For six days at the start of the new year, hundreds of protesters from Pakistan’s Hazara ethnic community staged a vigil on a major highway in the southwestern province of Balochistan, where unknown armed assailants had killed 11 coal mine workers belonging to this minority group. With the coffins of their kin on the ground, the families of the victims refused to bury their bodies, demanding that the authorities initiate a serious effort to punish the perpetrators.
The demonstration took place in biting cold weather on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. With women and children also taking part, it was an important symbolic act of defiance against the persistent killings that target Shia Hazaras, who have suffered unprecedented and relentless sectarian violence for the past two decades. Demonstrations over the killings also spread to other Pakistani cities, including the country’s business hub, Karachi.
The sit-in was finally called off on 9 January after federal ministers, along with Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal, convinced the protesters that Prime Minister Imran Khan accepted their grievances and would meet them personally. The grieving community members had demanded that Khan visit the region to address their concerns. They had also wanted a judicial probe into the incident and the dissolution of the provincial government.
The 11 miners were sleeping at their residential compound in the Mach coalfield, about 50km east of Quetta, when gunmen attacked in the early morning hours of 3 January. The assailants pulled out the Hazara workers, blindfolded and shackled them, and executed them. Most of the victims were seasonal migrant workers from an impoverished area in neighbouring Afghanistan. The gruesome act was filmed by the perpetrators and posted online.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the killings in a post by its propaganda arm, the Amaq News Agency. A picture accompanying the claim showed two armed men standing over three bodies lying face down on the ground, with the group’s flag hanging in the background. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that as the news of the incident spread, a large number of people from the Hazara community took to the streets and disrupted traffic by putting burning tyres and rocks on the road. The protesters also did not allow officials from the local government to move the bodies.
Prayers and promises
Khan called the attack “yet another cowardly inhumane act of terrorism” and ordered the security agencies to bring the killers to justice. “I share your pain & have come to you before also to stand with you in your time of suffering,” he tweeted, adding: “I will come again very soon to offer prayers and console with all the families personally.”
The cricketer-turned-politician sent his ministers to convince the demonstrators to bury the victims and withdraw from the protest site, but they didn’t accede to this request. Khan then called on the demonstrators to refrain from “blackmailing” him – a remark that provoked widespread criticism as it was deemed “insensitive” and “lacking empathy” for the Hazaras.
Hours after the victims were finally buried, Khan visited Quetta and met with the families of the slain miners as well as members of the Hazara community, assuring them that the government would not abandon them. He also said his government had reached the conclusion that India was backing the Islamic State to cause turmoil in Pakistan and the killings were done at Delhi’s behest. He said according to an intelligence briefing in March 2020, India wanted to “inflame sectarianism” in Pakistan by killing Shias and Sunnis.
However, it’s not the first time that extremist militant outfits have attacked the Hazaras in Balochistan or elsewhere in the country. Holding a vigil was seemingly a desperate attempt to shine a light on the failure of both the provincial and federal governments to halt terror attacks specifically targeting the Hazaras. Authorities have often failed to apprehend attackers or prosecute the groups claiming responsibility for such terror incidents, with critics suggesting they are either incompetent or indifferent towards the Shia community.
Living under siege
Ethnic Hazaras, who have distinctive facial features owing to their Turko-Mongol ancestry, have been living in central Afghanistan for centuries. Many of them were forced to migrate following their persecution by Afghan King Abdur Rehman in the late 1880s. Over 60% of the total Hazara population was killed or displaced during his reign, with thousands fleeing to Quetta and its adjoining areas. Quetta is still home to most Hazaras, with about 500 000 living in two heavily guarded enclaves – Hazara Town and Alamdar Road.
For the past two decades, the ethnic Hazaras have been targeted for their Shia faith, often facing killings, suicide attacks and bombings that have killed hundreds. This has wreaked havoc on their daily life, education, business as well as religious activities. With their lives virtually under a perpetual siege and confronted by the apathy of the authorities, Hazaras have been relegated to a ghettoised existence. Because of the persistent violence and prevailing security situation, an estimated 70 000 Hazaras have emigrated from Pakistan in recent years.
The targeting of this community first began in 1999, when a top Hazara leader, Sardar Nisar Ali, was gunned down in Quetta. One of the first major attacks on Hazaras took place in the city in July 2003 when gunmen entered a mosque during Friday prayers and killed 53 people and wounded 57. In April 2010, a suicide bomber killed 12 people and injured 47, including a journalist and two police officials, in an attack on Quetta’s Civil Hospital. The attack took place after the body of Ashraf Zaidi, a Shia bank manager shot dead earlier in the day by gunmen, was brought to the hospital. In September 2010, a suicide bomber killed 56 Shia demonstrators and wounded at least 160 others who were attending a rally in Quetta.
In August 2011, an alleged suicide bomber from the militant anti-Shiite group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) attacked a mosque in Quetta’s Murriabad area, killing 11 Shias. On 9 September that year, gunmen forced about 40 Hazaras to disembark from a bus in which they had been travelling to Iran to visit Shia holy sites. The attackers shot dead 26 of the Shia passengers and wounded six in what came to be known as the “Mastung massacre”. The LeJ also claimed responsibility for the attack. There was a significant spike in attacks on the Shia community the following year, with at least 125 Shias, most of them Hazaras, killed in Balochistan.
The bloodiest attacks, resulting in the highest death tolls recorded in sectarian violence in Pakistan since 1947, occurred in 2013 when two bomb attacks in Quetta killed at least 180 Hazaras. The LeJ claimed responsibility for both attacks. According to a 2018 report titled Understanding the Agonies of Ethnic Hazaras, released by Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights, as many as 509 members of the Hazara community were killed and 627 injured in various incidents of terrorism in Quetta between January 2012 and December 2017.
Owing to its strategic geopolitical location, Pakistan has long faced problems of militancy. At different stages of its history, Islamabad has both supported foreign militant groups, such as in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and confronted many other domestic extremist outfits like the radical Tehrik-i-Taliban, also known as the Pakistani Taliban.
Since June 2018, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force – the global money-laundering watchdog – has placed Pakistan on its “grey list”, which comprises countries without adequate control over terror financing. Since then, Pakistan has made significant strides towards addressing 21 of the 27 action plan items set by the task force. Islamabad has outlawed many outfits, including anti-India groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose leader, Hafiz Saeed, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for financing terrorism.