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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Balochistan’s Sectarian War

By Ejaz Haider
Twenty minutes into landing at a chilly Quetta and en route to a meeting, the BlackBerry beeped: “CM just survived a suicide attack.” Some start to a four-day visit to Balochistan, I muttered to myself grimly, and dialled the source to get details.
Nawab Aslam Raisani had got out of Sarawan House and was headed towards the Assembly when, at the Saryab Road railway crossing, a suicide bomber blew himself up. Raisani remained safe because of the armour plating of his vehicle, but some officials in his security detail as also a few unfortunate passersby were injured, some critically.
Three different groups took responsibility: Lashkar-e Jhangvi, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, and the Balochistan United Liberation Front. Malik Iqbal, Inspector-General Police Balochistan told me that the BLUF was bluffing because, while it was early to pin down responsibility, the modus operandi was that of sectarian terrorists that either operate on their own or in cahoots with the TTP. He could be right because the crime scene confirmed the attack was mounted by a suicide bomber whereas the BLUF spokesperson said the group had used a remote-controlled device.
The temperature in Quetta was sub-zero but the city reminds one of T S Eliot’s phrase frigid fires given the simmering sectarian, ethnic and linguistic fault-lines. “During these days, sectarian terrorism is our biggest concern,” IGP Iqbal said to me as we ate lunch from boxes from Usmania Tandoori Restaurant. He is right. With Yaum-e Ashur just days ahead, Quetta is tense and trying to put together an elaborate security plan.
But fear of the unknown, someone sneaking into the Moharram procession and blowing himself up, pervades the city. “An untoward incident would have repercussions. We have buried too many people over the last four years and the youth is preparing for retaliation,” a Hazara elder told me in the Marriabad locality of Quetta that lies in the foot of Koh-e Murdaar range.
Hazaras, descendents of the Mongols, predominantly comprise the city’s shia population. Having migrated from Hazarajat in western Afghanistan, they are a hardy and socially mobile minority, with a much higher literacy rate than other communities. They generally enlist in the army and the police and can also be found in the civil services. General Musa Khan, President Ayub Khan’s commander-in-chief, was a Hazara.
As I sat in the house of his grandson Sardar Mehdi Hasan Musa, a tall businessman who now lives in Karachi and visits Quetta occasionally, I could see that the Hazaras pride themselves on their Mongol identity and consider Changiz Khan their patriarch. There are several theories about how and when they converted to shiaism but the majority now, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is shia.
“Have you been to the Martyrs’ graveyard?” Musa asked me. “Yes, I have,” I replied. Earlier in the day I had driven there. There are two graveyards where the Koh-e Murdaar range begins to get diminutive. One, to the side of the main graveyard, is dedicated to those killed in several sectarian attacks. “You can see how many have been murdered,” my guide had said to me. Nearly four hundred it seems since 2006.
“My father, Sardar Mohammad Hasan Musa, was killed by LJ in Karachi in 1997,” Musa told me as we sat cross-legged on the carpet in the living room. His house in Karachi’s Defence area was also attacked. I wanted to see the route of the Moharram procession and was given a tour of the area. The procession starts on Aalamdar Road near Nachari Chowk and then turns towards Wafa Road on the right and moves on to Toghi Road and goes to Mezan Chowk on Liaquat Road before returning via Prince and Mechongi Roads back to Alamdar.
It is not a very long route and the head and tail of the procession meet at the peak of the mourning. But the area is difficult to monitor against a suicide bomber bent on killing those he considers apostates. There are small alleys along the route and the area has shops owned by Pashtun businessmen. “The problem is that in case of any such incident, the retaliation could lead to a fire-fight between the Hazaras and the Pashtun,” my Hazara guide told me. He pointed out that the Pashtun are not really a party to the sectarian conflict but “anything can happen when emotions are running high”.
This has already happened. The attack on the Yaum al-Quds rally brought out by the Hazaras killed 17 shia. But then firing started and the toll went much higher. “The LJ activists operating in this area are mostly Baloch,” the IGP said. One of the most wanted sectarian terrorists, Saifullah Kurd, belongs to Mastung, the district southeast of Quetta.
An intelligence officer who did not want to be named said the Iranians are actively funding the shia population and have managed through money and proselytising to convert some Kurds to shiaism. “They have also given money to build some imambargahs,” he said. This was corroborated by Fasih Iqbal, a veteran journalist and editor of Balochistan Times . It seems like the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is hotting up in this area also. Further south and southwest, there is Jundallah which, according to Iran and various newspaper reports, is being funded by the Americans and the Saudis to foment trouble in Sistan-Baluchistan, the Iranian side of Balochistan.
There is some truth in this because while officials do not admit that Pakistan is looking the other way as Jundallah gets funds from the Saudis and the Americans, they counter by pointing out Indian activity through its consulate in Zahidan which goes unabated under Iranian patronage. The sectarian proxy war in this case links up with other issues of concern for the states in the region. But the sectarian issue itself is becoming big and has already taken much toll of the Hazaras.
The day after I had met with the IGP, someone killed a police sub-inspector in Quetta while he was on patrol duty. As I went to the spot to get details, I was not much surprised to be told that he was a Bangash shia from Hangu in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, an area that has already been hit by terrorists, on December 10, in the build-up to Yaum-e-Ashur. “It does seem like the sectarian terrorists have very good intelligence on shias,” I said to another police officer. “Yes, they do,” was the grim, staccato answer.
I mentioned this to journalists in Quetta while sipping kehwa at the Quetta Press Club where I had come to witness a protest gathering by the Baloch agitating the issue of missing persons. Ali Shah, the Dawn News bureau chief, said the fear of what might happen on the 10th of Moharram was real. “We have seen the shia being struck too often,” Shah said. Like other journalists, he is convinced that an attack makes perfect sense for those who want to destabilise the state further.
An officer who deals with internal security told me that Jundallah was now linked up with LJ and the latter had also some operational and logistical connections with Baloch nationalist groups. “The Baloch groups move back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan through Pashtun territory and they have some arrangement with the TTP; they also have the Baloch connection with Baloch terrorists from LJ. The idea is to help each other to destabilise the state,” he said.
But this is precisely why it is important to rethink some policies, which is not happening. In the middle of the broader game which involves internal and external actors, one hopes, desperately, that the coming 10th of Moharram, Friday December 17 to be precise, sees no untoward incident in Quetta. But the hope, given the situation, may be unfounded. (Courtesy: The Friday Times, Lahore)

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