‘I support Liverpool, going to Anfield one day, that is my dream!’ Small talk. We are stuck in traffic on a rainy Tuesday night, and the conversation has turned to football. I am a little apprehensive about the upcoming interview. These people are easy to talk to, friendly and welcoming, but I have a feeling that once we get started the mood will change.They are Hazara and look like what I would associate with Chinese, but are actually Afghans. As a result of extreme suffering and persecution at the hands of other ethnic groups in their homeland, their community has been dispersed across the region. A peaceful home they had found in a city called Quetta, in northern Pakistan, has over the last 10 years been rocked by target killings. Killings that the Pakistani government seems reluctant, to say the least, to prevent. Quetta was the former home of Southampton student, and friend of mine, Mohammed Ibrahim. It is because of this that he and his friends have invited us to come and interview them.
Once we have made it through the traffic, Mohammed begins to talk about the history of his people and, as expected, the mood changes instantly. We hear about genocide in the nineteenth Century, which began a century of oppression for the Hazara people. Many fled Afghanistan to neighbouring countries and the rest of the world. Those who remained became effectively third class citizens in their homeland, subject to prejudice on account of linguistic, racial and religious differences. And so the story reaches Quetta.
This is a small, local, terrorist gang…allowed to gun down people in broad daylight.
For the large part of the twentieth century the communities of Hazara people and the other ethnic groups that occupy the city lived together in peace. There was little of the racial tension Hazara communities experienced in Iran, or their homeland. But in 1999 the attempted assassination of a Hazara leader, Sardar Nisar Ali Khan and the death of his driver, began a series of incidents of target killing. So far around 300 Hazara people have lost their lives and more have been injured. The worst day was 2 March 2004, where a religious procession was attacked and an estimated 45 people killed. These killings are not random. Prominent members of the community are under threat. On 26 January this year, Hussain Ali Yousafi, the chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party, was killed in a drive-by shooting in mid-morning on Quetta’s busiest street. More recently a prominent Hazara personality, Talib Agha, champion of human rights and member of the city council was also killed. Recently the terrorists have also targetted prominent lawyers and engineers.
However, the real message that they want to get across is not the atrocious levels of violence. It is the stance of the Pakistani government. Quetta is on high alert; there are patrols of soldiers and armed police on the street, yet the terrorists are still able to drive in, commit murder and escape. All the incidents happen regularly within a stretch of one and a half kilometres, yet the perpetrators are almost never caught. Once when they were, the suspects escaped from a high security prison. After the massacre on 2 March 2004, eyewitnesses testified to the Anti-Terrorist Force (ATF) opening fire on the crowd of victims. ‘There is some sort of conspiracy going on,’ Mohammed tells me, ‘a minister has said, in Government, that they know who is carrying out the killing, but they say it is out of their reach’. I ask if the Pakistani government could stop the killings if they wanted to. All three answer yes without a second’s hesitation. This is a small, local, terrorist gang. They are allowed to gun people down in broad daylight because the government does not care enough to stop them.
‘There is no future for Hazara people if this continues. We’ve given everything to the country and now it seems like they want us to go, but we have nowhere to go to and most people aren’t able to leave’. These are people who have already escaped persecution in one country, have lived and made homes in Quetta, opened businesses, contributed to the economy and even the Pakistani army. It is their home. Mohammed tells me he would love to return to Pakistan but unless things change that will be impossible. They are part of the ‘Stop Target Killing Hazara Campaign’ to raise awareness in Britain and also try to get the UK government to put pressure on the Pakistani authorities to properly investigate the killings and bring those responsible to justice. The interview ends with a plea to all our readers to sign their petition (http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/HazaraKillings/).
With the camera off, the mood lightens perceptibly. Mohammed invites us to stay for some food and rushes down to the pizza shop below their apartment to prepare some for us. We discuss university life, family and world affairs. Mohammed shares his passion for human rights campaigning; one born, perhaps, out of a very real knowledge of their importance. It is a relaxed evening. Despite all they have been through, these people show no trace of bitterness or anger, just a desire to help their friends and family who are still at risk in Pakistan. Eventually, I notice how late it has got and so we say our goodbyes. On the way home I ponder what we have heard, and how I would react placed in their shoes. A phrase from earlier comes back to me. Mohammed’s dream, it seems, is not really visit Anfield football ground. It is to go back home.