In yet another gruesome attack, 10 Hazara coal miners in Balochistan, Pakistan were blindfolded and shot dead by ISIS on January 3, after being kidnapped and taken to the nearby mountains. A gruesome video of the incident uploaded online shows the victims’ bodies strewn across the floor of a small hut, their hands bound together. Their families protested in sub-zero temperatures alongside the bodies themselves, refusing to bury the dead until Prime Minister Imran Khan visited them and promised justice. However, the grim reality of the status of the safety and rights of Hazaras in Pakistan is such that no one can ensure the next day, or week won’t hold the same fate for these people.
The Hazara community has faced a long history of persecution and negligence by the Pakistani government and has been the constant target of attempted ethnic cleansing. The Hazaras are a mixed-race ethnic group believed to be descended from the Turko-Mongolian race and are predominantly Shia Muslims. The reemergence of the anti-Shia movement in Pakistan has been evident throughout 2020 but for Hazaras, the history of violence is far longer and bloodier. In fact, Hazaras have become targets within the Shia population, in part due to their distinct facial features. The recent sit-in is painfully reminiscent of 2013 when a bomb blast killed 96 people in Quetta, Pakistan, mostly of the Hazara Shia community, leading them to protest with the bodies for days.
History of Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Quetta was once home to the Hazara Pioneers – a British colonial regiment in India composed entirely of Hazara, whose gallantry was considered unmatched due to their ancestral link to Genghis Khan. Today, the same city hosts Behisht-e-Zainab (Paradise of Zainab), a cemetery dedicated to the 2000 or so Hazaras buried in the city. From being protectors of the city to becoming the most vulnerable members of the population is not merely a twist of fate but a product of events that need to be understood.
Hazaras have deep roots across the mountains of South Asia, and today they are settled mainly in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. However, as the largest ethnic minority, Hazaras have suffered perpetual persecution in Afghanistan. Hazaras are believed to be descendants of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol dynasty, making the Hazaras easily identifiable by their Mongolian features in contrast to other populations. They speak Persian and Dari, a dialect of Persian spoken commonly in Afghanistan. Given their movement across the region, Hazara culture can be traced to Persian, Central Asian, and South Asian cultures resulting in a unique medley.
Until the 1880s, Hazaras lived peacefully in Afghanistan but between 1883 and 1893, they were subjected to persecution by the Afghan King Abdur Rehman. In this period almost 60% of the Hazara population was wiped out in Afghanistan, leaving those who remained vulnerable and traumatized. In the 19th century, Hazara men were regularly traded as slaves while women were kept as concubines by Afghan kings. This was followed by a period of ongoing persecution and suppression of Hazaras in Afghanistan throughout the 20th century.
Most notably, in August 1998, Taliban forces carried out a systematic search for male members of the ethnic Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek communities in the city. The Hazaras, as a predominantly Shia group in the Sunni-majority context of Afghanistan, were particularly targeted, in part because of their religious identity but also for their ethnicity. According to a Human Rights Watch report, women and girls, particularly in certain Hazara neighborhoods of Mazar-i Sharif, were also raped and abducted during the Taliban takeover of the city. This is in addition to the 2,000 men taken as prisoners by the Taliban and later executed. The report also states that the Taliban Governor Niazi openly threatened the Hazaras to become Sunni or leave Afghanistan.
In the context of religious and ethnic persecution, the Hazara community began fleeing to neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran. Once in Pakistan, Hazara families lived peacefully for much of the 20th century, until the effects of General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization began to show in the form of religious extremism. Zia-ul-Haq’s campaign of Islamization of Pakistan initiated a rise in militant Sunni groups who were encouraged to take up the anti-Shia cause. Today, the Hazara community is mainly concentrated in the Marriabad and Hazara Town areas of Quetta that act almost like cages within the city as there is no guarantee of life and liberty once members leave these walled areas.
The new wave of violence
More recently, the Hazara’s close ties with Iran as a Shia community leaves them more vulnerable than ever in both Afghanistan and Pakistan because of the Sunni-Shia dynamics. For example, after a bloody 2016 attack on Hazaras in Kabul that left 80 people injured and 13 dead, a local ISIS leader told Reuters that “unless [the Hazaras] stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, we will definitely continue such attacks.”
Even in Iran (though not attacked for being Shia Muslims), Hazara are subject to forced enlistment in the war against ISIS in Syria. Many of the Hazara who come to Iran as Afghan refugees, often without documentation, are part of Iran’s Fatemiyoun Division of the Revolutionary Guard.
In Pakistan, religious and sectarian extremism has again made Hazara refugees an easy target for violence. In the wake of the killing of miners, there have been timelines of such killings prepared by analysts, exposing a trend of consistent persecution. The timeline shows how Hazaras in every walk of life have been targeted so far in Pakistan through bomb blasts as well as individual target killings. For example, Abrar Hussain, an Olympian Pakistani boxer and Chairman Balochistan Sports Board, was shot dead by men on a motorbike as he was returning from his prayers. For more information, another public access map has been created on Google Maps to mark locations of all incidents against the Hazara community.
A Pakistan Human Rights Commission report from 2018 noted that over 2,000 members of the community were killed between 2004 and 2018. A majority of the victims are men, wiping out a generation of talented, hard-working youth of the community.
Militant religious groups like Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and later Ahl-e Sunnat Wal Jama’at (ASWJ) have riddled the country with anti-Shia violence. For example, responsibility for the 2013 Quetta blast was taken by LeJ. The group has been named one of the most deadly sectarian militant groups in Pakistan, as many of its leaders are linked to the Taliban and Afghans who fought Russia in the 1990s.
Reduction and apathy
Despite persecution and marginalization, the Hazara community’s contribution to the subcontinent has been rich and full of pride. Yet their names and identities are only discussed in the wake of an attack or through such protests and they are largely forgotten in mainstream media afterwards.
Known for their bravery and valor, the Hazara community actively enlists for positions in the forces, sacrificing lives for the country. As mentioned earlier, they are a key part of Iranian forces sent to Syria in the fight against terrorism. Yet all three countries in the region actively persecute Hazaras in some way or another for their sect, identity, and ethnicity.
It is important to understand and acknowledge that this nexus of violence against the Hazara community is multifaceted and rooted in the diverse aspects of their identity, like sect, ethnicity, and vulnerable status as refugees. The repeated sit-ins with the bodies of the deceased by the Hazara community are the epitome of the apathy towards their condition because they should not have to be faced with the situation in which such extreme measures are taken. Acknowledging the history of a community and the pattern of violence against it is the first step to ensuring their safety and rights. As such, the repeated attempts to ethnically cleanse the Hazara must be recognized and efforts must be made to provide the community with the rights and safeties which they have long demanded.