Fleeing Pakistan Violence, Hazaras Brave Uncertain Journey

NYTimes: Declan Walsh [April 28, 2013] |

KARACHI, Pakistan — Stranded in a dingy hotel in the heart of this port city, waiting for the smuggler’s call, Hussain felt at once trapped and poised for freedom.

Behind lay his hometown, Quetta, the city in western Pakistan that has become a killing ground for Sunni sectarian death squads that hunt Shiites. So far this year they have killed almost 200 people, and Hussain was nearly one of them. Lifting a pants leg, he displayed an eight-inch scar from a bomb blast in January.

But great danger also lay ahead. Hussain was headed for Australia, where thousands of his fellow ethnic Hazaras, Shiites who have borne the brunt of the recent violence, have sought refuge. The illegal journey — across Southeast Asia by air, ground and sea at the mercy of unscrupulous human traffickers — would be long and perilous. Several hundred Hazaras had died on that route in recent years, most when their rickety boats foundered at sea.

For Hussain, it was worth the risk.

“I’d rather die in the boat than in a bomb blast,” he said, twisting a cup of coffee nervously in a restaurant near the hotel. “At least this way, I get to choose.”

Hussain, 25, is part of a growing exodus of young Hazara men who are fleeing Pakistan as it has become apparent that their government and military cannot, or will not, protect them from violent extremists.

In Quetta, where most Pakistani Hazaras live, the attacks are led by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a fanatical group that views Shiites as heretics. With their distinctive Central Asian features and historical links to anti-Taliban forces, the Hazaras make an appealing target. After a decade of intermittent attacks, bloodshed is suddenly surging: two Lashkar suicide bombings this year killed almost 200 people, up from 125 in 2012.

That toll set off a long-overdue security crackdown, but the attacks resumed last Tuesday with a suicide attack on a Hazara politician that killed six people. To young men like Hussain, whose family runs a clothes shop, the next bomb is only a matter of time.

“We can live without the basics of life — gas, electricity and so on,” said Hussain, who asked to be identified by just part of his name in the hope of avoiding arrest on his journey. “But we can’t live with the fear.”

Hussain’s older brother was shot and killed by militants in 2008. His own brush with death came on Jan. 10, after a powerful blast ripped through a snooker hall near his house. As Hussain rushed to help, he was caught in a second explosion that killed rescue workers, police officers and journalists. He blacked out.

“I don’t remember the sound of the blast,” he said. “Just the feeling, like a sort of sonic pulse.” He awoke in the hospital with 36 stitches in one leg and learned that three of his closest friends were among the 84 dead.

It was becoming clear that the Lashkar killers could operate with impunity. “They take their time. They select. Then they shoot,” he said.

The final straw came on March 7, when the military summoned Hussain and other Hazara traders to a meeting in Haideri bazaar, a popular market. As soldiers stood guard outside, an army colonel offered the merchants some sobering advice: they needed to buy handguns, he said.

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