Photograph by Mahvish Ahmad.
For our fiftieth issue, Naheed Mustafa visited Pakistan’s Hazara Town, home to an oppressed Hazara community, where bombs and targeted killings have become nearly commonplace. In “Up Against the Wall,” she reports on the contrast between locals’ hopelessness and the necessity of continuing on with daily life. We spoke to the journalist and broadcaster about reporting on Hazara Town.
Rhiannon Russell: In your story, it’s clear tensions have been building in Pakistan’s Hazara Town and Balochistan province for a couple of years now, but particularly so in recent months. How did you hear about what was going on there—was it something you’d been following in the news for some time before you decided to write about it?
Naheed Mustafa: Part of it is following it in the news and then part of it is my own background is in Pakistan, just in terms of my ethnic background, my heritage background, and so it’s a place I’m familiar with and I go back and forth quite a bit. So it was on my radar both in a news sense but also keeping up with the politics of what’s happening in a place that I have a lot of attachment to.
RR: What drew you to the story of the persecuted Hazara community in Pakistan?
NM: It’s something that’s been unfolding for quite some time. The problems there are quite diverse and complex and in Balochistan province itself, you’ll see that there are a wide variety of issues that are going on. The attacks on the Hazara community are something that’s been going on for a while, but I think what really cemented the attention in the last little while is that there have been these really huge attacks on the community and it’s not a community that fights back. Which is not to say that the communities that fight back are less, but rather it really does seem that here’s a community that really keeps to itself, contributes in a way that it can and there’s really not a lot of help coming their way. They don’t have too many people standing up for them, they’re not a community that’s associated with violence coming out from that community and … there’s not a lot of political support for their community as well.
So it just felt like, here was something that was going on that wasn’t getting a lot of attention and it was really sad. Especially those two large truck attacks—the bombings from the tanker trucks—it was really sad to see what they were going through and then when the people in the community staged the protest where they refused to bury their dead, I think it was a really visceral kind of thing. When you saw the footage on TV and when you read about it, it really was unprecedented in terms of taking that kind of action and it felt different than the reactions to other kinds of similar attacks. So it was just something that I’d been following and I thought well, it would be interesting to see what’s actually happening in the community by going and visiting them.
RR: How much could you do before you left for Pakistan, in terms of lining up sources and interviews?
NM: Quite a bit, actually. Basically, in terms of connections, I was talking to a few people via Twitter, following their updates. Some of the people were actually in Hazara Town, a couple of the people were in Australia because—I wouldn’t say there’s a large community, I mean it’s a very small community anyway, but in terms of the numbers there’s quite a representation in Australia, people who’ve gone there as refugees—and so, there were a couple of people in Australia who were also writing about this. They’re from the community in Hazara Town. And there was another guy who is now in Sweden, I think it is. So just between these three areas, I basically got an opportunity to talk to a few people and then find some sources. The two men I met up with while I was there, I was introduced to them by someone in Australia who knew them personally, and one of them is a reporter. He works as a journalist, so he was obviously really well-versed in the whole thing, and he’d also been working part-time for the BBC, so I was able to make some connections that way. Then of course in terms of the stories, the people I actually talked to when I got there, I met them when I was there. I didn’t know any of them before I got there, but I did know the two main people. They were able to take me around.
RR: How valuable was it to have those two locals, Changezi and Qadir Nayel, meet up with you and show you around?
NM: It was invaluable. I know I would not have been able to move around the way that I did if I hadn’t met up with them, and that’s kind of the way that I do things anyway. When I’m going to a place, I always connect with somebody locally because there’s only so much you can understand about a story sitting that far away. There’s only so much insight you can get, because obviously you’re relying on someone else’s understanding of that story to get an understanding, unless you know someone directly there, and so it’s not just about being able to move around but it’s about being able to understand what’s happening, to get those insights that you wouldn’t get otherwise just from consuming news reports. Without those two individuals, I don’t think the story would have been anywhere near what it was.
RR: What safety precautions, if any, did you take while there?
