by Sidrah Roghay
Elegantly trimmed shrubs line the pathway. A towering Alam shoots through the sky. As many as 8,300 graves line neat rows. More than 30 graves added here this month belonged to victims of the ongoing sectarian violence in this restive port city.
“2012 has been a bloody year for us,” says Hasan Naqvi, caretaker at the Waadi-e-Hussain, a cemetery of Shia Muslims where many of their slain community people are buried. Spread over acres, it is situated on the outskirts of Karachi.
There was a time when the tit-for-tat sectarian violence targeted only hard-line community leaders or militants, but not anymore. Now even ordinary civilians are being targeted with impunity.
Small, but highly organised sectarian groups are being blamed for most of the sectarian killings, though the majority of Sunnis and Shias co-exist peacefully.
This year, there has been a surge in sectarian violence in which dozens of Shias, Sunnis and people belonging to the Bohri community have been killed.
The ongoing spate of violence has created a deep sense of fear among citizens of this volatile city, especially Shias.
On Wednesday, a twin bombing outside an Imambargah left three people dead and 11 wounded, underlining the gravity of the situation. The attack occurred despite the massive security measures taken by the government at places of worships and Majalis and processions.
But bombings and suicide attacks are not the only threat. Assassins armed with sophisticated weapons can get their target anywhere.
Take the case of Zahid*, 29. He was sitting outside his apartment in the building compound with six friends in the second week of November. It was a daily routine; they would sit through some part of the night and talk. Two men on foot arrived. They shook hands with Zahid, and then fired nine bullets into his stomach. The two friends who tried defending him were shot dead too. When he fell onto the ground, the gunmen kicked Zahid’s limp body to check for any signs of life, and then shot twice — just to be sure that the job was not half done.
His family narrates that a day before his death he had received a phone call. “So you think you will escape our clutches,” the caller had said. In similar circumstances on July 7, Zahid’s father was shot dead.
The family, who has stopped wearing black and decided not to attend any Majlis this Muharram, insists it was a sectarian attack. Zahid was not a member of any sectarian group.
In a similar incident on November 11, Jaffar Hussain, 55, along with his two sons Sajjad Hussain and Gulzar Hussain, was gunned down by four men on two motorcycles in Orangi Town.
Police claimed that the victims, who worked at a tyre shop, were killed on sectarian grounds.
There is crippling fear and attendance at the Majlis has thinned down. “Just before the blast at Abbas Town on November 18, the Imam who had flown in from Iran expressed surprise at the thin attendance. Not many people made it, and I wonder if they made the right choice or not,” said a resident of Ancholi, a Shia-dominated area of the city, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“I have stopped wearing the silver ring and kalawa (red thread) we wear during the month for fear of being recognised as a Shia. We are crippled with fear,” he says.
“All over our building Sipah-e-Sahaba has been painted in black. We live in a Sunni-dominated area, so we refrain from wearing black, or being too obvious about our faith,” said Nargis*, a resident of Patel Para.
“My uncle is a doctor. A few months back some men entered his clinic and asked him to stop practising. Scared for his life, he quit work for two months, until my father motivated him to continue practice. Life and death is in Allah’s hand,” said Rizvi*.
The Imamia Student Organisation (ISO), one of the political representatives of the Shia community, calls the sectarian attack a foreign conspiracy.
“We condemn every death, whether a Sunni or Shia, but this is not a Sunni killing a Shia, nor a Shia killing a Sunni. All these banned organisations which claim to be carrying out these attacks are funded by the West,” said Hamza Abbas, head of the Karachi Division of the ISO.
An Islamic scholar of the Shia sect admits, on the condition of anonymity, that no one will speak “against the mindset that promotes sectarianism in the present circumstances”.
“I would rather stay invisible than be targeted,” he says, quoting Gandhi, “There are many causes I would die for, but there is none for which I am willing to kill.”
Activists of Sunni groups, too, have suffered. A spokesman for the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, Akbar Saeed Farooqi, says the organisation has lost 160 of its workers since January this year.
Dr Muhammad Shakil Auj, Dean Faculty of Islamic Studies at Karachi University, who belongs to a Sunni school of thought, blames it on the failed system of punishment in society.
“The terrorists go unpunished. If by any chance they are arrested, a stream of phone calls from influential people set them free.”
He quotes the 33rd verse from Surah Maida where punishment for terrorists is given. “The terrorist should be mercilessly killed, or crucified; his limbs from opposite ends should be cut off or he should be exiled — here exile does not mean sent off to a European country but confined to a small space. His movement should be curtailed.”
He condemns the hypocrisy of religious leaders who lead their public life very different from their private life. “In front of television camera they condemn sectarian killings, and when in the privacy of their homes they mock other schools of thought.”
Ghazi Salahuddin, veteran journalist and analyst, blamed the hate crimes on the hate speech from the pulpit. “The Jihadi mindset is gradually becoming mainstream. What is more, the atmosphere needed to counter it is absent. There is no dialogue or cultural exchange.”
He condemns how leaders who promote sectarianism through hate speech roam around freely in the capital city. “There should be an operation against the Taliban; it is being delayed for no reason.”
* Names have been changed to protect privacy