KARACHI, Aug 26, 2011 (IPS) – Rukhsana Ahmed finds comfort visiting her husband Ahmed Ali Najfi’s grave. “I feel at peace there,” says the 60-year-old widow, mother of four and member of the Shia Hazara community.
What disturbs her moments of peace is the increasing number of fresh graves of the Hazaras in Quetta, capital of Balochistan province, where some 550,000 members of the minority community are concentrated.
“It was September of 2009. My husband was going to his factory when he was ambushed by five armed, masked men who sprayed him with bullets and then fled,” recalled the widow, speaking with IPS over phone from Quetta.
The killers of 63-year-old Najfi were apprehended. They belonged to the banned Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). “The killer admitted publicly that he killed my husband because he was a Shia,” said Rukhsana. “He even flashed a victory sign!”
Shias of all ethnicities account for about 20 percent of Pakistan’s 160 million, Sunni-majority population.
The LeJ, which has strong ties with the Al-Qaeda and Tehrik e-Taliban Pakistan, is a sworn enemy of the Shia sect and considers its members to be apostates.
The LeJ has a declared agenda of ridding Pakistan of all Shias who include the 966,000 Hazaras, descendents of Mongols who were part of Genghis Khan’s armies.
Eliminating Pakistan’s Hazaras follows a pattern in which they were persecuted in neighbouring Afghanistan under Taliban rule from 1995 until 2001, when they were ousted by invading U.S. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) forces.
The Hazaras of Pakistan fled Afghanistan some 120 years ago when they faced an earlier round of persecution from the dominant Sunni Pashtun tribes. In Pakistan, they were well received and rose to hold important positions in the government.
Today, however, the Hazaras are being persecuted in Pakistan because of their ethnicity and their history of conflict with Sunnis.
“The same game played over a century ago to force Hazaras out of Afghanistan is being replayed. Religion is used as a tool to persecute them,” says Irfan Ali of the Human Rights Commission on Social Justice and Peace in Quetta.
“We are easily distinguished because of our (Mongol) features and physical attributes,” says Abdul Khaliq, a prominent Hazara politician and leader of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP).
Hazaras also speak Persian, rather than Balochi, Pashto or Urdu, Pakistan’s national language.
Anti-Shia violence reached a high in July. On Jul. 10, two people were killed and 11 injured when armed men ambushed a bus carrying Shia pilgrims to Iran. On Jul. 30, 18 Shias, including a woman, were shot dead in Quetta. Eleven of the victims were Hazaras.
Earlier, on Jun. 16, Syed Abrar Hussain Shah, a Hazara boxer who represented Pakistan in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, was shot dead in Quetta.
“We are attending one funeral after another and there is no stopping it,” said Khaliq, whose predecessor as HDP chief, Hussain Ali Yusufi, was assassinated by the LeJ in 2008.
Over the years, says Rukhsana, the provincial general secretary of the women’s wing of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, the cream of the community has been systematically eliminated. In the last 10 years, some 500 Hazaras have been killed in Balochistan and over 1,500 have suffered injuries.
“If you look at the list of those killed, you will find it includes doctors, engineers, teachers, students, politicians and even ordinary shopkeepers and vendors. Not a single person had any political affiliation,” said Khaliq.
Three months ago, on May 18, Mohammad Ali, 45, a vegetable vendor, was going to the market in a pickup along with 12 others when masked gunmen opened fire on the van, killing seven. “My father was among the dead,” said Asadullah, a cobbler and the eldest of Ali’s seven children.
Today an unlettered Asadullah, who earns a mere Pakistani rupees 200 (2.30 dollars) a day, feeds 11 mouths in his family.
“We are a liberal, open-minded and educated community, compared to the Baloch and Pashtuns,” said Rukhsana. According to Amjad Hussain, a correspondent with Dawn News, a private television channel, young Hazaras do not see any future in Pakistan and are steadily migrating.
“Till a few years back, many were fleeing to Australia, via Indonesia. Of late, though, the interior ministry has directed the Indonesian embassy to stop issuing visas to Hazaras,” he said.
Hussain believes that pro-Taliban lobbies (including Pakistan’s intelligence agencies that backed the Taliban initially) are penalising the Hazaras for colluding with the Northern Alliance and the U.S. army in Afghanistan.
It is also possible that members of the defeated Taliban who found refuge in Balochistan province, after fleeing Afghanistan, may be taking their revenge on the community.
The Shia and Hazara killings, and growing insecurity among Pakistan’s biggest minority sect, have failed to draw the attention of the state or media.
“Hazara killings do not make headlines because Balochistan is sandwiched between the big story of Baloch nationalism and the alleged Taliban presence in Balochistan,” says Malik Siraj Akbar, a young Baloch journalist.
Akbar added: “Although the HDP has always stood behind Baloch and Pashtun nationalists during hard times, they have never condemned the persecution of Hazaras.”
At the same time, said Akbar, the Islamic political party, the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), an important partner in the coalition ruling Balochistan, has never condemned the killings of Hazaras or Shias.
Khaliq said his party has tried but failed to get Islamabad to act against the ethnic cleansing.
“All they come up with are hollow words of regret after each death. They can stop the killings instantly, if they want to do it. We cannot accept their words of comfort anymore,” he said.
By Zofeen Ebrahim