All of us have some special kind of emotional attachment to things that we cherished during childhood and teenage. The home where we have the earliest memories, our childhood best friends, that special watch that one of your elders gave you after getting good results in school, that special spicy chaats which your mother used to forbid you to eat, the places where you used to spend your vacations and many other things which one never gets too old for or too tired or too used to.
I have been to Iran 8 times. 7 out of those 8 times happened in either my childhood or teenage years. In all of those times, I traveled through Quetta back and forth. So with every Iran’s trip, I visited Quetta twice. Apart from those times, I sometimes used to go to Quetta to receive my family members when they went to Iran leaving me behind. Being from a reasonably well off Shia family meant that almost every year, many from my family would go for different pilgrimages e.g Umrah, Iraq, Syria, Iran etc. The places hold deep spiritual attachment to shias, with shrines of the holy infallible, which can only be understood by someone who shares the same feeling. Iran always used to be the first choice visit due to multiple factors. Since it was controlled by Shia government the pilgrims did not face the same kind of problems as in Iraq under Saddam or in the kingdom of Saudi regime. The second factor of course was that it was a cheaper route through Quetta on trains and buses. And hence the reason for my frequent visits.
I love the journey of the train. Yes, even on a Pakistani train. The journeys from Multan to Quetta on ‘Quetta Express’ are one of the cherished memories of my life.
Usually we traveled with around 25-30 people of the Gardezi family, young and old. We used to book big train compartments. I, along with my cousins, would spend the journey running around different cabins, standing by open doors and exploring different railway stations. At Sibi, the train tracks would change directions in a way that first timers would think they are being headed back to Multan. At Mach, one engine would not be enough for a steep track ahead and another would be attached. The passage between mountains had many tunnels. Forty, if I recall correctly. And usually because the train’s lights were out it gave chills in case of particularly long tunnels.
At some places between the passage towards Quetta and then to Iran’s border, there used to be some small mountains which hosted phrases with well placed stone patterns that showed the messages “Shia Kafir hai”. I do not recall my blood boiling at that time after seeing such phrases. Indeed they could be seen in some places even back home. But people in general in Quetta never seemed hostile. Just like back in home, my school mates would often take a sectarian jibe but overall would be friendly enough.
We could walk freely in bazaars of Quetta sometimes even without adult supervision. Families would shop for hours in its markets. The ‘aunties’ among my family would usually prefer shopping from Quetta on the way back instead of Iran. Shop keepers would ask us to pray for them on the pilgrimage. Whether the friendliness of the people was because of rules of business and customer or because they considered us a guest, I do not know. But I do know that no one showed any signs of hatred because of my ethnicity or sect. If some people did think on those lines they perhaps kept it quiet. Same way many people I know even here in Punjab.
My favorite part was the journey from Quetta to Taftaan, the border town that linked with Iran’s Mir Jawah. Although the elders among the family loathed the journey due to its tiresome nature I thoroughly used to look forward to it especially if we were travelling through Hilux double cabins. The 800 km long road from Quetta was almost all barren with very little population. Even places which were humbly termed ‘cities’ like Noshki, held very little population and the dhabas where we used to eat never had proper drinking water. I guess the only ways the locals were earning anything was through travelers and trade between the two countries or any construction work that may have been happening. Other than that neither were there any crops grown or any industrial area.
I was seventeen the last time I visited Quetta ten years back. I remember as slowly I was growing older I started to take those signs more seriously. Ground realities of Pakistan’s society and life in general were also hitting on me; slowly cynism was creeping. Although I would not say it was uncalled for.
For some years I did not get the chance to visit Iran or Quetta. After that everything went downhill. The railways, the security situation in Quetta and Baluchistan in general. It started getting more and more dangerous to follow the route. Reports started coming about attacks on Imam Bargahs, Hazaras and on Punjabis settled there. One of my distant cousins was working in Baluchistan in one of the companies of oil and gas sector. The guy was very pro army and patriotic. All his team it seemed belonged to shias and as he told me, they were one day attacked by unidentified men while the FC guards providing them security were suddenly nowhere to be found. He survived but not all were lucky. Slowly number of people going to Iran through Quetta decreased by a very large number. But what to do about Hazara Shias that are still living there? The ones who call that place their home? As I write this piece I cannot think of any suitable time when I will ever be going to Quetta again as the situation has gone from bad to worse. It seems that it is becoming routine now that shias are being targeted there again and again. Hazaras are the biggest suffering group.
I cannot see any reason why nationalists would attack a group of people based on ethnicity or sect. But this wave of attacks can help those corridors of power who would gain if the lawlessness in Baluchistan 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 same group of people were used in violent crimes there and now same people being used here. My sunni friends often question my judgment if I ever talk of army’s support of jihadis and the ‘good’ Talibaan. Some think I am biased. I might as well be but fact is that all these organization on micro level have the same mindset. Names that are often associated with different terrorist and sectarian organization have a history of changing their organizations. From one Lashkar to another. While 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, but our people would keep mum perhaps. Or may be being mum is just an excuse and covertly 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 hate the fact that my mind has become too cynic to think in these lines. I hate that common people tolerated those signs and hate speeches to an extent that now the extremists have gone all open and into the mainstream. I hate the fact that our institutions can make Baluch nationalists ‘missing’ very easily while the killers of Hazara shias are having the time of their life. I hate that people in Baluchistan and especially its small cities have lost one good portion of its revenue by the loss of tourists and trade. I hate that the place Hazaras call home has become their slaughter house. I hate that I am unable to walk freely through Quetta again. And above all, I hate people who do not see any issue in it.