03 August, 2011

By Zia Ur Rehman


The rise in sectarian violence in Balochistan is forcing its Persian-speaking Shia community to flee to safer places in the country. 

After a brief pause, sectarian violence is once again on the rise in Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan province in Pakistan. In the last few months, at least 41 people, all belonging to the Hazara minority which follows the Shia sect of Islam, have been killed in separate targeted attacks.

Photo: Metrix X, flickr

A few days ago, 14 Hazaras were gunned to death in the city in two separate attacks. In mid-July, two Hazara government officials had been shot dead by unknown assailants, while a month before that Director of Pakistan Sports Board, Syed Abrar Hussain Shah, a three-time Olympics representative from Pakistan, had been similarly murdered. The month of June saw two dead and 11 others injured when a group of armed men ambushed a bus carrying Hazara pilgrims to Iran. In May, 14 Hazaras, including a little baby, were killed in two separate attacks, one of which was a well-coordinated rocket attack. An independent news source states that over 200 Shias have been killed in Balochistan in the last three years.

The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned sectarian organisation, allegedly linked with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda and other Afghan Taliban groups, has claimed the responsibility for these killings. After the death of the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, the LeJ vowed to avenge his killing by targeting not only Pakistan’s government officials and security forces but also its Hazara community. Recently, threatening letters have been widely distributed in Quetta, warning the Hazaras to prepare for more fatal attacks, which the LeJ calls a jihad similar to the one carried out against Hazaras in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule.

The Hazaras in Afghanistan, the third-largest ethnic group in the country, were heavily oppressed during the Taliban regime. Massacres in large numbers were carried out in the provinces of Bamiyan, Ghazni and Balkh, as the Taliban suspected that the Hazaras collaborated with the Afghan Northern Alliance, an organisation fighting the Taliban regime at the time. Experts on militancy issues believe that the Taliban had help in the killings from the LeJ and its mother organisation, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

Hazaras in Balochistan, however, had been left alone at the time, with the onset of targeted killings seen only after the Taliban were ousted from power. When the Taliban rule collapsed, so did the al-Qaeda-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and other jihadi groups, the blame for which was placed on the Pakistani Hazaras for allegedly colluding with the Americans and aiding in their ultimate downfall. As the city became a major hub for the defeated Taliban groups, it also provided a new vent for the expression of the Taliban hatred towards the Hazaras.

‘Apart from being ideological opposites,’ says Abdul Khaliq, head of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP), ‘the Taliban have historic bitterness against the Hazaras, killing, according to an Amnesty International report, some 12,000 Hazaras in central Afghanistan.’ This bitterness, coupled with mere conjectures on the Hazaras’ collusion with the American and NATO forces, he adds, is now leading the Pakistani militants groups, especially the LeJ, to murder the Hazaras in Quetta.

Poor government response 
The LeJ is regarded as Pakistan’s fiercest Sunni extremist outfit and is accused of killing hundreds of Shias since its emergence in 1996. Usman Saifullah Kurd and Dawood Badini are believed to be heading the LeJ network in Quetta. Both of them had been apprehended by the Karachi police (Kurd in 2002 and Badini in 2004) and subsequently handed over to the Balochistan police. However, in 2008, they managed to escape from the Anti-Terrorist Forces headquarters at the Quetta cantonment. Apart from their involvement in suicide attacks on Shia religious processions, mosques and on Shia imams, the two are accused of killing dozens of professionals, police cadets and political activists, a majority of whom belonged to the Hazara community.

‘The Hazaras have been at the receiving end of violence for almost a decade now,’ says Amjad Hussain, a senior journalist, ‘but, not surprisingly, their plight remains largely unknown. And the culprits remain at large, and are encouraged by either the state’s participation or its indifference.’Abdul Khaliq agrees, saying that the increase in militancy in Balochistan is not solely the result of social unrest but also a clear indication of bad governance. ‘The LeJ claims the killings of Hazaras, and the government claims to have arrested the suspects, but the alleged attackers are never brought before the public or any court of law,’ he says. In 2009, HDP’s then-chairman Hussain Ali Yousafi was assassinated and the killers are yet to be identified.

The government’s failure at tackling the militants involved in sectarian violence has forced the Hazara community members to leave Quetta city for safer places like Karachi and Islamabad. Apart from threatening letters issued by the LeJ, which order them to leave Quetta city by 2012, the Hazaras have been the subject ofvitriolic speeches against Shias by religious clerics belonging to banned militants’ outfits. The intelligence agencies are believed to be aware about the whereabouts of all militant outfits including the LeJ, and yet the banned outfits publicly operate under new names. It is also believed that members of the Afghan Taliban leadership council are based in Quetta and/or in the neighbouring areas, but the Pakistani government continues to deny such reports.

Despite a long history of sectarian killings in Balochistan, especially in Quetta, the government has failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. Whatever the ultimate motive is, and whatever the politics involved, fanning such sectarian violence in Balochistan is destroying the centuries-long ethnic harmony. The recent killings only further widened the gulf between the Sunnis and Shias, pitting the Shia Hazaras against the local Pashtuns and other Baloch ethnic communities. While the government and its law enforcement agencies might not condone such attacks, their inefficacy in prosecuting the guilty displays a sense of lack of urgency in defeating the terrorist outfits. And this only serves these organisations’ objective of converting progressive and liberal Balochistan into a religious and Talibanised province.

~ Zia Ur Rehman is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Karachi.