When 49 people were shot dead at a Christchurch mosque in New Zealand last month, people across the country changed their Facebook display pictures to mourn the incident.
In the days that followed, pictures of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared prominently on social media displays as well, as did the senseless calls inviting her to ‘embrace Islam’. There have been very few profile pictures expressing grief over the relentless killings of the Hazara minority in Quetta and other places.
The bomb blast last week that killed 20 persons including eight Hazaras at a vegetable market at one of the ghetto-like areas within which the Hazara have been barricaded, has been followed by a sit-in by the community in Quetta which has continued despite intermittent heavy rain for days. The protest has been fleetingly covered by the media, and the angry slogans or words spoken by protestors have gone unnoticed.
Most Pakistanis have in fact failed to notice that over 500 Hazara people have been killed over the past five years in what some are already calling a genocide. Apparently, too many of us suffer from being able to look clearly only at events when they take place at a distance and not those close to ourselves or in our own country. We lament loudly and vocally, post social media pictures and demand action when people are killed in Palestine, in Syria, in Kashmir or Muslims are targeted in Western countries. We do not react at all when people, most of them Muslims, are mowed down at home. We simply ignore the deaths, as if they had not occurred. Do our people then have no right to exist, no real substance in the eyes of people? Have we become oblivious to suffering and misery? Are we willing to allow entire communities to be wiped away?
The Hazara suffer immensely. The flags dotted atop grave tops in Hazara-dominated areas in Quetta tell their own story. They tell tales of young men, women, and children killed as they went about their daily business. No one listens to the sound of the wind as it whips through the flagpoles. Certainly, our leaders have not listened over the years, and today seem as indifferent as ever.
Hazara elders at the sit-in have made it clear what their views are on the killings and the forces they think are behind them. But can their voices, aired essentially over a YouTube channel run by the community, ever be heard across a nation which seems simply not to care? Certainly, the Hazara have made it clear that they will not be pacified by the meaningless rhetoric spouted out by officials who visit such places of protest. But someone must listen before it is too late.
It is not the Hazara alone who face impending danger. Media outlets run by groups active for Kalash rights have pointed out that various YouTube videos and material on other social media accuse the Kalash of being immoral in many different ways and of engaging in acceptable behaviours. All this is blatantly untrue and seems intended to galvanise people against the 6,000 or so Kalash who continue to live in their valleys in Chitral. In past years, too many have been forcibly converted or subjected to threat of one kind or the other. Surely it is our duty as citizens to protect those who remain and to discover who is behind the mindless propaganda campaigns being run against a peaceful community with its unique culture.
The primary goal must be to embrace diversity and difference within our own country. It is this diversity which gives Pakistan its many colours; colours which flow out beyond the green and white of the flag. The growing lack of tolerance in our society means we attempt to blend and mix and stir these colours until they form a single shade. In so many ways, this destroys the beauty of a unique country. Its communities too need to be given the same respect.
There are other groups also that we know too little about and are essentially oblivious to their deprivation and to the failure to accept that they form a part of Pakistan. These include the Sheedis, a minority of African descent still living in Pakistan with festivals held in parts of the country regularly, the Mohanas, a fisherfolk tribe in Sindh, the riverine Kihal people of Punjab and Sindh and many other groups we really know very little about.
It is hardly surprising we know so little, given that even when groups are larger and more prominent, we apparently seek to wipe them out through a process of planned death and organized killing. The organisations behind this are known to all of us. Shockingly, some of their members are active within the political mainstream. Equally shockingly, we have been able to place too few behind bars or to penalize the leaderships of these groups. This has already created dangerous divisions within the country. More will be carved out in the future.
It is worth noting how eloquently ordinary people from within oppressed communities speak out about what needs to be done and how. What we need is for far many more to hear these people. The mainstream media of course has a major part to play in this. It has so far failed in its task of bringing the people of the country together. Other forums too have to be created, outside the offices of small organisations and in a wider public space. The Hazara have attempted to create such a forum through their dharnas and sit-ins.
Other groups will undoubtedly follow as they see no alternatives. Do we truly want desperation to spread? Leaders at every level in the country should be thinking about this question and finding answers in one form or the other. We must also act for the sake of the generations which are to come.
The idea of a diverse, vibrant Pakistan needs to be recreated. It existed within minds up till the 1980s. Before this time, Quetta was a lively, vibrant city which had known plenty of joy, with all its communities joining in to create this whole environment. We have allowed darkness to creep in. The light needs to shine again. But this can only happen if we discover the right set of reading glasses and are able to look at what is close to us with the same clarity as we look at things far away.
We need to speak with passion about our own country and not only about others. We need to ask why there are no images even days after the terrible event, of Pakistani leaders doing what Jacinda Ardern did and embracing people or comforting those who have suffered at a personal, human level.
The prime minister’s scheduled visit to Quetta comes nearly a week after the attack on the Hazara and amidst a social media outcry. We need to ask why no actions have been taken to banish bombs and guns and the hatred which allows them to be used. If we can find even a few coherent responses, we will have come at least some way towards solving the problems which have come to haunt us and which add layer upon layer of suffering over a nation that needs to rediscover itself, rediscover its people and acknowledge that they are all equally significant and worthy of respect.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.