QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Pakistani Shi‘ite Muslims began burying their dead in a mass grave Monday amid tears and pictures of the fallen, ending a three-day protest over one of the worst sectarian attacks in the country’s history.
Thousands of people from Shi‘ite Hazara community had been holding vigil next to the bodies of the 96 people killed in Thursday’s bombings to demand better protection from a rising tide of sectarian attacks.
Defying Muslim tradition and leaving the bodies unburied was a powerful rebuke to the government that inspired other protests in solidarity around the country.
The Shi‘ite leaders only agreed to hold the burials after Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf travelled to the provincial capital of Quetta and agreed to some of their demands.
On Monday, he met the protest leaders and agreed to sack the entire provincial government. Shi‘ite leaders said many of the officials were implicated in the violence.
As the white shrouded bodies were laid to rest in a long trench, men, women and children wept in the cold air, huddled together for warmth and comfort.
The trees of the graveyard and the electricity poles outside were papered with pictures of the victims. As the bodies were being lowered, some women screamed their grief beside the graves of relatives killed in previous attacks.
“We are tired of burying our dear ones,” said Dr. Zulfiqar Jaffery, 50, who lost his two brothers-in-law in the bombing. He cried as he tried to comfort another grieving relative.
“Our government would feel our pain if they were facing the same situation,” he said.
Many Shi‘ites are bitter that it took three days for the Pakistani prime minister to come and address their protest, and say the government has done little to stem the spiraling sectarian violence.
More than 400 Shi‘ite were killed in Pakistan last year, many by hitmen or bombs, and the perpetrators are almost never caught. Some were children gunned down as their parents took them to school.
“I lost several cousins in previous incidents of target killing. Now another cousin died in the bomb blast,” said businessman Muhammad Hussain, 42.
He said dismissing the provincial government was a good step but only the arrest of the killers could make the community truly secure.
Until arrests are made, the community will continue to live under siege, he said. Signs of their fear could be seen in heavily armed police patrolling the streets near the burial and hastily installed metal scanners at the graveyard entrances.
Many Shi‘ite fear that the civilian government, which rarely challenges the powerful security services, is too weak, afraid or indifferent to do anything about the attacks on their communities.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the banned militant Sunni group that claimed the attack, has historically had close ties with elements within Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. The LeJ wants to expel the Shi‘ites, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million citizens, and set up a Sunni theocracy.
Writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Roger Atwood and Jason Neely