QUETTA, PAKISTAN - Ali Haris dreamed of getting a college degree and a well-paid job. Instead, he had to quit his education after high school. Going to Balochistan University, the only public university in the area that he could afford, would require him to travel through areas unsafe for him, putting his life at risk.
“At that time, around 2013-14, there was no chance that if we went there we would come back alive,” he said. He wasn’t alone in giving up the prospects of a comfortable future.
“Out of my class in school, almost 70-80 percent quit higher education,” he added. Some who could afford it migrated to other cities or other countries. The ones left behind were doing odd jobs in the area.
The 21-year-old belonged to the Hazara community, a minority Shiite sect that primarily resides in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. For years, Sunni militant groups in Pakistan have targeted Shiites across the country for their faith, but the Hazaras seem to have an extra-large target blazed on their backs.
While it is usually hard to physically distinguish between Shiites and Sunnis, the Hazaras are an exception. Their distinctive facial features, a mixture of Mongolian and Central Asian ancestry, make them easily identifiable. In addition, many of them live in two large clusters in Quetta, the capital city of Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province, making attacks easier to plan.
Over the last 10 or so years, hundreds have been killed in suicide bombings or targeted attacks. Stories of near death experiences are aplenty.
“We were saved just because the car took a turn. If we were a few seconds late, we would be gone,” said Daud Changezi, describing the day when a massive blast ripped through Quetta’s Alamdar road, killing more than 90 people. In the car with Changezi were his wife and four kids.
He now works from home, consulting for various NGOs, but feels his professional growth has stagnated.
“The favorite part of my job was field work. Now I can’t go out,” he said, although he still feels he is one of the luckier ones—at least he has a job. Many of his friends were less fortunate.
“My friend Abdul had a mobile phone shop in the main bazaar, but he closed his business and left the country. He is now in Indonesia, in a transit center for refugees,” Changezi said.
Protection for Hazaras
After several particularly heinous attacks in 2013, the government started providing Hazaras extra protection. A paramilitary force called the Frontier Corps set up check posts at main entrances to Hazara areas. Anyone going inside is now stopped, their identity documents checked. Peripheral entrances are blocked by thick walls.
While these measures have helped stem attacks on Hazaras, they have also stifled the community’s social and economic life. The designated safe areas for Hazaras mean the rest of the city is inherently unsafe for them.
“We've been economically strangled. We had a lot of shops around town. Now there are none. We had a successful transport business across town. Now we are limited to our own areas,” said Ahmed Ali Kohzad, a politician and a member of the Hazara Democratic Party.
Many have left their jobs because they feel unsafe traveling to work. Haris recalled how one of his friends was called for a job interview. It could be a lucrative career in a government office. But he was the only son and the family decided against sending him.
Others, like a local journalist Qadir Nayel, complained of social isolation.
“While the city is multi-cultural, our kids are learning only one culture and one language. They are not getting ready for the world,” he said.
The government says it has taken remedial steps and the situation has significantly improved as a result.
Since the beginning of the violence, several thousand Hazaras from Pakistan have tried to migrate to other countries, sometimes illegally. Several thousands of them are languishing, along with Hazaras from Afghanistan and Iran, in transit camps in Indonesia, waiting, sometimes for years, for the UNHCR to help them settle in another country. Meanwhile, since Indonesia does not recognize refugees, they cannot enroll in a school, work, or travel.
Meanwhile back in Pakistan, the young Hazara men who once hoped to support families are now struggling to support themselves.
“Right now I am working here as a laborer, Haris said. “The dreams I had, the prospects of income I imagined, they’re all gone.”