a second letter waiting for the guard. This one was angrier. It told Fakhera that she had failed to heed their warning and the threat would be carried out. If she wouldn’t shut the school down, the letter writers would.

It was signed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, but Fakhera is unconvinced the group is actually behind the threats.

Still, since the first letter, she had been trying to get an appointment with the education secretary. She wanted protection for the school. It had been nine days since the first letter when I sat down to talk to her. She still hadn’t gotten a response to her request.

Fakhera is not Hazara. She’s originally from the Punjab—a “settler,” as the locals say. She drives in from Quetta each morning to take up her post. I asked her if she was concerned about the letter. She said her main concern is that the word had gotten out and now the children were even more frightened than usual.

“We have no control over our deaths. Life and death is in God’s hands. All I can do is pray for a dignified death,” says Fakhera. “I tell the children that what they are doing is a jihad. Trying to secure your education is a jihad. I have a duty to these children. It is because of them that I earn my living.” She says she understands the parents’ fears. Her own daughter was affected by the attack on the bus from the women’s university. “I tell the parents to let the girls finish their education. ‘I am here, I will do my best to protect your children.’”

I asked her to read me the threatening letters that had been left in the courtyard. She took two white envelopes from a drawer. The letters were about four lines each. She read them in a cool, measured tone. I asked her if, in light of these letters, she ever considered not coming back to the school. She said she hadn’t given it a moment’s thought.

WITH SO MANY HAZARA STUDENTS leaving the schools outside Hazara Town, there’s a big demand inside the community for all kinds of training and education. Sakhi Jahangir runs a computer-training centre in town to pay the bills. Jahangir is a musician, and used to travel around Balochistan performing, but now he mostly sticks close to home.

Jahangir is trying to hold on to his music as tightly as he can. When I went to meet him at his school, he was sitting on the floor with his fellow performers. Someone had a harmonium, another man had a set of tablas. Yet another fiddled with a keyboard, playing snippets of different melodies.

Jahangir and his group don’t perform much anymore. They mostly play small, local events. Sometimes they’ll just sit and play for each other. No one likes to hear happy music. Given all that’s happened, it felt unseemly to play and dance and sing joyful songs, he said. “Each house here has suffered a loss. Music is a part of people’s life, so it’s natural that when people’s lives are affected it affects the music too. Now the people want to hear songs about the history of the Hazara people, how we have suffered over the centuries. We sing songs about the tragedy of our people. We don’t sing love songs anymore.”

BACK IN JANUARY AND FEBRUARY, after the bombings that took some two hundred lives, members of the Hazara community staged protests. They refused to bury the remains of their dead until they could be guaranteed some measure of security.

The protests were eerily quiet. There were no angry shouts or grief-stricken wails. Family members sat in the street holding tight to coffins as the nighttime temperatures plummeted below zero. After each bombing, protestors waited four days before they buried their kin. The scenes garnered international attention and sparked rallies and vigils in all of Pakistan’s major cities.

There was a real sense in those couple of months that change would come, that somehow the violence had reached a tipping point and the widespread outrage would galvanize authorities. But Pakistanis have seen this kind of violence over and over again. People across the country have seen attacks on markets, mosques, churches, funeral processions—it’s all been done. More than 23,000 civilians and security personnel have been killed in terrorist violence in the last decade. Mass death is not new.

In response to the protests, the government announced an “operation” and police arrested one hundred and seventy suspects. The vigils ended. To date, there have been no trials. In my conversations in Hazara Town, I found that no one expected that there would be.

But one thing stands out amidst the tragedy: an absence of anger. The Hazara no doubt feel besieged and isolated, and there is a profound sense of hopelessness, but people go about their business. Hazara Town’s streets are busy with foot traffic and the bustle of daily life. Walking through the community, it’s easy to forget for a few minutes the carnage of January and February. It’s easy to forget that on a daily basis there is news of one or two or three more targeted killings of people from this community. But sadness and fear are palpable beneath the surface. Haji Nadir Razaie says the terror can be overwhelming. “We leave in the morning but we don’t know if we’ll be back in the evening. If we have to leave this place, we’ll leave, but, really, where can we go?”

DURING MY TIME IN HAZARA TOWN, I stayed in Changezi’s home with his wife and children. After my last meal with them, I watched his two-and-a-half-year-old son struggle to clean up. It was his favourite thing to do. He kept trekking in from the kitchen to pick up one thing at a time—a plate, a glass, an empty serving bowl—and haul it back to the sink. Eventually he came for a heavy glass pitcher that was still half-full of water. Changezi let him take it. The boy took tiny, careful steps, using all his effort to hold the pitcher upright. When he made it to the kitchen without spilling, his father congratulated him. He said, “If you let them accomplish small things it makes them believe they can accomplish big things.”

I remarked on the little haven he’d created for his family—the tidy modest home with the small perfect garden. He said it was all he could do to keep the daily horror at bay. After the tanker explosion in February, he spent three days picking flesh out of the rubble and dropping it into plastic bags. It was important to get it done quickly because the stray cats had started to prowl. “I try to create calm in here so I can deal with what’s out there.”