On a cold February day in London, over 40 Hazara men, women and children sat wrapped in blankets at the foot of the King George V monument opposite the Houses of Parliament. They were protesting the bombing of a vegetable market on February 16 in Quetta, Pakistan, that killed at least 91 of their brethren and wounded 190 more. It was the second day of their three-day sit-in and many had braved the freezing temperatures and the rain overnight. They had chosen to protest in this way as Hazaras — a predominantly Shi‘i Afghan ethnic group with a large, long-standing community in southwestern Pakistan — rather than joining the larger and more vocal crowd of diverse Shi‘i protesters outside the Pakistani High Commission two miles away. Their message was transmitted through simple homemade placards with images of bloodied children’s bodies and signs with the words “Wake Up UN” and “Stop Killing Hazara.” A small sign read: “Our dear ones in Quetta must know that we are not only shedding tears for them, but we are defending them with our bodies and souls.” Written in the Hazaras’ native Persian, this sign was clearly intended to be broadcast via social media to their fellow protesters in Quetta and around the world.

This protest, organized by a fledgling umbrella organization of over 30 Hazara community groups called the Hazara Council of Great Britain, is part of a larger wave of Hazara political and cultural activism around the world that attempts to tackle the disadvantaged position of Hazaras in many of the countries in which they live. Historically known as the most downtrodden ethnic group of Afghanistan (as famously depicted in The Kite Runner), the majority of Hazaras are Twelver Shi‘a originating in the mountainous Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, and are thought to be descended from early Buddhist settlers or the armies of Genghis Khan. They have been victims of ethno-sectarian massacres by the Taliban and other extremist Sunni groups, and are often easy to target because their “Mongolian” features distinguish them from many of their neighbors.

In the last century, millions of Hazaras have become refugees or migrant workers for reasons of poverty compounded by brutal repression. The most extreme repression was the campaign waged against them in the 1890s by the emir of Kabul, Abdul Rahman, in which two thirds of the Hazara population was massacred or displaced, thousands were enslaved, and towers were made of the heads of defeated fighters. Indeed, the Hazara community in Quetta, now largely citizens of Pakistan, is descended from those who fled at that time (as is the Khavari ethnic group of Iran, although the latter no longer identify closely with their kin in Afghanistan). Both Iran and Pakistan later hosted twentieth-century waves of migrants and refugees, particularly in the three decades of war that began in 1979, and thousands of these people later migrated to Australia, Europe or North America, some under the auspices of the United Nations. The major Hazara populations in the world are in Afghanistan (3-6 million), Pakistan (over 650,000), Iran (over 350,000 with refugee documents and a large but unknown number undocumented) and 20,000 in Australia, though accurate numbers are hard to come by and estimates vary widely.

The present mobilization is due to a confluence of factors. First, the Hazaras have capitalized on their global dispersion, investing heavily in education and trade through vast kin networks. [1] Second, Afghanistan’s most recent decades of war have helped to crystallize a unified ethnic identity, particularly under the leadership of the Hezb-e Wahdat (Unity Party) formed in 1989, overriding earlier ideological and tribal divisions that led them to mostly fight each other in the 1980s. Third, the US intervention in 2001 removed their hated enemies, the Taliban, along with earlier discriminatory measures that had hindered their advancement in the country. This last event has ushered in what some observers call a “golden period” for the Hazaras of Afghanistan, who are now considered by many to be one of the most liberal and well-educated ethnic groups in the country. [2] In 2012, eight of the top ten places in the national university entrance exam went to Hazaras. They are also known for their embrace of women’s rights and education: The first female provincial governor in Afghanistan, Habiba Sarabi, is a Hazara, as are Azra Jafari, the first female mayor of an Afghan town, and Sima Samar, a medical doctor who became the first minister of women’s affairs in the post-2001 period. Despite these gains, Hazaras find it difficult to get the public-sector jobs that are still dominated by other ethnic groups, though they  have found other niches: One Canada-based Hazara blogger claims that they are “the leading ethnic group in education, sports, arts and other creative fields” in Afghanistan, despite comprising a mere one tenth to one fifth of the population, according to various estimates. [3]

Yet this growing political clout and confidence exists alongside continued persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, and Hazara online and on-the-ground activism is developing in the context of this dual reality. After each of the two terrible attacks of 2013 — an earlier double suicide bombing in a snooker club on January 10 killed 92 people and wounded 121 — the distraught Hazara community of Quetta organized mass sit-ins and refused to bury the dead until the Pakistani government took steps to assure their security and punish the culprits. Thanks to social media, within minutes Hazaras across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Australia, Europe and North America were planning parallel protests and making heartfelt statements of support.

