May 27. 2014
“Every morning, as I step out of my house to drop my children to school, the fear of being recognised haunts me,” says 32-year-old Fatima, a member of the Hazara community living in Karachi’s Hussain Hazara Goth. “If I hear footsteps approaching behind me, I think to myself, ‘Could this be my killer?’ I quickly step into a rickshaw but as it drives out of the alley, with the sound of any motorcycle passing by, I prepare myself to be shot from any direction,” says the round-faced brunette, her hazel eyes visibly filled with grief.
Most of the 13,000 Hazaras living in Karachi moved to the city to avoid persecution and the deadly attacks they were facing, both for their sectarian beliefs and ethnic identity, in Quetta and other parts of Balochistan. “I could not stay in Quetta any longer,” whispers Batool Ali, shuddering with fear, as she recalls the June 2012 bomb attack on her university bus. “I was sitting in the back of the bus, so I survived with injuries,” she pauses, wiping away her tears. “Every time I passed by that road, the entire incident replayed in my head; blood and bodies were everywhere; my friends were lying on the road, dead. It was too much to bear.” Traumatised, she stopped going to the university, and decided to enroll herself in Karachi instead.
She discovered that life in Karachi was not as easy as she had expected. Security remained elusive and there was no official or non-government support for Hazaras under death threats. Then there were logistical issues.
Karachi does not have many hostels to accommodate those who come here for studies and don’t have families here. Ali now lives with some distant relatives. But, as she says, at least she does not have to cross the same road everyday where she lost many of her friends. That, for her, is a huge emotional relief. ‘It is better than dying a ruthless death,’ is how many Hazaras justify their migration from Quetta to Karachi.
For many of them, however, it changes nothing. Even in Karachi, they live under constant fear. Many Hazaras living in Hussain Hazara Goth complain that their places of worship come under continuous attacks and their women are stalked and threatened when they are seen on the streets. “I hardly step out of my house, except when necessary. When I do, it is almost as if I am paralysed by fear,” says Fatima, born and raised in Karachi. Her fear is mirrored by the whole Hazara community, including the rickshaw driver who takes her around. “He is the sole bread earner of his family. What if he gets killed because of me?” she asks.
For more than 600,000 Hazaras across Pakistan, such fears are part of their daily routine. The uncertainty of making it back home alive each day, or questioning whether they will see their children, siblings, parents and relatives alive, has become the basic reality of their lives.
The first terrorist attack on the Hazaras took place in Quetta in the late 1990s but the deadliest so far have been two blasts in the first two months of 2013, which together led to the death of around 200 people, including women and children. According to Nazish Brohi, an independent researcher and human rights activist based in Karachi, “Hazaras are targeted in waves of religious extremism sweeping the country. They are killed because they are Shia.” She points out that ethnic identity could be an additional reason for Hazaras becoming targets of sectarian killers. “Because of their ethnicity, they are physically distinct,” she says. “But, it is important to see that Shias are being targeted across the country — in Karachi, in Hangu, in Gilgit, in Kohat and in Quetta.”
Many Hazara women living in Quetta and Karachi have an additional problem to take care of: They live by themselves, without their male relatives around. Men of their families – husbands, brothers and fathers – have left to seek refuge elsewhere in the world, mostly Australia.
Fatima lives with her two sisters and her brother’s wife. “We help each other run our households and raise our children, who are all under the age of 10.”
It is hard to live without any men in the house, says Fatima, but it was harder when they were around because of the constant anxiety and terror the women would go through each time the men stepped out of the house. “My sisters and I would take turns to call them, incessantly, just to be sure that they were alive,” she says, her voice lowering to a level barely audible. She pauses, just long enough to gather herself, “It became part of our routine — the fear, the insecurity. It was making us all miserable.”
Frustrated by this intolerable uncertainty, the men left Pakistan in search of safety and security. “At least, I know my husband and my brother are alive. I guess this is enough for now,” says Fatima. Given the travails of travel, men do not take women along with them as they embark on their arduous journey across borders and through seas. This leaves behind the women to not just run their households but also to take care of their ageing in-laws and parents. “We can’t just pack up everything and leave. It is not easy. Our parents, relatives and in-laws all depend on us,” she tells the Herald.
Other shores, other worries
“Around 100,000 Hazaras have migrated from Balochistan to either other parts of Pakistan or outside the country,” says Tahir Hussain Khan, the vice president of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). “The most common destinations for migrating Hazaras are Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand,” he says. Most of them are now living in Australia. Indonesia, too, is housing about 20,000 Hazaras (living there mostly illegally), he adds.
Fatima’s brother Abdullah is one of the fortunate ones who made it to Australia and was granted political asylum. Her husband, however, is still struggling in Saudi Arabia, like numerous others from his community who wake up each morning with the hope of living a normal life again.
For almost all of them, the only means to escape from Pakistan are illegal. The journey starts in Karachi and, passing through Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, is expected to end in Australia. The last leg of the journey usually comprises a highly risky boat ride across open seas between Indonesia and Australia. The travellers, generally, have little else to cling to, other than the hope to make it to the Australian shore; a possibility becoming increasingly uncertain, recently. “At least 1,000 Hazaras have drowned or have gone missing while trying to exit Pakistan,” says Khan.
