A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Lives torn apart: Hazaras caught between home and their homeland

Like many of his fellow Hazaras finding refuge in Australia, ‘Ali’ finds himself caught between a new life and the one from which he fled. The contrast was made stark on a recent trip back to Pakistan, reports Daniel Horsley.

Words by Daniel Horsley
 
Shiite Muslims sit alongside caskets of those killed when a suicide bomb blast targeted a pilgrims’ bus near Quetta on January 22, 2014. Below, protestors take to the streets. PICS: Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com

Shiite Muslims sit alongside caskets of those killed when a suicide bomb blast targeted a pilgrims’ bus near Quetta on January 22, 2014. Below, protestors take to the streets. PICS: Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com

A shaky voice came down the line. Ali’s broken words were piecing together the events of the preceding 24 hours. It had happened again.

A group of Hazaras had been travelling on two buses after a pilgrimage to Iran. They were heading back home to Quetta. One of the two buses exploded in the Mastung district, 50 kilometres south-west of Quetta.

Of the 51 people aboard, 24 were killed, many of them women and children.

Thirty year-old Ali (which is not his real name) remembers the aftermath at the hospital. “I was helping the dead bodies. I couldn’t stop my crying,” he said.

Ali had come to Australia by boat nearly 18 months earlier to get away from such terrorism and, ultimately, to try to protect his family.

He had returned to Quetta because it had been years since he had seen them. While he had been able to get a permanent visa in Australia, his wife and children remained in Pakistan.

“When you see burned bodies, legs, heads, arms . . . this is not humanity,” Ali continued as he recalled the horrific scene that had confronted him.

Following the explosion, he was one of the thousands of Hazaras who took the charred remains of their people from the hospital to the mosque.

The bodies were prepared and wrapped and placed into caskets, which were then carried from the mosque through the main streets of Quetta by a surging crowd of thousands of Hazaras. The procession marked the beginning of a 72-hour protest against the Pakistani government, which the Hazaras condemned for not having done enough to prevent the sectarian violence.

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Some families had lost three or four members in the series of attacks launched on that day in January, Ali reported. Many survivors had been left to wander about aimlessly in shock.

“Every people need their family,” Ali said, reflecting on the fate of his wife and young child whom he hopes will be able to join him in Australia. “Please let them leave the country to be saved,” he cried.

Ali is one of thousands of refugees in Australia who are torn between two countries.

In Australia, he is safe from attacks but he lives separated from his family. Meanwhile, his family is stranded in Pakistan, together but in constant fear.

Many more Australian Hazaras have risked persecution and injury by returning to see their families amid the danger they fled. Like Ali, they are reminded of the threat under which their families must live day-to-day.

The Hazaras are an ethnic minority descended from Mongols who are persecuted by terrorist groups because of their differing religious beliefs. Traditionally, they are Shia Muslims, while their extremist attackers typically are Sunni.

Their physical features are of central Asian appearance which makes them readily identifiable for those looking to target them.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a terrorist group with strong ties to the Taliban, claimed responsibility for January’s bus explosion and have a reputation for being the most violent Sunni militant organisation in Pakistan.

Another major assault claimed by LeJ was an attack on a billiards hall in Quetta a year earlier in which two strategically placed bombs were detonated 10 minutes apart, killing dozens of people and wounding another 180 from the Shia community. Among the dead was Australian resident Ehsan Haider.

Like Ali, Haider had been visiting his family in Pakistan, during which time he also got married. Two weeks after the wedding the first explosion went off at the billiards hall. As Haider and others rushed to help those injured, an ambulance which arrived at the scene also exploded, killing the Australian man. 

While the attacks were reported in Australia’s media Haider was never mentioned as being an Australian resident.

Like Ali, Haider had been visiting his family in Pakistan, during which time he also got married. Two weeks after the wedding the first explosion went off at the billiards hall. As Haider and others rushed to help those injured, an ambulance which arrived at the scene also exploded, killing the Australian man.

A photo of Haider taken on his wedding day was shared by Hazara networks on Facebook with an inscription that translated lossley reads: “Martyr Ehsan Haider, Alamdar road Quetta incident”.

A friend in Australia, Dawood, said he was shocked when he learnt of Haider’s death.

The two men had arrived on Christmas Island in 2010 on the same boat. They got to know each other while in detention for two-and-a-half months, before Dawood was given a visa and he left for the mainland.

“I never saw him after that,” he told The Citizen.

One day Dawood received a text message from another refugee who has travelled with the pair on the same boat. Haider had been killed, it informed him.

He found further evidence on Facebook, where he saw Haider’s wedding photo. “I was feeling . . . it was so hard for me,” he said.

Dawood attended a candelight vigil held at Melbourne’s Federation Square, joined by many other Hazaras. “He was too young and such a nice guy . . . Always laughing and joking,” he said. “I still can’t believe it.”

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