How a virulent Pakistani terrorist group is trying to annihilate an ethnic rival--and why we should be worried
Abdul Amir (as we'll call him), a chemistry teacher in Quetta, Pakistan, was taking an afternoon nap on Feb. 16 when his house began to shake and the earth let out an almighty roar. His mother and sisters started screaming and ran out of the house, but by the time they gathered in the street, the noise had already stopped. He climbed to the roof to get a better view of what happened and saw a thick cloud of bright white smoke, a mile south, suspended above the market place where his students would be buying snacks after their weekend English classes. He rushed back down to the ground, started his motorcycle and took off toward ground zero, knowing all the while that this was foolish - during a bombing five weeks before, the people who came to help were killed by a second explosion.
Still he raced through the streets, swerving around people running away from the bomb, finally arriving at a scene even worse even than he'd feared. The blast had been so powerful that the market hadn't been destroyed so much as it had been deleted, as had the people shopping there and those in buildings nearby. Everything within 100 meters was simply flattened, and all that remained were the metal skeletons of a few flaming vehicles and the chemical smell of synthetic materials burning. Abdul would find more than fifty of his students were injured. One of his favorite students would die from her wounds six days later.
They believe their government is at best uninterested in protecting them, and many are so traumatized they believe it's complicit.
In all, 17 students and two teachers in just one school would be killed, their bodies mostly unrecoverable. No secondary bomb went off that day, but it didn't need to, because the message to first responders had been heard: So few ambulances showed up that people were relegated to ferrying their dead and dismembered in their own cars.
For the Hazaras, a group of Shia Muslims from Afghanistan with a large population in Pakistan, leaving the house has become a fraught enterprise. Schools have emptied, students stay home and parents try to explain to their children why people want them dead. They believe their government is at best uninterested in protecting them, and many are so traumatized they believe it's complicit. The Feb. 16 bombing killed 85 people, almost all of them Hazaras, and the number is still rising as people succumb to their wounds. About a month prior, another attack had killed 96 people who were also almost all Hazaras. The victims are not bystanders; they are a people who are being exterminated.
The group doing the killing is called Lashkar e Jhangvi, "The Army of Jhangvi" or LEJ. They are Sunnis whose agenda is not much more nuanced than killing Shias. Though South Asia is a region rife with internecine conflict, with factions who have fought each other for all of recent history over land and religion, these attacks are unique. Even in a region violence visits far too often, what's happening now is singular, and it's getting worse.
First it was snipers picking off civilians, then LEJ members began stopping busses, shooting Shia passengers and leaving their bodies on the roadsides. Now, LEJ is using massive bombs in places frequented by Shia civilians: social clubs, computer cafes, markets and schools. About 1,300 people have been killed in these attacks since 1999, according to a website dedicated to raising awareness about them. More than 200 have been killed so far this year.
Hazaras are one kind of Shia for which LEJ has a particular fascination. Quetta sits just below the border with Afghanistan, and it's the city where members of a Shia group from Afghanistan--the Hazaras--have sought refuge whenever they've felt their own country doesn't want them. They've been coming to Quetta for over a hundred years, but while they're coming in search of safety, they're now being met with slaughter.
Over Afghanistan's long and tumultuous history, just about every group has suffered, but the Hazaras have the unique misfortune of being both Shia when most of the country is Sunni, and of looking different from other Afghans. Hazaras are Asiatic, having descended from Buddhist pilgrims or from Genghis Khan (or both). So if one is hell-bent on destroying Shias, Hazaras make really good targets: They can't blend in. The LEJ can simply seek out Asian faces and kill them.
Hazaras are hysterical now, holding protests wherever there's a sizable enough diaspora. In Quetta, where the killings are taking place, Hazaras decided not to bury their dead until the government took action because they are desperate for their suffering to be seen. They're beginning to use the term "genocide," and while it may be an exaggeration for what LEJ has accomplished thus far, it's certainly not for what they aspire to do.
"We are solely fighting this war in Allah's name," a spokesman for LEJ told local media, "which will end in making Balochistan a graveyard for the Shias." In an open letter that began to circulate a year and a half ago, LEJ made plain their belief that "all Shi'ites are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of unclean people. Pakistan means land of the pure and the Shi'ites have no right to live in this country."