Last Friday, hundreds of shoppers were gathered in Parachinar’s main bazaar. In this main town of Pakistan’s Kurram tribal agency, located along the Afghan border, the local residents were buying food items for the looming evening Ramadan meal, when death and carnage visited them again. Within the space of four minutes, two separate bombs exploded, killing 57 people and wounding three times as many.
The first explosion, local officials told reporters, came from a bomb planted in a motorcycle. This is a much-favored method of Pakistan’s many terrorist groups who use the small and light vehicles to pierce large crowds mostly unhindered. Then, four minutes later, a second bomb exploded some 400 yards away. Eyewitnesses said they saw the marketplace’s handcarts fly into the air. Pieces of flesh lay around in small pools of blood. Efforts were made to rush the victims to emergency care, but, within a small amount of time, Parachinar’s main hospital was unable to cope.
It was the deadliest attack to strike this year’s Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. And the victims, local officials said, mostly belonged to Pakistan’s Shia Muslim minority. Over the past year and a half, Shias have been the principal targets in an increasingly deadly wave of attacks across the country. Between January 2012 and June 2013, some 635 Shias have been killed in at least 77 attacks, according to a new report released this month.
The report, compiled by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says that in the past 18 months there have been over 200 incidents of sectarian violence in Pakistan. The Shia community has been the worst affected. The report also documents a series of attacks on Pakistan’s other religious minority groups who have suffered in the uptick in violence.
The Ahmadi Muslim sect, for example, faced 54 different attacks that led to the deaths of 22 members of that community. Christians were the third worst affected, with 11 members killed, and several hundreds forced to flee their homes in attacks often led by mobs. The small Hindu and Shia communities collectively mourned the deaths of three people. The report is based on a collation of news reports that are available publicly. As the report’s authors note, there may have been attacks that went undocumented, and there is no means of independently verifying the figures from each tragedy.
Out of Pakistan’s total population, a fifth is estimated to belong to the Shia Muslim minority. As Pakistan’s Shias are also considered members of the main Muslim majority, the precise size of the community has never been determined. But estimates suggest that Pakistan has double the number of Shias that Iraq does. Outside Iran, Pakistan is thought to have the largest Shia population of any country in the world.
The report shows that the attacks on the Shia community are not limited to any geographic area. They have taken place in all four of the main provinces, and repeatedly in the main cities of each of those provinces: Quetta, Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore. The attacks have taken place in thinly populated parts of the southwestern province of Baluchistan, in places like Mastung and Turbat, for example. They have also struck in large Punjabi towns and cities like Rawalpindi and Sargodha. In the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, cities like Dera Ismail Khan have been hit. And as the latest Parachinar attack demonstrates, the third in the past 18 months, the tribal areas remain particularly vulnerable.
Different patterns of anti-Shia attacks also emerge in the report. The most deadly form of violence used were bombs like the ones that hit Parachinar. Between January 2012 and June 2013, there were at least 18 bomb attacks. The deadliest such attack involved the January bombing of a pool hall in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, where over 120 members of the local Hazara Shia community were killed. Just two months after that attack, the same Hazara community in Quetta suffered four bombings on the same day, including one suicide bombing, that killed 45 members of their community.
The Hazara community, mainly based in Baluchistan province, has suffered the brunt of the attacks on Pakistan’s Shias. In the 18 months examined by the report, there was on average one attack per month. In addition to enduring deadly bombs, the Hazara community has been subject to a series of “targeted killings”. In October 2012, for example, three men from Quetta’s Shia Hazara community were gunned to death; another three men were injured as a result of the attack. A few months earlier, in July 2012, Mohammed Yaseen, a well-known member of the same community was gunned down in an attack claimed by an obscure offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban.
All together, Pakistan’s Shias faced some 46 shootings during the 18 months. These attacks revealed another pattern: the assassinations of Shia notables. In different parts of the country, as far away as Karachi and Lahore, anti-Shia militants have targeted prominent members and professionals from the community, including professors, doctors, religious scholars, lawyers, a police officer, judges, and a trustee of a Shia congregation hall. In February this year, the citizens of Lahore were chilled by the news that Dr. Syed Ali Haider, a well-respected ophthalmologist in the city, was shot dead along with his son, Murtaza, as he was driving the 12-year-old boy to school.
Four months later, in June this year, another doctor narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt in the city of Peshawar. The doctor’s life may have been saved by the presence of two bodyguards traveling with him, one of whom was killed in the attack. The attackers were able to access the vehicle because they were wearing counterfeit police uniforms as a disguise.
The use of fake uniforms is a tactic increasingly favored by the militants. In June 2012, 25 Shia passengers were killed when a dozen attackers disguised in military uniforms intercepted their bus in the town of Mansehra. They ordered the bus to halt, forced passengers outside, lined them up, scrutinized their identity cards, and shot dead those with Shia names.
The bus carrying the mostly Shia passengers was on its way from Rawalpindi, a large garrison town near the capital Islamabad, to Gilgit, an area in the mountainous north of the country where there is a large population of Shias. Just a few weeks ago, this past June, it was in Gilgit where militants similarly disguised in police uniforms killed 10 mountain climbers in the deadliest attack on tourists in recent years. Fake uniforms have also been used in attacks against other minorities. In July 2012, seven men, three of whom were wearing police uniforms, kidnapped a pastor from the Punjabi town of Toba Tek Singh.
Another disturbing pattern of attacks emerges when looking at the suffering of Pakistan’s especially vulnerable Christian community. In March this year, the residents of a mainly Christian community of clustered red brick homes on the outskirts of Lahore were forced to flee in a panic. An angry and violent mob had gathered, claiming that a young Christian sanitation worker from the colony had committed blasphemy. The day after the Christian residents fled, the mob returned and went door-to-door torching their homes.
The scenes were grimly reminiscent of another tragedy. In 2009, a similar mob had collected outside a similar poor Christian community in the Punjabi town of Gojra, some three hours away from Lahore. The community in Lahore was able to get away before the violence struck their homes. The community in Gojra was not so lucky. Seven of them were burned to death on the day of the attack; two others died later. Over the past 18 months, there have been two other such incidents, where the local Christian community has been forced to flee their homes, once in Multan, and another time, just outside the capital Islamabad. In all of these cases, the police just stood aside and didn’t prevent the attacks.
What is especially depressing is how, given the now well-established patterns, Pakistan has been unable to provide security to it increasingly imperiled religious minorities. For example, the Shias of Parachinar had suffered three separate attacks before the most recent one, where 55 people had been killed in two separate bomb attacks on market places. And yet, despite the same communities being hit, using the same methods, and often by the same groups, more isn’t done to prevent these tragedies.
Omar Waraich is a 2013 International Reporting Project Fellow covering violence against religious minorities in Pakistan