Widespread fear of harassment, discrimination and killings has prompted some Hazara community members living in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan Province in southwestern Pakistan, to consider leaving the country, even by illegal means.
“Over 600 Hazaras have been killed since 2000,” Abdul Qayuum Changezi, head of the Hazara Jarga, a group representing Hazaras, told IRIN. Media reports speak of dozens recently killed in attacks on the community in Quetta and in other parts of the province.
The Hazaras constitute a distinct ethnic group, with some accounts tracing their history to central Asia. Almost all belong to the Shia Muslim sect, speak a dialect of Farsi, and are concentrated in central Afghanistan and some parts of Pakistan. There are some 6,000 to 7,000 Hazaras in the country, according to a Hazara chief, Sardar Saadat Ali.
In Quetta, many of them live in Alamdar Road. Close by, Ali Hassan, 55, and his two sons, both in their 20s, were engrossed in a fierce argument in their small house - when IRIN visited - about leaving the country, even if illegally.
According to the two, there is too much discrimination against the Hazaras for them to have a future. “It is simply too dangerous to live here. Besides, Hazaras get no opportunities in education or for jobs, because of the bias that exists,” said Ibrar Ali, 21, the younger of Hassan’s sons.
However, their parents were terrified of allowing them to try and leave, mainly because of an incident in December last year in which at least 55 Hazaras from Quetta were killed when a boat carrying some 90 illegal immigrants to Australia capsized off the coast of Indonesia.
“The boat was overloaded with over 250 people, including children and women,” said Nasir Ali, whose brother was on the ill-fated boat, but survived.
Following the incident, the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan demanded a government inquiry. In a statement, HRCP chairperson Zohra Yusuf said the fact that “Hazara young men chose to leave Pakistan by taking such grave risks is a measure of the persecution the Hazara community has long faced in Balochistan.”
The statement also urged the government to act against those illegally ferrying people out of the country in exchange for large sums of money, and demanded it “take urgent steps to find a way to put an end to the persecution of the long-suffering Hazara community”.
The New York based monitoring body Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also condemned the sectarian killing of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, and has noted: "Research indicates that at least 275 Shias, mostly of Hazara ethnicity, have been killed in sectarian attacks in the southwestern province of Balochistan alone since 2008." HRW Asia director Brad Adams says a start can be made to ending such killings "by arresting extremist group members responsible for past attacks”.
Anger within the Hazara community runs deep, and has been growing.
“The news of the killings and the desperation of the community is terrible. I weep often when I read of what is happening. I want to return to Quetta, because I love my home town; I want to be close to my parents and live there with my own family. But my fiancé and I ask if it will be sensible to raise our children in a climate of death,” Mina Ali, a medical student from the Hazara community currently based in Karachi, told IRIN.
Her fiancé, also a Hazara, is keen to try and flee the country, whether “legally or illegally”, Mina said.
Statements to the media from top government officials, including the chief minister of Balochistan, have also been perceived as insensitive in their failure to strongly condemn killings that some commentators have described as a “genocide”. Others in Pakistan are demanding that the International Court of Justice look into the matter.
Hazara chief Sardar Saadat Ali, a former provincial minister, told IRIN most Hazaras in the country were based in Quetta but there were “also some in Hyderabad [in Sindh Province] and other Baloch districts”.
Ali, who has lost close relatives including his brother in targeted killings of Hazaras, said: “We can expect nothing from the government; so we act for ourselves. I personally went to Indonesia to bring back the bodies of the young Hazara men who had died in the boat tragedy. They were fleeing because of the security situation and in search of a chance to gain an education.”
Hazaras, he added, were being targeted on “both ethnic and sectarian grounds” by extremist groups - mainly the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba, which have origins in the Punjab. He was also concerned about further persecution if the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan.
“I don’t understand much about politics, but I worry constantly for my grown children, and their children," said Zareen Bibi, 60, a Hazara resident of Quetta. "Too many Hazaras have died, for no reason - and this inhumanity has to end. We all deserve dignity and the right to life."