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THE SLAIN SONS OF BALOCHISTAN


Published 17 Jan, 2021 06:55am


Yaqoob Hazara was a coal miner in Mach for over 30 years. He lived in Hazara Mohalla in Mach town until 2013, when he miraculously survived a firing incident. Such incidents had become all too common in Mach. Eventually, like most Hazaras who were once based in the mohalla, Yaqoob decided to permanently relocate with his family to Hazara Town in Quetta, some 65 kilometres away.

Even after moving, Yaqoob continued working as a coal miner in Mach, until his health allowed him to. Eventually, his young and healthy son, Sadiq, took his place.

Unfortunately, unlike his father, Sadiq was not lucky enough to escape death. Early morning on January 3, when most of his family and community were still asleep, he and nine other coal miners were brutally killed in the Mach coal field area.

Masooma, Sadiq’s younger sister, heard about the killings later in the day. But used to hearing about one tragedy after the other, she tried not to think about it too much. That evening, she came across a graphic image of the butchered men on her Facebook newsfeed and saw her brother’s lifeless body in it.

Persecution and injustices have continued to haunt the Hazaras, generation after generation. The sit-ins may have come to an end, but will the community ever be safe?

“It was perfectly clear that that was my brother, lying butchered in the picture,” she tells Eos. “But even after learning this on my own, I did not believe it to be true for some time. I went numb.”

Sadiq’s family was used to not hearing from him when he went to work. Gishtery, where he worked and was killed, is a mountainous area on the outskirts of Mach town. It is situated about three kilometres away from the town and there is no cellular network coverage in the mountains. As a result, coal miners are usually cut off from their families and work in isolation, spending any free time they have in their residential quarters.


Most coal miners in the region take a day off on Friday and visit their families. But Sadiq took a break only once every two weeks. He would often return to Mach before dawn. Masooma says he used to leave Quetta early out of fear of potential sectarian violence and attacks.

Sadiq and other coal miners took the Western Bypass to travel back to Mach. Earlier this month, their coffins were brought to the same road. This is where the families of the deceased protested, in sub-zero temperatures, refusing to bury the dead until the prime minister met with them.

PLEAS OF THE DEPARTED

On the first day of the protest, the families sit with their loved ones’ dead bodies in tents. I see Masooma in the main tent, she is teary-eyed. Sadiq is not the only family member she has lost in this incident, there are four more victims from her family.

The men she would see every other week, when they came home in pick-up trucks and wagons, had been brought in on ambulances with wailing sirens, covered in kafan cloths (shrouds).

“There is not a single man left in our family who can shoulder the coffins,” she tells the journalists sitting around her, and bursts into tears. She weeps uncontrollably and a few Hazara women come to console her.

I get up and move around the tent, trying to listen to the mourners’ stories, without bombarding them with questions.

A little girl named Rehana has lost her father Muhammad Asif. Another mourner, Zara Hazara, has lost her brother, Chaman Ali, and two cousins. One of her cousins, Naseem Ali, had recently gotten married.

There is not a single man left in our family who can shoulder the coffins,” she tells the journalists sitting around her, and bursts into tears. She weeps uncontrollably and a few Hazara women come to console her.

An elderly man, Nouroz Ali, is sitting next to the coffin of his 18-year-old grandson, Ahmed. Ahmed had just recently started going to work after completing his matriculation.

We are surrounded by stories of loss. The Hazara protesters who have not lost a loved one in the recent attack have their own stories to tell. This is a community with a long history of persecution and grief. A community that has similarly protested with their loved ones’ dead bodies on the streets in the past.


Over the next few days, I keep coming back to Masooma. Unlike many others, she clearly wants to speak about her deceased brother, about her community, about coal mining at Mach.

As the days pass, Masooma gets louder and louder. “We have been witnessing such incidents over the last 22 years,” she says. “Over and over again... Hazara killings continue to take place, unabated, while the attackers have not yet been apprehended.”

Outside, the protesting crowd has continued to grow. Tea and food stalls have sprung up in the main road area. Young Hazara men bring wood to burn fires to keep themselves and their friends and families warm.

Politicians of different political parties come and meet with the mourners.

But Syed Dawood Agha, president of the Balochistan Shia Conference, keeps repeating their demand: Prime Minister Imran Khan must visit the Hazara protesters in Quetta and address their concerns.

Why is it so important that the prime minister visit, I ask Masooma.

