Pakistan’s Hazaras seek protection from ISIS and rogue military
The persecution of minority Hazaras by anti-Shia jihadist groups has escalated in recent years, prompting the community to seek help from the powerful Army chief
The Hazara community in Pakistan has been hit by a rising number of targeted killings. Last month, the Hazaras – a Shiite minority – lost six men in four separate drive-by shootings in Quetta, capital of the volatile Balochistan province.
The last attack, on April 28, which killed Jaffar Ali and Muhammad Ali on Quetta’s Jamaluddin Afghani Road, prompted a hunger strike by members of the Hazara community over the targeted killings.
The Hazaras are an ethnic minority that adhere to the Shia sect of Islam. Most of their 900,000 members live in Balochistan, in and around Quetta. With Uzbek and Turkic genetic roots, the Hazaras have distinguishable physical features, which makes them easy to be targeted by anti-Shia jihadist groups.
Hazaras have been persecuted in the region for their religious beliefs and identity for centuries, but attacks on the community have jumped since 9/11 – the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001 – with the advent of the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in Balochistan.
After the latest spate of killings, which also includes targeting of local Christians, the Hazaras launched their hunger strike with the aim of conveying its concerns directly to the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
‘Enough is enough’
“After the gun attack on April 28, I said enough is enough,” Hazara activist Jalila Haider, who led the hunger strike, told Asia Times. “With the increase in our insecurities, we realized that we had to take drastic measures, otherwise the killings would go on non-stop as they have been since 9/11.”
More than 500 Hazaras have been killed in Quetta alone over the past five years, according to a report released by the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) in March. The report titled ‘Understanding the Agonies of Ethnic Hazaras’ reveals that as many as 509 members of the Hazara community were killed and 627 injured between January 2012 and Dec 2017.
“[The hunger strike] got a lot of coverage on social media, which is how it reached the Army chief quickly,” Jalila Haider said.
“[Balochistan home minister] Sarfraz Bugti had come [to see us] on the second day [of the strike] to reassure us and ask us to end the hunger strike. I told him ‘There’s no use because you are helpless’. I personally wanted the Army Chief to come because I believe the security — both external and internal — is completely under the Army’s control.”
Most of the recent attacks on the Hazara community in the region have been claimed by Islamic State (ISIS) and the LeJ – Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
“The LeJ is working as an affiliate of ISIS in the region. They don’t have any operational overlap, but LeJ is using the ISIS umbrella to launch these attacks,” Maj Gen Saad Khattak told Asia Times. “Also, if you notice the modus operandi of these attacks – roadside drive-by attacks, this is classic ISIS strategy, which the group has implemented the world over.”
The overlap of the LeJ and ISIS ideologies, in addition to their inherent anti-Shia outlook, makes the two groups natural allies, and that is why they have collaborated on many operations within Pakistan.
However, for the local Hazaras, the threat isn’t limited to ISIS. Jalila Haider says that a list of demands was shared with the Army chief when she met him during the hunger strike.
Frontier Corps linked to attacks?
“First, over 3,000 Hazaras have been killed since 9/11 and nothing has been done for their families. We demand that the families of the victims be helped,” she said.
“Second, people are being killed near Frontier Corp check-posts. We Hazaras believe that the terrorist attacks have increased since the creation of the check-posts,” added Haider, who also conveyed that concern to the Army Chief.
“[Gen Qamar Bajwa] said ‘Of course it’s a mindset that has existed in the institution for 40 years, so it might be possible that these people are facilitating the attacks, which we will investigate’” Haider said.
The Hazaras told the Army chief and Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal their economic circumstances have deteriorated, as discrimination against the group has caused some to lose their jobs. Some families have had to sell properties to survive; land worth 10 million Pakistani rupees has been sold for 20% of its value.
Locals claim that around 90,000 Hazaras have had to flee their homes over the past decade. Many have disappeared, drowned, or gone missing. Widows and families claim that they are insulted at passport and National Database and Registration offices, where officials demand favors and money.
“We want the authorities to see if there are beneficiaries of these killings other than ISIS. We want action against land mafias, and any military personnel involved,” Haider says. “We have demanded the empowerment of police because currently, they have no authority.”