There was a time when I could walk through Quetta

Published: July 7, 2012
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There was a time when Balochistan was far removed from any ethnic killings. PHOTO: ASIF NAWAZ

Balochistan, and Quetta in particular, is very close to my heart. I have an emotional attachment to this place since a great part of my childhood was spent travelling though it’s scenic landscape. There was, indeed, once a time when this was possible.

It was far removed from any ethnic killings. There were no Baloch Liberation Tigers (BLT) and people were not opened fired on for just passing though the area. The killing of 18 people in Turbat yesterday left me heart-broken and shocked. Was this the same place where I spent some of the happiest moments of my childhood?

I have been to Iran eight times and seven of these visits occurred in either my childhood or teenage years. During these visits, I travelled through Quetta back and forth. Thus, with every trip to Iran, I visited Quetta twice.

Being from a reasonably well off Shia family meant that almost every year, my family would go for different pilgrimages, for example Umrah, Iraq, Syria, Iran. Shias hold a deep spiritual attachment to these holy places and visiting them was a treat indeed.

Iran was always the first choice for us to visit. Since it was controlled by a Shia government, the pilgrims did not face the same kind of problems as they did in Iraq under Saddam’s regime or in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The second factor, of course, was that it was a cheaper route via Quetta through trains and buses.

Journeys from Multan to Quetta on the Quetta Express are one of the most cherished memories of my life. This was a time when we were never worried about assailants open firing on us. Life was peaceful back then.

At some places between the passage towards Quetta and then to Iran’s border, I would find message filled with hatred, like “Shia kaafir hai” (Shiites are infidels), carved on stony mountains. I do not recall my blood boiling at that time upon seeing such phrases because I was used to seeing them back home too.

At the time, we could walk freely in the bazaars of Quetta without fear. Families would shop for hours in the markets. Shopkeepers would ask us to pray for them when we went for pilgrimage. No one showed any signs of hatred because of my ethnicity or sect. If some people did think on those lines, perhaps they just kept quiet.

My favourite part was the journey from Quetta to Taftan; the border town that linked with Iran’s Mir Jawah. Although the elders in the family loathed the journey due to its tiresome nature, I always looked forward to it. The 800km long road from Quetta was almost all barren. I reckon that the only three ways for locals to earn a livelihood here was through travellers, trade between the two countries or construction work, because there was no agricultural land or industrial area in sight.

I was seventeen when I last visited Quetta and since then, things have progressed from bad to worse.

Maybe the constant hatred levelled at Shias finally got to me – I don’t know, but as I grew older, I started to take those hatred filled messages carved on mountains more seriously. Ground realities of the Pakistani society and life in general were causing me to grow cynical, although I would not say it was uncalled for.

Slowly, I have witnessed everything go downhill in Balochistan; the railways, the security situation, and so on. The route became more and more dangerous till we stopped using it. Reports started coming in about attacks on Imambargahs, Hazaras and Punjabis settled there. My distant cousin was working in Balochistan ─ a very pro army and patriotic guy. All of his team members were attacked one day by unidentified men while the Frontier Constabulary (FC) guards providing them security were suddenly nowhere to be found. He survived but not everyone in his team was as fortunate as him.

Gradually the number of people going to Iran through Quetta decreased by a very large number. I wonder if I will ever be going to Quetta again as the situation is not very forgiving. It seems that attacks on Shias are becoming routine now and Hazaras are the group that, unfortunately, suffer the most.

I cannot see any reason why nationalists would attack a group of people based on ethnicity or sect.

I just cannot understand the logic behind this.

I believe  that this wave of attacks can help those corridors of power who would gain if the lawlessness in Balochistan is shown as a result of sectarian and ethnic clashes rather than a nationalist cause triggered by lack of rights given to the people of the region.

When East Pakistan’s rebellion was being crushed, the same group of people participated in violent crimes as the group wrecking havoc here. My Sunni friends often question my judgment whenever I talk of the army’s support for jihadis and the ‘good’ Taliban. Some think I am biased and I might as well be, but the fact is that all these organisations have the same mindset on a micro level. Names that are often associated with different terrorist and sectarian organisations have a history of changing their organisations; from one lashkar to another. Meanwhile, our people support one lashkar and keep mum on the other one because they are not being directly affected by it, whereas our state institutions openly support people who have a big clout in both type of lashkars. After all, there is a reason Mr Ludhianvi was brought on a state helicopter from prison to negotiate with the terrorists of the GHQ attack.

The reason is very obvious; maybe people staying quiet is just an excuse and, secretly, they have sympathies with the killers. Salman Taseer’s assassination showed that there does not exist a silent moderate majority, but a rather vocal and violent-minded majority.

I never imagined that I would ever become this cynical. I kick myself for silently tolerating those signs and hatred filled speeches; it is perhaps due to my reticence that now extremism has become mainstream. It saddens me that the people in Balochistan have lost a good portion of their revenue by the loss of tourists and trade, but what I hate the most  is the people who do not see any issue in the mindless killings.

Can you imagine the plight of Hazaras given that the place they used to call home has now become their slaughter house?

I hate the fact that I might not ever be able to walk freely through Quetta again.

Follow Zain on Twitter @XainGardezi

Zain Gardezi

Zain Gardezi

A software engineer by profession working in Lahore, Zain likes to write about religion and social satire in general. He blogs at rorolia.wordpress.com/ and tweets as @XainGardezi (twitter.com/XainGardezi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.