The Blog

The Killing Field of Quetta

In Quetta, western Pakistan, it matters a great deal what your beliefs are. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say it is a matter of life and death. For to be a Shia Muslim in this arid region, you are living in a perpetual state of peril.

One of the things that makes me proud about the British society I live in is that I can be myself without distressing. I am a practising Muslim. You may share my belief, or respect it, and though some may judge me, the vast majority will, at the very least, tolerate my beliefs. After all, why should you not? My faith is personal to me and does not affect you.

Yet in some parts of this world, fractured, blinkered and fanatical, personal beliefs matter a great deal, and tolerance remains a myth.

In Quetta, western Pakistan, it matters a great deal what your beliefs are. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say it is a matter of life and death. For to be a Shia Muslim in this arid region, you are living in a perpetual state of peril.

After the Prophet Muhammad's death Islam cleaved into two main branches. Sunnis and Shias disagree as to who was the rightful successor to the Prophet, and therefore whose teachings should be followed.

Whilst differences may not have been reconciled, many Muslims, aware of the teaching of the Qur'an to make peace between two believers, have agreed to disagree. But not all. Some go so far as to exploit sectarian divides for their own sinister purposes, promoting bloodshed for political gain.

The tale of sectarian violence in Pakistan is not unknown. Within the last two months, however, the carnage has escalated to unprecedented heights. In January twin blasts killed or injured at least 200 people. Ten minutes after a suicide bomber detonated inside a snooker hall, a car bomb exploded, killing dozens of rescue workers, policeman and members of the press.

"It was like doomsday," a policeman said. "There were bodies everywhere."

There are no words I am familiar with to describe the evil, sadistic and disgusting minds that planned this attack. Nor can I express my loathe for Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the extremist militants who rushed to take credit for the mass slaughter, and who brand the victims as wajibul-qatl (deserving of death).

What, you ask, was the cause of the violence? The local population are moderate, practising Shias.

The authorities have been, at best, feckless - and at worst, downright prejudiced. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf had promised to "[eliminate] those responsible for playing with innocent lives". However, he is part of a warped system that has cowered before militant groups. Instead of marginalising and destroying extremist forces, Pakistani intelligence has felt it was best to leave these malevolent forces to their own devices. Responding to the death of forty civilians, chief minister of Balochistan Aslam Raisani said it was "no big deal", and that he would support the grieving families by sending a "truckload of tissue paper... to wipe their tears".

"The government doesn't have the will to go after them and the security agencies are littered with sympathizers who give them space to operate," Hazara Democratic Party chief Abdul Khaliq Hazara said.

Scores of breadwinners in this Quettan neighbourhood have been slain. Dozens were blown to pieces as they exited the mosque following the evening prayers. A generation of orphans and widows is the legacy they leave behind.

What did the mourning women do? They refused to bury their dead. They would not lay their husbands, fathers and sons to rest until action was taken. Their vigil was joined by the people of London, New York, Toronto, Sydney, and many more. Strikes commenced in Pakistan's commercial city, Karachi. Only after the regional minister tendered his resignation did the sit-in end.

The long-suffering Hazara community, migrants from Afghanistan, has been torn apart by the Quettan disaster. For them, it is not the recognisable Central Asian features they bear but the religious convictions they hold that is their jeopardy. How brave they must be to continue to frequent Shia mosques. What is next for them?

"Stepping out of the ghetto means risking death. Everyone has failed them - the security forces, the government, the judiciary," said Human Rights Watch's Ali Dayan Hasan.

So let us not fail them. The shackles on international pressure must be broken. Diplomatic and political advances must be made to the Pakistani government to take charge of this warzone. The "callousness and indifference" of the authorities cannot continue. In an age of universal media access and wide lens coverage we must never turn a blind eye to the afflicted.

The term genocide is banded around with much emotion and little understanding. Whether or not the mass killing of Hazaran Shias falls strictly within the definition delineated in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which Pakistan is a signatory, this humanitarian crime needs to stop.

If you still doubt whether these "incidents" in Pakistan are worthy of our attention, I refer you to this chilling letter from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a public calls-to-arms:

"All Shi'ites are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of unclean people. Pakistan means land of the pure and the Shi'ites have no right to live in this country. We have the edict and signatures of revered scholars, declaring Shi'ites infidels. Just as our fighters have waged a successful jihad against the Shi'ite Hazaras in Afghanistan, our mission in Pakistan is the abolition of this impure sect and its followers from every city, every village and every nook and corner of Pakistan.

"Like in the past, our successful jihad against the Hazaras in Pakistan and, in particular, in Quetta, is ongoing and will continue in the future. We will make Pakistan the graveyard of the Shi'ite Hazaras and their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers. We will only rest when we will be able to fly the flag of true Islam on this land of the pure. Jihad against the Shi'ite Hazaras has now become our duty.

"We will not let them escape alive in 2013 from Balochistan."

The time to act is now. We can all be proud of the freedoms we enjoy, the liberties we exercise. Let's make sure this is a privilege all can relish, especially in the killing fields of Quetta.

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