Attacks in Pakistan

Sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi‘a in Pakistan, although not a new phenomenon, has escalated to alarming proportions since 2007, and is seen as “arguably the most dangerous fallout for Pakistan of the US-led war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.” [4] The militant group that took responsibility for both 2013 bombings, Lashkar-e Jhangvi (Army of Jhangvi), was formed in 1996 as a local movement against the dominance of wealthy Shi‘i landlords in Punjab — a more radical offshoot of the Sipah-e Sahaba, a Deobandi (anti-Shi‘i and anti-American) political party. It has been designated a terrorist group by both Pakistan and the United States. In recent times, Lashkar-e Jhangvi has become increasingly murderous and has declared its intent to eliminate the Shi‘a of Pakistan. Hazaras have been singled out, and in their own accounts they are increasingly using the word genocide to describe what is happening. Certainly, Lashkar’s stated intent is genocidal: In an open letter that circulated in Pakistan shortly before two attacks on Hazaras traveling by bus in the fall of 2011 left 30 people dead, it declared that “all Shiites are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of unclean people.” In particular, Lashkar-e Jhangvi intends to “make Pakistan the graveyard of the Shiite Hazaras.” [5]

One of the reasons for this escalation and Lashkar-e Jhangvi’s new focus on the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, of which Quetta is the capital, is the group’s development of close ties with the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan). The two groups share a hatred of Shi‘a and have cooperated in a number of recent operations, such as the attack on the Sri Lankan national cricket team in 2009. Lashkar-e Jhangvi helps the Pakistani Taliban secure land routes by stirring up anti-Shi‘i sentiment in border regions, and the Afghan Taliban, in turn, have offered Lashkar safe havens in Afghanistan for cross-border operations. In 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai blamed Lashkar for a series of coordinated attacks near shrines in three Afghan cities, killing over 70 people who were commemorating ‘Ashura, the holiest day of the Shi‘i calendar, on which Imam Husayn was martyred at Karbala’. The mushrooming of Saudi-funded Deobandi madrasas in Baluchistan feeds recruits to both groups.

The Pakistani authorities’ response to recent sectarian violence has been lackadaisical. The chief minister of Baluchistan was sacked after the January attack and emergency “governor rule” declared, but these steps did nothing to halt the violence. After the first attack 170 people, including Malik Ishaq, Lashkar-e Jhangvi’s operational chief, were arrested in police raids, but few believe in the efficacy of these arrests. Malik Ishaq himself has been detained numerous times and charged with hundreds of murders but, amid a grim track record of witness intimidation and assassination, has yet to have a conviction upheld. [6]

Another factor that cannot be ignored is Baluchistan’s own separatist insurgency. The difficulties the Pakistani army has had in containing it lead some to speculate that the army is not entirely innocent of Lashkar-e Jhangvi’s activities in Baluchistan, as the insecurity provides a good excuse for its continued presence. Indeed, increasing numbers of analysts, journalists and ordinary people believe that some section of the Pakistani establishment is either turning a blind eye to sectarian attacks or is complicit in them. [7] It is unclear whence such complicity would stem — perceived benefit from insecurity in Baluchistan, fear of personal reprisals from radical groups or reliance on provincial vote banks. But even British parliamentarians sympathetic to the Hazaras have stated that there is “absolutely no doubt” that there are elements in the Pakistani government and security forces who condone the killing. [8] This factor makes the Hazara community’s call for a military takeover of Quetta both poignant and most likely futile.

As a result, Hazara grief and anger have reached a crescendo. In Quetta, they have taken matters into their own hands and a Hazara scout group has taken up arms to police the community’s neighborhoods. Community leaders are quick to disavow vigilantism: They are cooperating with the police and their work is based on previous experience of providing security for Shi‘i religious processions. Few Hazaras seem interested in armed revenge, and claims that Iran is channeling funds to them seem ill founded. For a community that originally came to Quetta to escape Abdul Rahman’s depredations over a hundred years ago, it is an ironic fate. An estimated 30,000 of them have risked life-threatening journeys to seek asylum in Australia or Europe rather than wait for the next massacre. [9]

Protest Movements

In the days following the February attack, the volume of online responses among the Hazara community was hard to miss. Facebook was a crucial tool for spontaneous sharing of news of the attacks (including graphic photographs and videos), information about protests and outpourings of grief, support and solidarity. Slick Hazara websites registered in Western countries, such as www.hazarapeople.com and www.wahdatnews.com, also spread the news, and one, www.hazara.net, has kept a tally of the dead and wounded in all sectarian attacks since 1999. Hazara activists shared news and photographs from protests across Pakistan and Afghanistan, several European and Australian cities, in front of the CNN headquarters in Atlanta, at the UN office in New Delhi, and outside the Canadian parliament in Ottawa.