“A prime minister is like the father of the country and we, the children,” she responds. “It is a father’s duty to assure his children’s safety.”

But things take an ugly turn when Prime Minister Khan says he will not be ‘blackmailed’ into coming to Quetta. What follows is outrage from the protesters, in Quetta and around the country. Community leaders, mourners and protesters give impassioned speeches and talk to media crews.

But, perhaps, the loudest statement is being made by the dead.

THE FINAL NAIL IN THE COFFIN

Activist Sajjad Hussain Changezi, son of a Hazara coal miner, Ramzan Ali, is one of the people who was deeply disturbed by the prime minister’s statement.

“You have insulted our bereaved mothers, who have been sitting with the bodies of their sons whose throats were slit ruthlessly,” he tweeted to the prime minister, announcing a hunger strike.

Being the son of a Hazara coal miner, Changezi was very moved when he heard about the killings. But the prime minister’s ‘blackmailing’ statement proved to be the final nail in the coffin for him. It moved Changezi to set up a ‘hunger strike camp’, in front of the Quetta Press Club, with a group of protesters.

The men she would see every other week, when they came home in pick-up trucks and wagons, had been brought in on ambulances with wailing sirens, covered in kafan cloths (shrouds).

In January, Quetta’s temperature drops to below -10 degrees Celsius. So, like the protesters at the Western Bypass, the protesters at the hunger camp too have brought with them a carpet, chargers, batteries, a mic and a gas cylinder. I can also not help but notice the many books they have carried with them, including Naveed-e-Fikr [The Dawn of Thought] by Marxist intellectual Syed Sibt-e-Hasan, Riyasat by Aflatoon [The Republic by Plato] in Urdu, and The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy.

The protesters vow to continue their strike until the prime minister apologises for his statement.

HOPING AGAINST HOPE

After protesting with their loved ones’ bodies for nearly six days, the grieving families decide to bury the dead.

Following the burial, they meet Prime Minister Imran Khan at Sardar Bahadur Khan Women University. (The prime minister finally flew into Quetta after the burials had taken place.) Masooma is one of the people who is present. She asks the prime minister multiple questions on behalf of the community.

Another Hazara woman tells Khan that if he had joined them sooner he would’ve won many hearts. “I sent the chief minister and federal ministers the very first day to look after you,” the prime minister responds.

“This is not the first such incident [of targeting] for the Hazara community,” Masooma chimes in, adding that ministers always come and make claims but Imran Khan was “our sole hope.”

“Things will be different this time, you will see,” Prime Minister Khan assures.

Following the prime minister’s departure, Masooma is told about the hunger strike camp set up by Sajjad and other activists. She decides to visit them.

Speaking to the protesters, at the camp, she says that the prime minister clarified that his statement about blackmailing was meant for the politicians of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and not for the Hazara victims’ families. Not many really belive the explanation, but nobody argues. She offers juice to Saboor Kakar, the Pashtun activist who is on strike with his Hazara friends. “The prime minister has given assurances about our safety in the province in writing,” she says. “I told him he was our hope which we have not given up.”

The protesters break the hunger strike after 30 hours without any food or drink.

WHERE TO NOW?

On Sunday, a week after the killings, I head to Hazara Town to speak to Masooma one last time. Her mother opens the gate and asks me to wait. There are still a number of women mourners, most of them clad in black chadors, present at the house.

After making space, Masooma asks me to sit in front of a heater. Her voice is heavy because of the many days she has spent protesting on an open road, in the harsh cold weather. She requests I take written notes instead of recording her voice.

“Sadiq has two children from his first wife,” she tells me, adding that he recently got married a second time. “He worked hard to earn a living for them and for us.” Masooma says that when Sadiq would visit every two weeks, he would bring 10,000 rupees with him for the family. “That was how we kept the stove at our home burning.”

“We wanted him [to stay] here,” she says. “Unfortunately, there is no work in Hazara Town. Youngsters remain jobless in our town. That is why he would spend less time here.”

In the evening, the mourners start to leave as darkness falls. I also take my leave.

On my way back, I drive by the Western Bypass. Not too long before the protests, two Shia Hazara coal miners had been targeted and killed on this very road, and another two were injured, while they were on their way to Mach.

While Masooma has reiterated many times that she is hopeful things will finally change for her community, one wonders when this cycle of persecution will really end. We’ve heard the reassurances many times before.

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @Akbar_Notezai

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 17th, 2021

https://www.dawn.com/news/1601937/the-slain-sons-of-balochistan

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