It was a week before Eid, and the streets of Mari Abad were lit up. Even though it was midnight, women and children were out shopping for clothes, haggling with shopkeepers for earrings or firmly telling the tailor to have their clothes ready two days before Eid. Standing there, it was hard to tell that the people who live there are not entirely free.
Mari Abad is a small neighbourhood of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province in Pakistan. Over the past two decades, this neighbourhood of around five thousand houses has come to be known as a Hazara area. The city’s military cantonment lies on one side of Mari Abad, with Quetta’s signature dark, barren mountains on the other. Rangers from Pakistan’s frontier corps check every car that enters Mari Abad, and examine the identification documents of those who are not Hazara.
The Hazara can be distinguished from other ethnicities present in Quetta by the epicanthal folds on their eyes and the language they speak. They are said to have migrated from Afghanistan to parts of Pakistan and Iran in the late nineteenth century, fleeing persecution by the Afghan emir Abdur Rahman Khan. They resemble Mongols, but their language and culture borrow heavily from those of the Persians. They speak Hazaragi, a dialect of Persian. The Hazara believe they are the descendants of the army of Genghis Khan, although there is little research to substantiate this claim.
For the Hazara living in Mari Abad, Eid celebrations evoke nostalgia for a time when they could shop in the larger markets of the city, when they did not have to pay three times the retail price for products. This was a time when being a Hazara in Quetta did not carry any significance—it was little different to being a Pathan, a Brahui, a Punjabi or a member of any other ethnicity.
Since 1999, though, a spate of attacks by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni supremacist terrorist organisation, has left the Hazara isolated, and frustrated by the lack of action by the Pakistan government to protect them. The LeJ was formed in 1996 with an agenda of ridding Pakistan of all Shias, whom it believes to be infidels. Part of this agenda has been a wave of targeted killings of individuals belonging to the Hazara community. According to Pakistan’s national commission for human rights, 509 Hazara have been killed, and 627 injured, in the country between 2012 and 2017. The unofficial figures provided by the Hazara themselves are higher.