Protesters in London have focused on soliciting action — or at least recognition of the situation — from the British and Pakistani governments. One of the organizers, Ali Hedayat from Leeds, said: “The British parliament is always talking about justice. We want them to act on that rather than just saying it. We want them to debate the issue of the mass killings of Shi‘a Hazaras in Pakistan, and we want the prime minister and the foreign secretary to issue a statement condemning it.” Wahida Tahmasbi, a student from Oxford, said: “We are tired of seeing our people killed in Pakistan. Everyone has family members there. They can’t even go to the shops without wondering if they will come back alive. We want the Pakistani government to end this genocide, to find whoever is involved and arrest them. They must show the Hazara people that Quetta is a safe place for them to live.”

While the protesters had a number of conflicting theories as to why Hazaras are being targeted, they all agreed that the basic reason is that they are defenseless and easily identifiable. It is easy, therefore, for a number of domestic and international groups to attack Hazaras to wage proxy conflicts that have little to do with them. They were also skeptical about Pakistan’s response. Jamila Sarvari from Nottingham, who attended the protest with her husband, grew up in Quetta and still has family there. “They have arrested people before but never convicted anyone — they were just released two or three days later. Who knows who they’re arresting anyway — perhaps they are just ordinary people, for show. If they wanted to send a message, they could punish the perpetrators in front of their own communities — then this would stop immediately.”

Hazara activism in different places has arisen within local constraints and possibilities, and its character has subtly varied. While it could be said that the worldwide movement represents a common repertoire of non-violent mass protest that became universal throughout the twentieth century, its local manifestations inevitably reflect Hazaras’ position in the particular country, as well as local political conditions, idioms and symbols. At the source of the violence in Pakistan, for example, the act of refusal to bury the dead until justice has been achieved on their behalf is a time-honored form of protest that owes its potency to its contravention of the Islamic custom that burial should take place as soon as possible after death. It is so contrary to the natural order of things — a sign of total desperation and refusal — that the dead have a unique capacity to “make things happen” politically, as one Pakistani commentator wrote. [10] It was perhaps this shockingly visible form of protest that urged Pakistani Shi‘a and even Sunnis in other cities to join in protests on an unprecedented scale across Pakistan. (In March 2013, when another bomb hit a non-Hazara Shi‘i area in Karachi, the Quetta Hazaras protested in solidarity.)

There have been no protests in Iran, where, despite its size, the Hazara and Afghan refugee population in general prefers a strategy of invisibility due to the discrimination it faces in the country, both from the state and from ordinary people. Even before the crackdown on protests following the disputed presidential election in 2009, which has dampened mass demonstrations among Iranian citizens, protests by Afghans were not tolerated by the authorities. One prominent Hazara advocate for drug addicts in Kabul was imprisoned in Iran for her role in a small demonstration by Afghan refugee women against the imposition of school fees on Afghan children in 2004. In the relative political freedom back in her homeland, she was an active participant in the most recent Hazara protests in Kabul.

Hazaras in Britain and Australia, meanwhile, have become adept at writing letters to their MPs, although on the occasion of the February attack, wishing to coordinate their protest with that in Quetta, the London group inadvertently came up against the half-term recess of Parliament and was unable to meet representatives in person. Their message did not go unheard, however, and the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury, vice chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, organized a discussion of the issue in the House of Lords later that month. [11] Hazaras elsewhere have gained the support of the French Socialist Party, and the Australian minister for foreign affairs, Bob Carr, who promised to raise the issue with his Pakistani counterpart. No doubt there are domestic political reasons for such engagement: Australian politicians, for example, have an interest in stemming the flow of Hazara asylum seekers, given the heightened emotions that immigration issues arouse in almost every election. Hazaras are currently the largest ethnic group arriving in Australia by boat. [12]

