Pakistan's minorities in crosshairs of latest violence in Quetta
A father of a member of the Hazara community mourns the death of his son on April 22 [Reuters]
Islamabad, Pakistan – Muhammad Ali Rezai’s light skin and facial features make him stand out from the crowd in the Pakistani city of Quetta. It is not often that one’s face could be a death warrant.
For the last several years, he dedicated himself to working for the betterment of his persecuted community of Hazara Shia, of whom about 600,000 live in the southwestern Pakistani city.
The community – whose physical features make them easy targets – has been targeted in a sustained campaign of murders and bombings that has claimed at least 509 lives since 2013, according to Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR).
Suicide bomber kills 15 in Pakistan’s Quetta
On Sunday morning, he answered a call from a friend, asking him to help arrange a water tanker for his residence.
Rezai, who normally travels with a police guard, was hesitant. The guard had been re-assigned just a few hours earlier, on orders from Pakistan’s Supreme Court that more than 12,600 policemen on personal guard duty to private citizens be withdrawn.
His friend, however, was in dire need and so he decided to risk it, travelling by motorcycle with two others across the city to procure the tanker, his brother Muhammad Hussain told Al Jazeera.
Within hours, he had been shot dead, on his way back home, the latest victim of a campaign against the Hazara community, many of which have been claimed by the Sunni sectarian armed group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an affiliate of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“He was hit will 11 bullets … on his forehead, on his hands, on his legs – all over his body,” said Hussain, still in shock as to why his brother left the house without protection.
“Rezai has never left the area on a motorcycle for years. Usually he would never leave [the neighbourhood] without a police guard.”
The killing of Rezai and one other man was the latest in a series of recent attacks on the community that mark an uptick in violence in the provincial capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The province has seen sectarian attacks, an armed separatist movement, and Taliban attacks for years.
Pakistani Hazara continue sit-in after attack
Since last month, at least seven people have been killed in five attacks on the Hazara Shia community in Quetta, a city of roughly two million people.
After one attack on a Hazara taxi driver on April 1, at least 250 members of the community held a week-long sit-in demanding the government do more to protect them.
They spent days sleeping on a major road in protest against the violence, but were finally forced to wrap up their demonstration without any results.
Community leaders say they see little interest from the government in bringing an end to the killings.
“If there was an earnest effort to target these groups, I do not think that the area of Quetta could not be kept secure,” says community leader Dawood Agha.
“If terrorist acts are still happening, then it seems that the government is not interested in acting against the attackers.”
The government has taken strict security measures in the two main residential neighbourhoods – Marriabad and Hazara Town – where the community resides.
The neighbourhoods are surrounded by high concrete walls topped with barbed wire. Entry is strictly controlled through a series of checkpoints manned by paramilitary personnel. By 8pm, there is a virtual curfew with all entrances and exits sealed, bar one at each enclave.
“We have been imprisoned without having committed a crime,” says Agha.
If Hazara citizens are attacked outside of their enclaves, community leaders say they are questioned as to what they were doing there.
“If we are attacked then the security forces ask us why did you leave?” says Agha. “When we are killed, we are the ones who are being questioned, too.”
|On Tuesday, at least three suicide bomb attacks hit the city of Quetta [Reuters]|
The security is so restrictive, residents say, they have virtually been cut off from the city, forced to sell businesses and pull children out of schools outside of their own areas.
“People have been forced to sell their shops under threat,” says Qayyum Changezi, chief of the Hazara Qaumi Jirga community organisation. “They are told to leave their shops or they will be killed.”
Students, he says, take their lives into their hands when they leave the enclaves to take government board examinations, usually held at venues across the city.
“We are not getting … jobs because of the threats to our security. We are rejected based on the fact that we cannot safely travel to certain parts of the city.”
Police officials and Pakistan’s interior ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment.
‘We can only pray’
The Hazara are no longer, however, the only minority community being targeted by the ISIL affiliate in Quetta.
Since December, at least 16 Christians have been killed in a series of attacks, including a bombing at Methodist church, and two targeted shootings.
“We are peaceful people, and we love this soil. We cannot imagine that someone would target us. We cannot understand it,” says Chaudhry Zubair, 41, a Christian community leader and political activist.
Quetta is home to roughly 25,000 Christians, most of whom work as labourers or in domestic staff positions with the government.
The latest attacks have shaken the community, Zubair says, as they had never previously come under attack. December’s church bombing, where two suicide bombers stormed the building during Sunday services, was also claimed by ISIL.
Police have now begun installing CCTV cameras in Christian neighbourhoods where the attacks have taken place, and erecting barriers in the narrow lanes to block potential attackers on motorcycles from easy escape routes.
With the latest wave of violence, and the security measures that have followed, Christians say they fear they will soon be just as restricted as the city’s Hazara.
“We want to be able to live peacefully,” says Zubair. “And all we can do is pray for this. We cannot pick up arms. We can only pray to God.”
Spike in violence
The surge in violence against minorities has been accompanied by attacks against security forces as well.
At least 19 security forces personnel have been killed in attacks this year, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal research organisation.
On Tuesday, three suicide bombers attacked Pakistani police and paramilitary personnel in the provincial capital, killing at least six personnel and wounding 15 others.
In a statement following the attack, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) took “grave notice of the alarming spike in violence that has shot through Quetta”.
“[HRCP is] extremely concerned over the continuing violence in Quetta – much of which systematically targets members of religious minorities – and the lack of an effective and sustained response from the state,” said the statement.
Analysts say while overall violence has dropped in Quetta – a city that saw 84 people killed in a single sectarian suicide attack in 2013 – not enough is being done to shut down sectarian groups in the province.
“It’s no longer the same level of violence, but they are picking up easy targets for targeted killings,” says Zahid Hussain, a security analyst.
“This is basically the work of sectarian militant organisations which have gained strength in Balochistan in the last few years.”
Hussain says the main reason Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is able to attack with such apparent impunity is because of the largely lawless rural areas around Quetta that offer them sanctuary, as well as the porous and ungoverned nature of the nearby border with Afghanistan.
“The main factor is that the sectarian organisations have developed a strong network in Quetta, despite the actions taken by security forces, and they still seem to have the capacity to carry out these targeted killings.”
For residents, there seems to be no respite from the violence.
“Police say that they are doing everything they can, that is perhaps the biggest lie I have ever heard,” says Hussain, whose brother was killed on Sunday.
“They cannot protect themselves … so how will they protect us?”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim