How Security Threats Keep Hazara Students From Pursuing Higher Education In Balochistan
Barbed wire, security check-posts, questioning by the security personnel asking for proof of identities – one might be forgiven for thinking it is an entry point to the beseiged Gaza strip in Palestine. But this is Mariabad—the Hazara locality in Quetta, Pakistan. The sectarian violence, bomb blasts, targeted killings caused fear in the city have forced the Hazara population to live in a congested area.
Just behind the check-post on Gulistan Road is a busy cafe area: the only point for Hazara youth socialize here. Sitting on a wooden bench here is Qaiser Ali, who has recently appeared for his intermediate school examinations and awaits the result in three months.
In Qaiser’s generation, thousands of youth from the Hazara community have to leave behind their dreams for higher studies, as they don’t have a university in the locality. Fear of death can become a reality anytime if Qaiser crosses the paramilitary-secured region of Mariabad.
“I am the only child of my parents: they don’t want to lose me to the sectarian militant attacks, and my mother has strictly advised me not to cross the Mariabad security check-post into the city. But I always go for work and chores in the city and on my return, I am forced to tell her lies that I was in the secured zone all that while,” says Qaiser Ali. He is in his 20s.
Qaiser is aiming to pursue his higher studies somewhere in Punjab, away from Quetta, if he gets a scholarship—achieved by a minority among the thousands of applicants. “My parents are in no mood to let me enroll in the University of Balochistan, situated away from the Hazara majority areas here. So, if I don’t get a scholarship [to study elsewhere in Pakistan], then I would have to go abroad, where I will keep earning money and paying for expenses in higher education there – like another cousin of mine.”
In the post-9/11 era of the War on Terror, Balochistan’s provincial capital Quetta would hear bomb blasts every passing day, as security forces clashed with religious hardliner militants inspired by Al-Qaeda and the nationalist Baloch insurgents in a seemingly neverending conflict.
Quetta in the northern part of the province is the capital city of conflict-ridden Balochistan (making 43% of Pakistan’s total territory), bordering Iran and Afghanistan. Though the province is less populated in comparison to rest of the three provinces, it is mineral-rich and has strategic and economic importance due to its longer coastal belt in the Arabian Sea. The strategic importance of the region is heightened by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, which have brought about criticism from the United States. Baloch separatists have expressed their concerns about CPEC too, raising the stakes in the regional tussle.
The 2017 census indicates that the city has a population of 2.2 million people. Of these, the National Commission of Human Rights states that “approximately 0.5 million” are Hazara Shi’ite Muslims – the majority of whom live in the capital city’s Mariabad and Hazara town regions. Meanwhile the Shi’ite Conference claims that from 1999 to date, 2,683 Shi’ite Hazaras have lost their lives, while the National Commission for Human Rights in a 2018 report states that in the last 14 years more than 2,000 Hazara Shi’ites were killed in the sectarian militant attacks. These circumstances and life threats have proven to be major hurdles in the way of Hazara students pursuing higher education.
The Mariabad area of Quetta has the General Musa Khan Post Graduate College where five subjects can be studied for a Bachelors of Science. Other students can go up to intermediate level in another private college on Gulistan Road in the Cantonment area run by the military.
An outflux of Hazara youth fled their homes in recent years through human-trafficking routes to Australia and Western countries owing to threats to their life.
The University of Balochistan is one of the first universities of the province. It has some 8,000 students as a whole, “but very few male Hazara students get enrolled here. Female Hazara students attend the university in higher numbers than their male counterparts. One reason could be that female students wear headscarves or veils, preventing them from being identified [as Hazara Shia Muslims] on their way to university,” says the Academic Staff Association President Professor Doctor Kalimullah Barrech, who teaches at the university.
It was a hot summer day, the semester final exam in Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University, Quetta. When students were done with the exam, they made their way to buses to take them home by various routes across the city.
“The 16th of June 2013 wasn’t a normal day for me since morning. When I was free of my exam and made my way to the University parking area, I opted to sit in the front of the bus and it was 2:28 p.m. when an explosion took place in the back of the bus,” says Sadaf Awan, whose body sustained 36% burns in this attack. She was taken to the nearby tertiary hospital, the Bolan Medical Complex.
Owing to injuries, her 8th semester was delayed for three months and she finally completed her Bachelors in Management Sciences in 2014. Later on she completed a Masters in the same subject. The bomb attack investigation proved that it was planned to target female Hazara students whose bus was changed due to an earlier security alert.
Sadaf says, “The change in the bus route was a normal practice, but if I had not chosen to sit in the front of the bus, it wouldn’t have been possible to survive.”
The SBK university bomb blast was launched by a female suicide bomber who killed 14 female students. And when the remaining wounded students were shifted to the Bolan Medical Complex, another group of suicide bombers were waiting. They started firing at them – an atrocity that resulted in the killing of 11 people. The death toll went to 25 as a whole. This horrific attack was later claimed by the hardline sectarian Sunni militant organization Lashkar-e-Jhangavi.
