The third day of January

The miners were held at gunpoint, blind-folded, with their hands tied behind their back. They were slaughtered one by one

The first week of 2021 witnessed a gruesome incident involving the slaughtering of 10 innocent coalminers belonging to the Hazara-Shia community. The incident was followed by a dharna (sit-in) spanning over six days in the freezing winter of Balochistan.

On the third day of January, over a dozen armed men entered a compound of coal miners in the early hours of the day. This compound was in Mach town, 70 kilometres south-east of Quetta. The miners were held at gunpoint, blind-folded, with their hands tied behind their back. They were slaughtered one by one. Without the slightest fear of repercussions, the perpetrators captured their barbarous acts on video and still pictures, which were later released on social media. The killers then left the crime scene with apparently assured impunity.

During the six-day long sit-in, several political and religious groups sought to gain political mileage by fanning public sentiments, ignoring the woes and mental agony of the bereaved families. After strong assurances by the government, both federal and provincial, that all just demands for improving security and immediate payment of compensation to victims’ heirs, all five sponsors of the sit-in – the Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen, the Hazara Democratic Party, the Balochistan Shia Conference, the Hazara Tribal Jirga and the Ulema Council – agreed to bury the dead on January 4. However, the same day about a hundred MWM activists, including women, placed the bodies of slain mine workers on the Western Bypass and started protesting. Soon, the number of protestors started growing. Within a few hours, there were nearly six thousand protestors on the scene, including a large number of women and children.

Several groups made public announcements disassociating themselves from the MWM protest. The Hazara Democratic Party, which has two MPAs in the provincial assembly, and the MWM have long been political rivals. The latter lost the 2018 elections. There were statements claiming that the bodies of the slain miners were placed at the protest site against the wishes of their families. At the protest demonstrations, the MWM and its affiliates were seen dominating the protestors. However, some others representing the bereaved families did appear before the media saying that the affected families were refusing to lay the bodies of their loved ones to rest till a visit by the prime minister.

DAccording to the Mines Department, there are around 60 functional mines in the area with 2,000 miners constantly at work. Around 150 of these minors are of the Hazara ethnicity. Previously, over two dozen Hazaras – mostly coalminers – have been killed in attacks across the Mach town. This time, however, the terrorists made it look like an execution. Such tactics have previously been employed by Islamic State (IS) affiliates against Shia Muslims in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

IS militants have been attacking Hazaras in the Mach area for years, to the extent that the population of this community has seen a sharp decline. However, in the last few years, with improvement in the law and order situation in the province, the killings had abated. Mine owners pay Rs 450 per ton to Frontier Corps under the head of security. The same amount was once paid to a banned militant organisation. While one cannot doubt the sincerity of security forces and law enforcing agencies in providing security to locals, they certainly bear the blame for ignoring the sensitivity of the situation and the constant threat to Hazara-Shia mine workers.

The banned organisation, Baloch Liberation Army, has been operating in Mach and surrounding areas for twenty years. According to local people, there was no security post set up by the Frontier Corps (FC) or the Balochistan Levies in the mines area. Instead, all FC and Levies personnel were perched on top of the mountains where they were posted. The terrorists might have come and escaped in vehicles using the road where a number of check posts exist.

Daish (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) claimed responsibility for the attack. The militant organisation has also been involved in other incidents in Balochistan, with the unfortunate support and collaboration of Tahrik Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, and Lashkar-i-Jhangavi Al-Alami. It has also been involved in the abduction of businessmen and government officials for ransom to carry out their terrorist activities. A number of leaders and fighters of these banned organisations have been killed in information based operations (IBOs) and their gangs busted. However, within months of such successes more gangs have sprung up and new leaders have been appointed.

According to security officials, associates and supporters of Farooq Bungalzai and his lieutenant Mumtaz Sumalani, leaders of Daish who previously fled to Afghanistan, were directly involved in this terrorist attack. A few years back, Farooq Bungalzai had managed to escape security forces in the Mastung district while his close associate, Imran Bungalzai, was killed. Tracking down the perpetrators of the Mach incident has now become a test case for the security forces. Officials in the security forces are claiming that Daish and the Baloch Liberation Army jointly carried out the slaughter of Hazara coalminers. They say the RAW and the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) provide these terrorist organisations with shelter, training, funding, arms and explosives for their activities in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan.

Officials from the Mining Department have confirmed that in the wake of the recent incident the number of coal miners has dropped to a few hundred. In line with the Hazara protestors’ demand, the government has to review its security plan and make foolproof arrangements for the vulnerable workers.

The writer is a journalist based in Quetta

The third day of January