NM: I mostly relied on my local contacts to read the situation for me. My advantage, of course, is that because I have a background in the country, I look like I’m from there because I am from there and I speak the local language, so I’m not necessarily a foreigner travelling in the area. But, obviously just in terms of the safety situation, one of the issues with that type of place is it’s not an obvious conflict zone. It’s not like you’re walking into a war zone where you can say, these are the dangers and this is how we know it plays out. The attacks in the area are unpredictable, so for me it was mostly relying on my local contacts. I was actually supposed to go three weeks before I ended up going, but when I was planning to leave, one of my sources on the ground said, you know what, it’s not a good time. There’s some security operations going on and roads are blocked off and moving around is kind of hard, so it’ll probably be difficult. Don’t come now anyway, it’s just not a good time. So I ended up delaying the trip. My safety precaution was primarily relying on local contacts to tell me what the situation was.
RR: What was it like having both the experience of travelling around town and hearing people’s horrific stories then going back to Changezi’s house, like a safe haven, at the end of each day? Was that a strange contrast or was it necessary for you for balance?
NM: It always throws you off, I think, when you’re in a situation where people are feeling very desperate and you’re able to retreat to a very safe space. I think that that always feels odd and it puts you off-balance a little bit. It makes you a little bit uneasy as well, when you’re back in your own place of safety, because I think it just makes you more keenly aware of what other people are going through. And then at the same time, you feel spoiled, right? You feel like, what are you contributing, really? You’re there and you’re writing about people’s lives and then you get to go home. It always feels a little strange.
In terms of staying at his house, it does feel weird because you feel like you’re suddenly shielded from all of the problems, but at the same time, intellectually, you realize that you’re going to leave but, at the end of the day, these people are still—like him and his family—they’re still exposed to the violence. They live right there. He works in the community. I’m Facebook friends with both of the men who were my local contacts and part of the reason I wanted to do that and I was happy they sent those friend requests was that I can keep up with them and make sure they’re okay. But at the same time, you’re trying to normalize something that isn’t necessarily normal. Of course, the kinds of things that they post on their pages, it’s in keeping with the reality in their life. It can be very violent and conflicted, and here you are posting about things that are happening in your comfortable, Canadian life. It can be kind of disconcerting and I think it throws into sharp relief the idea that you think you’re doing this really important work, or at least that’s what it feels like sometimes, but then you realize that it’s really nothing compared to the strain of the people that you’re profiling, the strain that they live under. Your own discomfort is nothing compared to how they live on a regular basis.
RR: I suppose that’s really the case with any kind of foreign reporting on conflict. You know that you’re going to be leaving at the end of the day and the people that you’re writing about are still going to be there, facing these same problems.
NM: Yeah, and I suppose you also feel, at least I do, you feel a little bit guilty too, right? You feel like you’re using them, you’re using their experience to write about something and bring that story to people, but at the end of the day, what does it really mean? Are you really changing anything? Maybe you’re informing a few people here and there about something they didn’t know about, but it doesn’t really change anything, so it feels a bit wasted in a way, sometimes. You’re going there and people are spending time with you and they’re explaining things to you and they’re taking you around and people are telling you their stories, and then you write it up and you move on to the next thing. It feels a bit fraudulent, sometimes.
RR: What did you find most challenging about reporting this piece?
NM: I think for me the biggest challenge was just trying to make sure I was being honest about it. Not honest in the sense of telling it truthfully, but rather getting across the emotion of it, and getting across to the reader how desperate the feeling is there. I think that was the hardest thing for me, to make sure that the story I was telling was a sufficiently accurate depiction of the desperation that I saw, without making it sound like people are asking for anything. Because they’re not. Nobody asked me for anything. Nobody even said, take this story out or let people know. There was none of that. People are living in the most dignified way that they can and trying to carry on with their day-to-day lives and I felt like the biggest challenge was just to tell that accurately and to portray that in a way that did them justice and did their story justice.
In terms of the other challenges, the logistics and that, I think that’s par for the course when you’re working in places where there are security problems and where you have issues with authorities and that kind of thing. That sort of challenge is always there, but I think that that’s probably what I felt was the hardest part of it—just trying to be fair to the people that are in my story.
This interview has been condensed.