Quetta’s missing, dying, dead, and those left behind
Communities in Balochistan have been protesting for over a decade. Can anyone hear them?
Last month I travelled to the border city of Quetta, Balochistan shortly after a terrorist attack killed 20 people at a vegetable market in Hazarganji. On the flight from Karachi, I sat next to a Hazara woman with a young child. When she learned that I intended to report from her city, she whispered “Bus, bach ke rehna” [Make sure you are safe]. When you plan a trip to Balochistan, everyone tells you to be careful. Though, no one can quite put a finger on what it means to ‘be careful’. Maybe this is because when you aren’t sure who the enemy is, you don’t know how to protect yourself?
Rickshaws and motorcycles navigate Quetta’s roads, lined with make-shift market places, people move around the city, going to their jobs, their homes and schools. It looks like any other city in Pakistan, almost. That is if you ignore the heavy militarization, the police and the Frontier Corps manning every street of the city.
Our first stop was the Quetta Press Club.
Outside Quetta’s Press Club, the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons group has been protesting for 10 years. Their founder, Mama Qadeer is described as a ‘courageous human rights activist’ by some and an ‘anti-state traitor’ by others. At the press club, daily, he is surrounded by blown up photographs of hundreds of the dead, allegedly killed by security agencies. I found Sabeen Mahmud in the sea of faces. Mahmud, the founder of T2F and a human rights activist, was shot dead in 2015 for giving Mama Qadeer space to publicly speak about missing persons in Balochistan.
“We don’t declare them dead [the missing] until we find their bodies. Even if they’ve been missing for 10 years,” says Mama Qadeer. He believes his son was picked up by Inter-Services Intelligence agents, then tortured, and later his body was dropped from a helicopter for his father to collect. While the number of men abducted is far higher, Mama Qadeer mentions hundreds of women who are also missing, some for over 5 years. Earlier Mama Qadeer had told me that their missing are considered alive until their bodies are found; as I sat there listening to stories about the missing people, I thought about the toll ‘waiting’ takes on these families.
There are more women than men at the camp. This is telling. “According to Baloch tribal customs, it is preferred that women stay at home,” says Sana Baloch, a protestor outside the press club and a human rights activist. “In Pakistan, parents worry about their daughters going out alone, but here, in Balochistan they worry their sons will go missing,” says Baloch.
The women at the camp are desperate for news about their missing family members. One has been waiting for her son to return for 8 years. Another has been waiting 5 years for her husband. They all repeat versions of the same grievance: “Either charge our loved ones with some crime, or return them to us. Why are we being treated with such cruelty?”
While most of the people around me, regardless of their ethnicity, refused to be seen near the camp, there was one — Jalila Haider — who had no such reservations. Haider came straight from the Bar Council in a white shalwar kameez. She is fearless that way. In a deeply patriarchal society, she is the only female Hazara lawyer, and a staunch and vocal human rights activist. We left the camp with her and made our way to Hazara Town.
I’d like to say that visiting Quetta Press Club didn’t faze me, that I wasn’t fearful of being seen in conversation with Mama Qadeer, that people facilitating my trip refused to be seen at the camp outside the press club did not raise alarm bells in my mind. But that would be a lie. I was on edge the whole time.
The women at the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons camp all repeat versions of the same grievance: “Either charge our loved ones with some crime, or return them to us. Why are we being treated with such cruelty?”
Later, I tried to remember the facial features of the man who struck up a casual conversation with me as we left, a man Haider told me might report back to the powers that be. Why did I care? I was merely on assignment.
My first conversation with Haider wasn’t outside the press club. Last year I interviewed Haider over the phone. Then she was on a hunger strike to protest the government’s lack of action after 30 Hazaras were killed within two months.
The hunger strike is just one example of the extreme lengths the Hazara community has to take to be heard. This wasn’t the first time they were protesting: previously, the community has refused to bury their dead until the government and armed forces took action to punish their attackers, and offer the community protection. In 2013 the Hazara arranged a sit-in with 84 of their dead. They were protesting the then most recent suicide bombing.
Four days after I spoke to Haider in 2018, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Quetta and assured Hazara leaders that, “those targeting Hazara community will suffer twice as much and the state and Pakistan Army will provide security to the community.”
Despite General Bajwa’s assurances, 11 months later, in April of the following year, a suicide bomber killed 20 people at a vegetable market in Hazarganji. The dead included 8 Hazaras and an FC officer. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Daesh have both claimed responsibility for the attack.
Once again, the community took drastic measures. They staged a second sit-in with the bodies of the dead, refusing to bury them until Prime Minister Imran Khan came to Quetta to assure them that strict action would be taken against militant organizations in accordance to Pakistan’s anti-terrorism policy, the National Action Plan. The prime minister never showed up to the sit-in. But four days later, in the middle of the night, the protest was abruptly called off.
According to Baloch tribal customs, during a dispute, if women from the other side apologise to the wronged party, the appropriate response is to forgive. And that’s what male community leaders felt compelled to do when the Chief Minister of Balochistan Jam Kamal Khan brought female members of the provincial assembly to the sit-in with him.
With the protests ended and the dead buried, as we drove from Quetta Press Club to Hazara Town, our local hosts, eager to show me their city, pointed out famous landmarks to me.
“Two people were killed in that corner.”
“A bomb blast killed 30 people in this market.”
“Three Hazaras were shot near that wall.”
“Two died right over there in 2014.”
Maybe it would be easier to point out the streets that had been spared this senseless violence, I thought.
Hazara Town is one of two ghettos on the outskirts of Quetta where the majority of the Hazara community reside — not by choice, but for their own protection. It is a compound of sorts, large enough that you can’t always see the boundary walls, or the FC check posts at every entrance and exit; but small enough for you to always remember that there are limits to the town. Once you pass the security, the neighbourhood seems like any other lower-middle income area; children playing cricket on the street, food vendors frying samosas and jalebis, kids learning karate in a community centre.