A year before that in 2012, a remote-controlled bomb was used in an attack on the Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences, that resulted in the killing of 5 Hazara students and the wounding of 55 others. Victims included passersby and children as well.
In 2011, Shi’ite Hazara citizens traveling in buses were stopped and taken off the vehicles by armed sectarian militants. After verifying their identities as Shia Muslims, 21 of them were killed on the spot – an atrocity later claimed by sectarian Sunni militants.
The situation has not improved in recent years, as far as the Hazara are concerned. In the start of 2021, 11 Hazara mine workers in the Mach region of Balochistan were brutally slaughtered – an attack claimed by the Islamic State group. The Pakistani Army chief visited Quetta and condoled with the Hazara community after a wave of protests and a days-long sit-in by grieving Hazaras with the miners’ dead bodies in Quetta.
Experts have framed them as victims of a wider Sunni-Shia conflict – a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There are sectarian groups on both sides, sponsored by Riyadh and Tehran respectively, but the number of Sunnis killed in the conflict is lesser while the Shiite number of victims is far higher. “Most of the youth are used as cannon fodder in this wider conflict,” says Shehzada Zulfiqar, a senior analyst from the region.
Zulfiqar says that Hazara Shia are targeted on the basis of their religious beliefs. One of the reasons that makes it easier to identify them are their facial features which set them apart from the rest of the population. “They often use their personal means of transportation in the city, leaving them further vulnerable to attack by militants,” he notes.
After the withdrawal of US NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan, the stakes in the region are rising higher still. A spill-over of the civil war from neighbouring Afghanistan could have severe implications for Pakistan – turning the region into a hotbed of terrorism conducted by militants who were formerly in Al-Qaeda and now gravitate towards the Islamic State group. They could try to set up an umbrella for recruiting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Afghan Taliban), Uzbek, Uyghur, Chechen and Tajik religious militant organizations for their regional agenda of an Emirate in the historic Khorasan region. Pakistan, with a population that is very diverse in terms of religion and sect, could find inself in the crosshairs of these terrorist groups.
Arbab Liaqat Hazara, the general secretary of the Muttahida Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM) organization is of the view that poor security provided by the government is the reason for targeted killings of Shia Muslims in Balochistan.
Michael Kugelman is Deputy Director of the Asia Program and a South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center. He says: “Certainly the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will increase violence and instability, which will erode the writ of the state and create large numbers of lawless spaces. And these are conditions that will enable terror groups to thrive. In Afghanistan, many if not most of ISIS’s targeting is sectarian-focused, meaning that Shiites are often targeted. With ISIS poised to strengthen after the departure of US forces, there’s a very real threat that attacks against Shiites will intensify in Afghanistan.”
A recent attack on the Syed-ul-Shuhada School in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of 85 victims – most of them schoolgoing girls. Though the Islamic State group didn’t claim this attack, several attacks on Shi’ite Hazara areas were earlier claimed by them.
Kugleman says that the states of both Pakistan and Afghanistan haven’t done enough to secure the Shi’ite Hazara minority in the region.
“I wouldn’t describe this as Shiite-Sunni conflict, given that Shiites are the minority and they tend to be the victim of Sunni militancy. For the most part, the violence is driven by Sunni terror groups, whether the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or ISIS. The state is an indirect contributor to this violence because it often doesn’t treat security threats to Shi’ites with as much urgency as it should. Additionally, Shiites face systematic discrimination, and governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan haven’t done enough to help them,” he says.
In Quetta, a life under constant security threat while confined in a limited part of the city has taken its toll on mental health in the Hazara community.
Senior psychologist Fouzia Bangash says, “Mental health is one of the biggest issues that the Hazara are faced by. This lead to feuds, clashes and domestic violence within the community, and these are obviously reported in Mariabad and Hazara town. The life threats are another cause of lack of motivation that leads impacts students’ learning and rest of the social life of the community,” she explains. “Victims of terrorism belonging to the traumatized Hazara community in Quetta are in dire need of mental health awareness efforts, where psychiatrists and psycologists can treat them on daily basis.”
A pledge of full security for the people of the province is claimed as a priority by the current provincial government. In fact, the government has provided more focused security to Mariabad and Hazara Town on the demand of the Hazara elders. Zia Langove, the Home Minister of Balochistan, says, “The security situation and efforts against terrorism have improved the overall situation, though we still need more for the province of Balochistan. But interference by the Indian spy agencies using the soil of our neighboring country [Afghanistan] makes the situation worse, and it has to be countered on all possible fronts.”
Qaiser Ali’s father Jaffar Mehdi left Quetta in 2005 to work in Dubai. He later moved to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where he became a specialized chef. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, Jaffar has been back in his hometown. He is reluctant to allow his son to enrol at university in his home province.
“My child’s life is more important than his higher studies. He will be surrounded by threats to his life every day on his way to university.”
The writer is a freelance Journalist based in Quetta. He may be reached at [email protected]