July 4, 2019 / 11:47 PM / in 15 days

'Under siege': Fear and defiance mark life for Pakistan's minority Hazaras

HAZARA TOWN, Pakistan (Reuters) - High walls around the neighborhoods of Pakistan’s embattled Hazara community in the southwestern city of Quetta are designed to protect them from extremist militants, but also serve as a constant reminder of the threat they face.

Hazara men have tea and breakfast at a local restaurant in Mariabad, Quetta, Pakistan, June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Soldiers and security checkpoints greet visitors to Hazara Town, one of two large guarded neighborhoods in the capital of Baluchistan, a province where religious and sectarian groups often target the mostly Shia Hazaras with bombs and guns.

Despite improved security in recent years, partly because most Hazaras have moved into the guarded enclaves, hardline Sunni militants keep up attacks, such as a blast in April that killed 24 people, among them eight Hazaras.

“We are living under siege for more than 1-1/2 decades due to sectarian attacks,” said Sardar Sahil, a Hazara lawyer and rights activist.

“Though all these checkposts were established for our security, we feel we were ourselves also cut off from other communities.”

Sahil carries a pistol whenever he leaves home, and relies on his faith as a second layer of security.

“I kiss my mother’s hand and she kisses me too and says goodbye with her prayers and good wishes,” Sahil told Reuters at his home.

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Hazaras, said to be descendants of the Mongols who swept out of central Asia to rule the subcontinent for many centuries, are easily distinguishable in Pakistan by their facial features.

That has made them vulnerable to attacks by groups such as Pakistan’s banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and Sunni militant group Islamic State, which has attacked them in both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, also home to many Hazaras.

Many community businesses that flourished in Quetta’s bustling wholesale markets have shuttered and relocated to Hazara Town or Mari Abad, another Hazara neighborhood.

But the community is defiant. Some still venture out into Quetta in search of work, while others keep businesses running.

The Quetta community held its first Hazara Culture Day this week to celebrate and showcase its history, music and traditions.

The community strives to keep its protests peaceful, despite unrest stirred up by militants looking to pit people of different sects against each other, said Abdul Khaliq Hazara, chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP), which has two provincial assembly representatives.

Domestic media often portray the Hazaras as targets of sectarian attacks or holding sit-ins to demand greater protection, but the community is developing and growing, said martial arts specialist Nargis Hazara.

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“Every one of us has a dream, a target and aim in our heart, to change the image of Hazaras in the world, and especially in Pakistan,” added the 20-year-old who last year became Pakistan’s first winner of an Asian Games medal in karate.

Many Hazaras have joined the armed forces in Pakistan, where the community’s past and future will stay rooted despite any violence, said another martial arts expert, Mubarak Ali Shan.

“We want to serve Pakistan and despite suffering tragedies and incidents, our love for peace has not diminished,” he added.

Reporting by Gul Yousufzai; Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Clarence Fernandez

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