Habibullah Manavi, a 22-year-old student from Quetta, could have been one of those. After walking through jungles, being mugged in Indonesia and held in a detention centre there for months, he finally got on to a boat to Australia, along with 34 other Hazara asylum seekers. Within 24 hours after the boat started its journey towards Christmas Island – a small Australian territory about 240 miles off the Indonesian coast – it capsized in a storm. He drifted on the sea for three days. While many of his co-travellers died in front of him, Manavi was rescued by Indonesian fishermen who brought him back to Indonesia, where authorities put him in a detention centre. After going through this ordeal for close to two years, only recently did he manage to get a valid visa for Australia.
On a prayer and a wing
“I did not want to go abroad but I had to do,” Manavi tells the Herald, on the phone from Indonesia. “The situation in Quetta was deteriorating by the day. I could lose my life in a random killing. I did not want to die like that,” he says.
In early July 2012, he travelled from Pakistan to Malaysia on a valid visa and met a human smuggler there, who arranged for his journey to Indonesia by boat. “I stayed in Kuala Lumpur for two days and paid 2,000 US dollars to get to Indonesia. After many weeks, he ended up not in Jakarta but in an Indonesian prison. “I remained in lock-up for a month with many others like me. Each of us was made to pay bribes at different rates for our release.”
Once out of prison, Manavi again contacted the human smuggler who helped him reach the Indonesian district of Bogor, where he joined a small community of Hazaras all waiting to go to Australia. Like him, they all had landed there after bribing their way through the Indonesian prisons and paying heavy amounts of money to human smugglers along the way. After many a twist and turn, Manavi managed to secure a berth on the ill-fated boat to Christmas Island.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says there are around 8,262 registered asylum seekers including Hazaras. Since the country is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, it therefore, does not let anyone stay as a refugee on its territory. But the UNHCR and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) run small centres within Indonesia where applications are processed for refugee status and those who get that status are then resettled in other countries. Of the many thousand asylum seekers in Indonesia, only 2,078 have received the status of refugees from the UNHCR, with the cases of more than 750 sent to different countries for resettlement. Hazaras cannot legally find work in Indonesia and even if they are under UNHCR’s watch, they have to survive on a meagre monthly stipend. “I live in a community house in Yogyakarta under the supervision of UNHCR and IOM. There are 40 Hazaras here. We are not allowed to work but we can roam around the city,” Manavi tells the Herald.
According to the HRCP, Hazaras leaving Pakistan are not illiterate and poor— as is generally the case with economic migrants from other parts of the country. “Among them are businessmen, highly educated workers and senior government officials,” says Khan of HRCP.
Amjad Hussain, 40, a senior Hazara journalist, is one of them. Till 2010, he was based in Quetta, working as a reporter with a prominent private television news channel. Then, he started receiving death threats. While he was in Islamabad on a reporting assignment, his best friend was shot on April 16, 2010, right outside the main entrance of the bank where he was working, on Quetta’s Jinnah Road. He succumbed to his wounds before reaching the hospital. When a large number of people from the Hazara community gathered at the hospital to receive his body, a suicide bomber exploded himself at the entrance of the emergency ward, killing many more.
Hussain received a call the same night. “The person on the phone told me that I was his next target,” he says. His employer transferred him to Islamabad for his safety but he kept receiving warnings against reporting under his own name. The threats also made him write to the then Australian Prime Minister and the Australian immigration minister, asking them for a work visa. But his only option was a refugee status.
Knowing that life in Australia would not be easy as a refugee, Hussain, however, decided that it would definitely be “more promising than staying in Pakistan,” where he faced constant threats to his life. He now lives in Australia waiting to become a legal refugee, having left behind a long and successful career in journalism, as well as his wife and two children.
Most Hazaras choose Australia as their best bet, because they have community support there. As they generally are a close- knit society, they are offered all kinds of help from the community upon reaching there.
Even the few fortunate ones who, like Hussain, are able to make it to Australia on legal documents, may have to wait for over a year to have their applications for refugee status approved. Faced with ever-increasing numbers of asylum seekers and economic migrants trying to reach Australia, the government there has tightened its border control and made its immigration rules and regulations very stringent. For instance, anyone applying for asylum in Australia on the basis of a threat to his life, while in Pakistan, must provide evidence of the threat. Many Hazara families in Quetta and Karachi, indeed, meticulously put together all photographic evidence of any attacks against them, in case they need it to apply for asylum in Australia.
Australian authorities are also making a lot of effort to limit the number of asylum seekers, including clamping down on human traffickers as well as working closely with countries where most asylum seekers originate from. Australian officials, for instance, are collaborating with Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to ensure that those leaving Pakistani airports and other exit points for Australia have valid travel documents. For those trying to reach Australia by boat, rules and regulations have become even stricter. The Australian High Commission in Pakistan has put up huge bilingual billboards – in Urdu and Hazargi – in Quetta to warn potential migrants that anyone seeking to illegally enter Australia by boat “will never make Australia [their] home”.
Journalist Hussain, says these precautions will deter few, if any, Hazaras from trying to leave Pakistan. They face a certain death if they stay in Quetta or Karachi but, if they try to make it to Australia; they have a slim chance of surviving. They will always be ready to take that chance, no matter how slim, he tells the Herald.