Elsewhere in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, life is trickling back to normal following the spread of coronavirus and the accompanying lockdowns and quarantine measures early this year. However, it has made no difference for the beleaguered Hazara community, forced to live in the settlements of Marriabad and Hazara Town, in the eastern and western parts of the city.
Author and music aficionado Hasan Riza Changezai hails from Marriabad. Owing to a physical ailment, he is mostly found in his wheelchair working in his studio on the upper floor of the small, cramped building where he resides.
I like to visit him from time to time to catch up. And because I can never remember the exact address due to the narrow, twisting lanes of the locality, I solicit the help of a Hazara comrade who takes me there on his motorcycle. While riding pillion with him, he passionately discusses metaphysics, and though I am least interested in the subject with its technicalities going over my head, I pretend to listen earnestly so as not to hurt his feelings.
Changezai talks briefly during our discussions. Like his writings, he sums up long, complex sentences in a few, short words and helps paint an apt picture of the subject under discussion. “We [Hazaras] have been living in isolation for over a decade-and-a-half now,” he lamented, indicating that Hazaras are now used to the segregation.
Easily recognised by their facial features, Hazaras — who practice Shia Islam — have been living in Quetta since the 1880s when they migrated here to escape the persecution of then-Afghan king Abdul Rehman. Serving as a peaceful abode for the ethnic minority community for over a century, the city started becoming unsafe from around 2001. Targeted attacks and killings of Hazaras by sectarian groups became more frequent as the war against terrorism and religious extremism raged on. Failing to stem the rising attacks against the community, the state decided to lock down the Hazaras in their own majority neighbourhoods of Marriabad and Hazara Town. While the safety measure, along with the general improvement in the country’s security situation, managed to bring down the level of violence somewhat, the perennial state of quarantine has marginalised this already-excluded community even more.
Had Changezai not been bound to a wheelchair, he, too, may have become a victim of the sectarian attacks like so many of his friends and relatives. To him, the recent coronavirus-related lockdowns made no difference. Instead, he said, it made things worse in terms of lost earnings as Hazara police constables and other government employees were directed not to come to work for being a potential cause of the virus. This unsubstantiated claim took root after Pakistan’s first recorded case of coronavirus in February turned out to be a Shia pilgrim who had returned to Balochistan from Iran.
Now in his early 30s, bespectacled Yasin Hazara completed his studies from Islamabad as the situation in Quetta was too dangerous at the time. Back in his hometown, even now he hardly steps out of Marriabad due to fear of attacks. Sitting with a group of friends at a tea stall dubbed “Peshey Stadium” in the local language, for being near the football stadium, Yasin excuses himself and pulls up a chair beside me.
Recalling the spread of coronavirus in Quetta, he regrets how his community was blamed for being the source of the virus, adding that these false rumours further fueled sectarian hatred against them.
Even though sectarian attacks have gone down since their peak around a decade ago, despite being jobless, Yasin has to think long and hard before applying for a job outside the settlement as it could mean the difference between life and death.
“We are now used to living in our ghettoised settlements,” he says, echoing Changezi.
However, alongside the constant despondency and fear of violence, life goes on.
“On and around the mountains of Marriabad, there are some spots we have discovered where we go to get fresh air. It is a kind of refreshment for us,” he shared, emphasising that they are hopeful things will get better, if not for this generation then the next.
As I leave with my Hazara comrade, I am not spared the remainder of the metaphysics lesson. At the last Frontier Corps check post, on Alamdar Road, he stops and we say our goodbyes, as the point marks the end of the land they call home.
The author is a Quetta-based journalist and works as a reporter and features writer for Dawn newspaper. He tweets at @Akbar_notezai.