But while Hazaras in many places emphasized their ethnicity, those in Kabul downplayed it: They chose to describe themselves as “civil society activists” and urged their friends of other ethnicities to show their support. Hafizullah Shariati, a poet, linguist and university lecturer educated in both Pakistan and Iran and one of the organizers of the hunger strike and sit-in in Kabul, appealed on Facebook to all his friends of various ethnic backgrounds to support the strike, with the words, “Terrorists have come to our house, and your house is not far from ours.” He later noted with satisfaction that supporters from most ethnic groups, including several prominent politicians, had come to encourage the protesters. The politicians included Ahmad Zia Masoud, brother of the slain Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Masoud and leader of the National Front (a reformed version of the Northern Alliance that ousted the Taliban with US support in 2001 and continues to strongly oppose their return to power), and Princess India, daughter of Amanullah Khan, the early twentieth-century Pashtun sovereign of Afghanistan.

Many ordinary Afghans of all ethnicities also expressed their support through social media, reflecting the fact that in Afghanistan, educated urban dwellers in particular recognize the need to put ethnic fragmentation behind them and build a common Afghan identity. It is certainly in Hazaras’ interests to build alliances and promote discourses of ethnic tolerance, human rights and equal citizenship, for as 2014 approaches they are increasingly nervous that if the Taliban return to power, their lives may once again be in danger.

Connecting the Diaspora

Although many rushed to call the political transformations that swept the Middle East beginning in 2011 the “Internet revolutions,” the initial assessment of the importance of social media in the uprisings was soon scaled down. In the case of Hazara diaspora activism, online and mobile communication has given significant momentum to the protest movement. At the London protest, Khadija Abbasi, a postgraduate student of anthropology, described its role as pivotal. On the first day of the protest, she said,

most people had their mobile phones out and had Facebook up and running. They were in contact with other Hazara groups throughout Europe and even in Quetta — messages were being sent back and forth, video clips were being posted on Facebook from Quetta, people were looking at them, and they were encouraged to continue. When they saw that thousands of people were out there [in Quetta] in the cold weather, even small children, they said—why shouldn’t we be able to endure the cold? Through these websites and Facebook, they can be in contact much more easily, more comfortably and more inexpensively. In my opinion, [the Internet] plays an incredibly crucial role. People have been deriving energy from each other.

Abbasi is a member of a working group in the process of putting together another umbrella organization of Hazara groups across Europe. They have online video conferences, sometimes including over 100 people, and share information via Facebook. This group hopes to hold its first offline meeting in Vienna this spring and aims to attract intellectuals who are interested in action, not merely debate. While Hazara community groups have long existed wherever refugees settled, certainly this kind of supra-local organizing would not have been possible without inexpensive access to the Internet.

Hazara activists have been so successful in their global organizing that some fear they may actually weaken the Hazara cause by undercutting the power base of prominent Hazara politicians such as Karim Khalili and Mohammad Mohaqiq, who each head one of the splinter groups of the Hezb-e Wahdat, the party which united all of Afghanistan’s Hazaras during the civil war of the 1990s. The conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s led for the first time to the solidifying of an ethno-national consciousness among the Hazaras, as it did among Afghanistan’s Tajiks and Pashtuns. For the Hazaras, this identity based in large part on a sense of collective suffering and martyrdom, in which a continuous thread is seen to run from the atrocities of Abdul Rahman to the Afshar massacre of 1993 to the Taliban and now Lashkar-e Jhangvi. There are signs, however, that — like other Afghans — younger Hazaras in particular are tired of their former mujahideen commanders and are looking to a new leadership. Increasingly, such leadership initiatives seem to be coming from the worldwide diaspora.

The Call of Karbala’

The role of religion proved a contentious issue in the London protest. Religious idioms are a natural fallback for a Shi‘i movement, as the persecution their holy figures suffered at the battle of Karbala’ 1,400 years ago is an easy rallying call and a deeply emotive shared cultural narrative that can be used to rouse people to action. It is also embedded in their religious practice, as the events of Karbala’ are commemorated every year during the month of Muharram, for example through prayers and laments for the dead imams that can be adapted to mourn anyone unjustly killed. Politicized Shi‘ism has become particularly ingrained in Iran, where many Hazaras have lived as refugees or have close relatives.

