The plight of Shiites in Pakistan


KARACHI, Pakistan — After a bomb attack killed almost 90 people in Quetta last weekend, the families of the victims, desperate for the government’s attention, made a gut-wrenching decision: They refused to bury their dead.

The unusual protest appeared to work. The Pakistani government on Tuesday arrested 170 people suspected of having connections to Lashkar e Jhangvi, a banned terror group authorities believe is responsible for numerous sectarian bombings. And on Friday, authorities said they had arrested Malik Ishaq, a founding member of Lashkar e Jhangvi.

In the wake of the arrests, the families — all of them belonging to the minority Hazara Shiite community — finally buried their loved ones.

But few are convinced of the government’s commitment to stop the violence.

“If they knew about these people, why hadn’t they been arrested before?” said Youna Karmal, a women’s rights activist and lawyer who helped organize the protest. “If it was so easy for them to find 170 people that they could arrest, why were they running loose?”

While authorities say the lack of security is due to over-stretched resources, Pakistanis accuse them of lacking the willpower, and of even secretly supporting Lashkar e Jhangvi.

“I doubt that any one of these men will even go to court and face a trial,” Karmal said. “Most likely they’ll be released in the next few days.”

Fundamentalist Muslim organizations have long targeted Pakistan’s Hazaras, a predominantly Shiite ethnic group with roots in Afghanistan. Pakistani Hazaras are often identifiable by their central-Asian features, like lighter skin, making them easy targets for extremists. An estimated 800 Hazara Shiites have been killed in recent years.

Hazaras say even simple tasks are becoming difficult. Markets now close at sundown for security reasons and many Hazaras are forced to avoid public transportation because of frequent attacks on nationwide buses.

After the last major attack — a massive bombing in January that killed nearly 100 people in Quetta, one of the last remaining safe-havens for the Hazara population — the central government appointed a governor for Balochistan, a restive province with a long-running separatist movement, to help bring the region under control.

But little to no action was taken against Lashkar e Jhangvi itself, which also took responsibility for January’s bombing. Human rights activists said the government is instead empowering Lashkar e Jhangvi, using the group to help quell Balochistan’s separatist insurgency.

It wouldn’t be the first time the government has turned to the group for help. Laskhar e Jhangvi is an offshoot of an organization the Pakistani military previously supported in its fight against Soviet aggression in the 1980s.

After the fall of the Soviets, the network continued to operate freely. In 1996, the more militant spin-off Laskhar e Jhangvi was born. It quickly grew in numbers and extremism, helped along with funding from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which sought to counter influence in the region by Iran, which is ruled by a Shiite theocracy, and borders Balochistan.

Some believe that, because of the historical ties between the army and Lashkar e Jhangvi, the civilian government fears a backlash from the country’s powerful military if it cracks down on the terror group.

Mohammed Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said that because Lashkar e Jhangvi may be aiding in the military’s undeclared operation against Baloch nationalists, the civilian government is hesitant to act.

“The civilian government cannot take any strong action without annoying the military establishment,” Waseem said.

Upcoming elections might also be paralyzing the government, which may not want to rock the boat by taking a more aggressive stance on events in Balochistan.

In Quetta, the Hazaras just want a change. They think the Pakistani government is unlikely to ever ensure their safety, and worry that soon the international media will stop paying attention too.

“Someone please help us,” pleaded Karamat, a Hazara man who lost his father in the January attacks and his brother in the latest. “We have nowhere to go, and if these attacks continue we won’t have a future generation.”

Another woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared for her life, said, “We have no sectarian agenda, we have no ties to Iran. We just want a place to live.”