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Pakistan's Hazara community under attack

28 february 2013, 12:43
0
Ethnic Hazaras protest. ©AFP
Ethnic Hazaras protest. ©AFP
Pakistan's Hazaras, a prosperous, moderate community who found refuge after brutal crackdowns in Afghanistan, are again living in fear as they suffer record levels of sectarian violence, AFP reports.

Overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim, the roughly 550,000 Hazaras in the southwestern city of Quetta are descendants of migrants from Afghanistan, where the community opposed the 1996-2001 Taliban regime but has since prospered.

They are known for hard work, being educated and having more liberal attitudes towards women than other communities in Pakistan's ultra-conservative southwest, where they live alongside ethnic Pashtun, Baluch and Punjabis.

Hazaras first came to Quetta in the 1890s, when Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan crushed a series of Hazara uprisings, which left thousands dead and saw lands confiscated, beginning a long period of discrimination in Afghanistan.

Many arrived with nothing and took jobs as labourers, went into business, joined the army and the civil service, and sent their children to university.

Their Persian dialect is similar to the large Hazara community in central Afghanistan and in Iran, where they also report discrimination.

Hazaras are a minority in Pakistan, but in 1958, one rose to become army chief of staff, often considered the most powerful job in Pakistan, and they have also taken senior positions in the civil service.

"The whole of the last century went very well with us. We excelled in education, the military, bureaucracy and business. We were respected as hard workers," said Mohammed Ali Hazara, a lawyer who runs a private school in Quetta.

But in 1999, the then Baluchistan provincial education minister was shot dead, becoming the first high-profile Hazara victim of a new wave of violence.

Since then, Hazaras say 1,200 of their people have been shot dead or blown up in Quetta, including nearly 200 in two bomb attacks on January 10 and February 16, in different Hazara neighbourhoods.

Human Rights Watch says more than 400 Shiites were killed in Pakistan in 2012, the worst year on record, more than 125 of them in Baluchistan and the majority Hazaras.

Many of the attacks have been claimed by Pakistan's outlawed, extremist Sunni Muslim group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has vowed to exterminate all Shiites.

Hazaras are thought to have Mongolian ancestry and their distinctive facial features make them easier to identify than other Shiites.

Some believe they are targeted because of their opposition to the Taliban, whose leadership was long presumed to live in Quetta, and for their support of the Northern Alliance, which backed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The community's main political party, the Hazara Democratic Party, has no seats in the Baluchistan or national assemblies.

Its chairman Abdul Khaliq Hazara told AFP his priority was to win seats at national and provincial level, but expressed fears that without an improvement in security, campaigning would be difficult for upcoming elections due by mid-May.

But those crippled by grief have little hope for the future.

"All I know is that all terrorists should be removed from this land," said Aiwaz Ali, 65, who lost five members of his family on February 16.

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