But when someone at the London sit-in played the dua-ye tawassul (a specifically Shi‘i prayer considered by Sunnis to be blasphemous because it is addressed to the Prophet Muhammad rather than directly to God), not everyone was happy. The more secular members of the group said that they had come to a political protest, not a rouzekhani (a Shi‘i lament for the martyrs of Karbala’). Some described the dead as “martyrs” while others insisted on the more neutral term koshta-shodegan (the killed). They argued that Shi‘i extremism helped to get them into the trouble they are in: There are radical Shi‘i preachers who rain down curses on Sunni beliefs and their holy figures, fanning the flames of Deobandi hatred. One of the most inflammatory of these is Sheikh Hassan Allahyari, an Afghan cleric who operates a satellite TV station out of the United States. In another contradiction of the theory that Lashkar-e Jhangvi’s attacks on Hazaras are some kind of Saudi-Iranian proxy war, Iran has actually shut down Allahyari’s station’s offices on its territory due to its provocative nature.

Yet the images of Karbala’ are efficacious and persistent. A fresh-faced young Afghan Hazara musician called Abbas Neshat posted a video clip on his Facebook wall with a new song he had recorded, edited over photographs of the protests in Quetta and the bodies of the dead laid out in a morgue. The song was in the Hazaregi dialect, and the lyrics were displayed with adapted spelling representing colloquial Hazaregi pronunciation. Abbas Neshat plays the dambura, a long-necked lute, and sings Hazaregi folk songs. A popular contestant on “Setare-ye Afghan” (Afghan Star), the televised music competition akin to “American Idol” that has taken the country by storm, Neshat has over 3,000 friends and followers on Facebook, hundreds of whom had “liked,” shared and commented on the song within days of its posting.

My soul brother, my martyred sister, lovely as a flower
Your crimson blood is the standard bearer of our hope

You will go down in history as honorable and noble
Faithful to peace and true to your word
With the blood of these martyrs
You have rooted out ignorance and deception

The oppressor has been degraded and humbled by you
The flowing river has become a stream of blood
By the grace of the crimson blood of the innocents
The enemy’s system and his palace have been overthrown.

The song is replete with familiar Shi‘i rhetoric and symbolism (the “standard bearer,” for example, refers to the leader of an ‘Ashura procession who carries the banner of Imam Husayn). The “oppressor,” originally the Umayyad caliph Yazid, can be readily transposed into any setting and is often conveniently non-specific, signifying injustice itself. As with the dead of Karbala’, who were triumphant in their defeat by virtue of their descendants’ survival and flourishing, it is hoped that the spilled blood of these martyrs will guide and unite those they leave behind.

The song also reflects the importance Hazaras place on showing that they are indeed “faithful to peace” and different from their tormentors. Perhaps sensing that their greatest strength lies in promoting religiously and ethnically pluralist societies, they consciously limit their weapons to a globalized repertoire of non-violent protests, sit-ins and hunger-strikes, and their rhetoric speaks of civil society, tolerance and solidarity. They appeal to the UN and avail themselves of democratic processes where they can. It is unclear whether the Hazara mobilization around the world can directly affect the Pakistani state’s response to the violence, so perhaps the defiant image with which the song ends remains a distant dream. There is no doubt, however, that it comforts and encourages Pakistani Hazaras in their quest for justice, and — for the time being — is a powerful force of ethnic solidarity.

Author’s Note: I am grateful to Khadija Abbasi for her help in translating the Hazaregi song lyrics.


[1] Alessandro Monsutti, War and Migration: Social Networks and Economic Strategies of the Hazaras of Afghanistan (New York: Routledge, 2005).
[2] Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 2007.
[3] Ali Karimi, “Hazara Students Receive Highest Scores in National Exam,” The Lost Flaneur, March 27, 2012, http://thelostflaneur.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/hazara-students-score-highin-national-exam.
[4] Huma Yusuf, Sectarian Violence: Pakistan’s Greatest Security Threat? (Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, July 2012), p. 1.
[5] Quoted in Asia Times, October 5, 2011.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Guardian, February 17, 2013.
[8] News International, November 23, 2012.
[9] Global Mail, December 12, 2012.
[10] Syed Talat Hussain, “The Dead Can Make Things Happen,” The Express Tribune, February 20, 2013.
[11] Eric Avebury, “We Must Heed the Cries of the Hazaras,” Liberal Democrat Voice, February 26, 2013.
[12] Global Mail, December 12, 2012.

How to cite this article:

Zuzanna Olszewska "Quetta’s Sectarian Violence and the Global Hazara Awakening," Middle East Report 266 (Spring 2013).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This