A year of suffering for Pakistan's Shias

Members of the Hazara community at a Quetta graveyard Members of the Hazara community have had to suffer many bereavements throughout 2011

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Hundreds of people belonging to the minority Shia community have been killed in Pakistan in 2011.

Most of the killings have taken place in the western province of Balochistan.

This volatile region is Pakistan's most strategically important area - sharing borders with Afghanistan and Iran.

It is also home to various different ethnic groups - which are often at war with each other.

They include the million-strong ethnic Hazara community - who have been the focus of many of the attacks.

The Hazaras are mainly migrants from Afghanistan - they are known as the Hazarajat in that country.

Death threats

The community came to what was then western India in the early 20th century.

Sipah-e-Sahaba activist The pro al-Qaeda Sipah-e-Sahaba group has been blamed for much of the violence against Hazaras

Hazaras settled mostly around Quetta - it allowed them easy access to their communities back home.

The city was also located on the main route of Shia pilgrims going to Iran - which remains the spiritual headquarters for Islam's Shia community.

Starting out as labourers - the Hazaras flourished and now have sizeable shares in business, education and sports.

But these high achievers are now living under the shadow of the gun.

Take the case of Abrar Hussain Shah for example.

He was revered as one of Pakistan's most celebrated sportsmen - an Olympics and Asian games medallist.

A director of the Pakistan Sports Board before he was murdered - he could have easily have taken up a comfortable job in Islamabad.

"But he was never like that - he always wanted to work where he could make a difference," says his wife Nausheen Shah.

Such dedication eventually cost him his life.

"He had been receiving threats - those sending it said they were from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Afghanistan," Mrs Shah says.

Tears for a husband

However, her husband brushed them aside.

Relatives of those killed in a Quetta attack against Shias earlier this year The Shia community accuse the authorities of not properly protecting them from militant violence

"He said 'I'm just a sportsman - not a politician or religious leader'."

"'Why would anyone harm me'?"

Then he was gone - shot dead four months ago while driving back home by gunmen on motorbikes.

For his wife Ms Shah life since then has seemed like an eternity.

Even her children's laughter cannot stop her tears for her husband.

"His only crime was that he was a Hazara - a Shia," she says.

His niece says his murder - and those of at least 100 Shia victims in different attacks this year - could have been prevented by the government.

"They can definitely prevent these attacks - but there has to be the will," she said. "Quetta is a small city. We've got different security forces… why are they not working? Why are not they doing their job properly?"

Pro-Taliban Sunni militants admit carrying out most of the attacks.

Fuelled resentment

They say that they have done so to curb the growing regional influence of Iran through what they call its proxies in Pakistan - the Shia community.

Hazara boy in Quetta Many Hazaras fear for the future of their children

Security officials blame Pakistan's most powerful extremist organisation, the pro al-Qaeda Sipah-e-Sahaba - or Soldiers of the companions of the Prophet - for most of the violence.

Its militants have also attacked homes of security officials - forcing them to take what many here describe as a more lenient approach to militancy as a result.

But speaking to the BBC in Islamabad, the head of Sipah-e-Sahaba strongly denied any links to these attacks or any other Shia killings.

However Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi made no effort to conceal his disdain for Shia Islam.

"We don't want them nor do we like them. If Iran tries to bring about a Shia revolution in Pakistan - we will become like a great wall in their path," he said.

Back in Quetta Hazaras say they do have strong religious ties to Iran - but firmly remain Pakistani citizens.

The real reason behind the attacks - they say - is envy towards the relatively prosperous Hazara neighbourhoods.

They are a picture of progress unmatched elsewhere in Quetta - clean streets, bustling businesses and students off to school.

It is a pattern repeated across the country - in general Shias have done far better economically than many Sunnis.

In a region with desperate poverty and limited choices for youth - this has fuelled resentment and anger.

Such sentiments are the life blood of the militant movement - especially the Sipah-e-Sahaba group.

Mourners

Increasingly, it has allowed them to recruit young men, even teenagers, for suicide missions.

Hazara family It's thought that some in Pakistan may be envious of the relative prosperity in Hazara neighbourhoods

One of the recent such attacks took place in Quetta's Marriabad neighbourhood.

The destruction is still evident all around - streets are ripped open and surrounding buildings are severely damaged.

It happened when people were leaving the mosque just down the road. They walked into the bomb attack which killed dozens including small children.

Locals later told me that despite repeated appeals to the government, no security was provided to prevent such an incident.

Since then security patrols have been increased in Quetta. But the killings continue.

Security officials say the threat is likely to be at its greatest when Shias march across the country to commemorate their holy festival of Muharram - the month of mourning for the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.

But today it seems that martyrdom is not just the fate of some ancient Shias.

It is in fact very much a 21st century phenomenon - as a visit to the Shia martyrs' graveyard in Quetta will prove.

Most of those buried here are Hazaras - professionals and traders, men, women and children who have all died recently - many in sectarian attacks.

Mourners throng inside and they say that they are praying for the souls of the departed and for their own deliverance.

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