Crowded into “ghettos” surroundedby armed checkpoints, Pakistan’s Shiite Hazara minority say they are being slaughtered by sectarian militants in the southwestern city of Quetta, with authorities seemingly unable to halt the killings.
For years, hundreds of thousands of the Shiite community’s members have been hemmed into two separate enclaves cordoned off by numerous checkpoints and hundreds of armed guards designed to protect the minority from violent militants.
“It’s like a prison here,” said Bostan Ali, a Hazara activist, about conditions inside the enclaves.
“The Hazaras are experiencing mental torture,” he added, complaining the community has been effectively “cut off from the rest of the city” and “confined” to such areas.
The Shiite community’s presence is particularly strong in Quetta — the uneasy capital of impoverished Balochistan province where sectarian violence, suicide bombings, and banditry are common.
Hazaras are technically free to roam around Quetta at their will, but few do, fearing attacks.
To further protect the group, day traders and market vendors are also given armed escorts when they leave their neighbourhoods, while ongoing military operations are said to be targeting militants in the restive province.
But even these measures have proven inept at stopping major attacks on Hazaras.
Just last month a bombing at a vegetable market left 21 dead and 47 more wounded — with the majority of the victims identified as Hazara.
The incident is all the more disturbing considering the group was under the protection of Pakistani paramilitary forces, who failed to stop the suicide bomber from detonating in the crowd.
The attack — claimed by the Islamic State and its local anti-Shiite affiliate Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — is just the latest in a long series of assaults targeting the group, including back-to-back bombings in early 2013 that killed nearly 200 of its members.
The situation across the border in Afghanistan is equally if not more dangerous, with Hazara mosques, schools, and community events regularly attacked by insurgents.
– ‘Prison’ –
Pakistan has long been a cauldron of unrest and sectarian violence, with the officially Islamic Republic home to myriad sects of Islam and religious minorities that have been targeted by violent extremists for decades.
The Hazara have proven to be particularly vulnerable with their distinct Central Asian features making the members of the community easy targets for Sunni militants who consider them heretics.
At the entrance to Hazara town — one of the two enclaves in Quetta — a grim scene plays out every day as Hazara men squeeze into the backs of a long line of trucks headed in the city to buy food from the markets.
Once there, they are flanked by soldiers as they buy supplies before heading back to their homes in a heavily armed convoy.
Authorities insist the measures are a necessity.
In the last five years, 500 Hazaras have been killed and another 627 wounded in Quetta alone, according to a Pakistani security source familiar with the situation who asked not to be named.
“We know that we are passing through a killing field” explained Nauroz Ali, about life outside the enclaves.
He added: “But we have to earn a living for our families.”
Criticised for their inability to stop the attacks, officials point to their own casualties in the fight against sectarian extremists as proof that they are trying their best.
Over the past six years, in their efforts to protect them “more police officers have died than Hazaras” says local police officer Abdur Razzak Cheema, adding that many terrorists have been arrested and others eliminated due to their efforts.
He explained: “New groups emerge. We’re trying to track them down and eradicate the threat.”
– ‘No escape’ –
There are also plans to begin installing surveillance cameras at markets to improve security but Hazara community leaders are sceptical of the plans saying the existing measures have failed to stem the bloodshed.
“If three checkpoints in 3 km cannot keep (us) safe, can escorts, barriers and CCTV do any better?” wrote Muhammad Aman, a professor and activist, in a recent editorial in the Pakistani daily newspaper, Dawn.
“It seems that the terrorists are winning this war… there is no escape,” he added.
Even the enclaves are not safe, as the bloody bombings in 2013 that struck inside the protected areas demonstrated.
As a result between 75,000 and 100,000 Hazaras have fled violence elsewhere in the country or abroad in recent years, according to the Hazara Democratic Party,
“We are hopeless,” said Tahir Hazara, describing their neighbourhoods as nothing more than “ghettos”.
He asked: “From whom should we expect protection to save our lives?”