Despite the perpetual conflict, daily life continues.
The Hazaras, a majority Shia ethnic group, have been under attack for decades. The National Commission of Human Rights reports (link) 509 Hazaras have been killed between 2013 and 2017 but human rights activists say this figure should be in the thousands (link). The general impression is that the community is targeted because of their Shia beliefs; their Turko-Mongol ancestry sets them apart and makes them easy, recognizable targets for Sunni militant groups.
But, could it be that the problem runs much deeper than sectarian differences? After all, it is unbelievable that security agencies can’t control activities of militant groups threatening Hazaras in such a heavily policed city. Unless of course, they don’t want to control the activities.
Groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and TTP have been claiming responsibility for attacks on Hazaras since the early 2000s. They often openly hold rallies to spread their anti-Shia ideology. Many believe these groups are only able to operate because of state funding and because intelligence agencies turn a blind eye to them.
One person who believes this is Tahir Khan Hazara. He is the leader of the Hazara Siasi Karkunan, and was involved in organising the most recent protest. He maintains that the Hazara are not solely persecuted because of their Shia beliefs.
So then why are Hazaras targeted, if not because of sectarian differences?
According to Rafiullah Kakar, a development and public policy analyst, there are three types of insurgencies present in the province; ethnic insurgencies against the Pakistani state, religious insurgencies such as the TTP who target security and government officials, and sectarian insurgencies that target Hazaras. Kakar believes the Hazara people are caught in the middle of proxy wars between Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia and that certain militant groups and non-state actors receive funding and patronage from all the four states involved.
To this effect, activist Haider said that the idea of Hazaras being targeted for being Shia is only the state’s narrative.
Our next stop in Quetta was Bihisht-e-Zainab, a large graveyard inside Hazara Town. The graveyard serves as a community space and a cemetery, and it may be one of the most vibrant places of mourning in the country. Children played on swings and trampolines, women bargained for vegetables, old men chatted beneath shady trees, and teenagers socialised near a make-shift food street.
I was told locals congregate at the graveyard in times of sadness and happiness, they mourn there as bodies are lowered into the ground and then come back to celebrate on Eid. What choice do they have? It’s the only way to be close to their loved ones.
A young Hazara girl, Nida Batool, who had just received a scholarship to pursue an undergraduate degree in the UK said the first thing she did when found out about her admission was to come to the graveyard. She had wanted to share the news with her father and brother, both were killed last year.
I asked her why she thought the Hazara community was targeted. Looking at the graves behind her, she said blankly: “There’s no answer to this question.”
The graves of those killed in terror attacks had pictures of the deceased with the words shaheed [martyr] beneath their faces. There were thousands of pictures, thousands of lives lost. We walked through a corridor of graves and photographs, to a group of women. One of them lost her husband in a bomb blast a few years ago, she hadn’t received any financial support from the state and could no longer afford to send her children to school. “Hazaras were never beggars,” said Haider. “But they’ve made us this way.”
Those left behind
The dire need to rehabilitate and financially support families of the victims was stark at the cemetery. It was only further heightened when we left the graveyard to meet the widows of the men killed in the April attack.
As we drove deep inside Hazara Town, the streets narrowed and the sun began to set. We reached the house of Abid Ali, a vegetable seller. His widow told me that she found out about the blast through the neighbourhood children. She repeatedly called her husband’s cell phone, but no one answered. Her son, Ali Raza, sweetly smiled at us from his mother’s lap, too young to understand death.
A few streets down, in a one-room apartment, Ali Agha, a taxi driver, used to live with his wife and their two daughters. His widow was too distraught to speak to us. The elder daughter, Mahjabeen, said initially they had believed that her father had only been injured. But soon, the hope that he might make it home in time for lunch dissipated. She sat beneath a framed photograph of her father with the word shaheed [martyr] printed on it. The rest of the shelf was full of awards and trophies Mahjabeen and her sister had received for academic excellence. Given the financial burdens they now face, it’s unlikely the girls would continue their education.
Muhammad Isa, a vegetable seller, also lost his life in the attack in the vegetable market. His widow sat with her sons, Aziz Ullah, 12, and Abbas Ali, 9. There was a vacant look in her eyes as she explained that she couldn’t call her husband after hearing about the attack, because her phone credit was finished. When she finally managed to make the call, a stranger picked up on the other end and told her Isa is wounded and in the hospital. She prayed that her husband of 12 years would survive. Her prayers were left unanswered.
As we drove out of the narrow lanes of Hazara Town, none of us had anything to say. Later I asked Jalila where her courage for being so vocal came from. This was her reply:
Many of those I met — Baloch, Pashtun and Hazara alike — believe the Pakistani state and security agencies do not want peace in Balochistan, that they actively work to maintain instability. Their proof? “What other reason could there be for the state to turn a blind eye to sectarian groups and proxy wars?” they said.
“The state is afraid that if the people of Balochistan aren’t in constant survival mode, we might demand more than basic human rights. For example, we might demand a larger share of the natural resources mined in the province and distributed to the rest of the country,” said Mama Qadeer.
While this opinion is not mine, the prevalence of such opinions highlights the deep rift between the state and the people of Balochistan. Even if this concern sounds implausible, it require redress. It is, after all, the job of the state to heal the wounds of its citizens. Where do we go from here? How does one heal communities that have little to no faith in local and federal institutions, and yet they have nowhere else to place their faith? They feel that the state doesn’t accord them the full rights of citizenship, and yet they have no one to turn to but the state. The people of Quetta are yelling as loud as they can, but no one is listening.