On Monday, in Karachi, I stayed at home while protesters took to the streets in an attempt to rouse Pakistan into action against the continuing extermination of Shia Muslims. On Saturday in Quetta a bomb had exploded in a busy market, killing 84 people; two days later, amid sit-ins and protests in different parts of the country in response to the attack, a Shia doctor and his school-age son were shot and killed in Lahore.
My reasons for staying away from the protests were those of a coward: I worried that they might be targeted. At the end of the day there was a bomb blast near the site of one of the sit-ins, though luckily it was a timed device that went off an hour after the protesters had dispersed, and no one was harmed.
Most of the time I stayed indoors, following via Twitter and text messages the movements of friends who were trying to leave Karachi on scheduled flights only to find the routes blocked by protesters. As I discovered when I finally ventured out in the evening, the roadblocks of the day were still in place, cutting off all access to Bilawal House, the Karachi home of President Zardari, and preventing protesters from approaching it, as planned, to stage a sit-in. It’s symbolic, really – Shias are murdered and no one who wants to protest can get anywhere near the president, whose silence can be heard well past the roadblocks.
The last time a bomb targeted Shias in Quetta, as recently as January, the mourners refused to bury their dead until the government heard their demands and brought “governor’s rule” to the province. The logic there was that the civilian government had failed to take any action against the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) who had claimed responsibility for the bombing, so someone else – with muscle and firepower – must be put in charge. Protests and sit-ins of solidarity sprung up around the country and when governor’s rule was brought about, and the mourners finally buried their dead, there were many who hailed it as a triumph of civil society, a rare instance of protests bringing about change. But no meaningful change has resulted, and on Saturday a truck laden with explosives was able to pass through multiple security checkpoints in Quetta. No one in a position of authority has tried to explain how such a thing could happen.
So what must the mourners demand this time, as again they sit with the coffins of their dead, refusing to bury them? Some say the answer lies in military rule for Baluchistan. Others point to long-alleged links between sections of the military and the LeJ to rubbish such a proposition; still others say no one will act against the militants because everyone is terrified of finding themselves in the line of fire.
No one seriously believes that the civilian government has any ties to the murderers, but their fear of taking on the militants was evident in the statement of Akbar Hussain Durrani, the home secretary of Baluchistan, two days after the Quetta attack: “We have certain clues about terrorists involved in past attacks and targeted killings which I cannot disclose at the moment but we are working on them.” This, after the LeJ had claimed responsibility. In contrast, the centrist PTI’s chief Imran Khan held a press conference which drew praise, even from critics who have taken to calling him Taliban Khan, for actually naming the LeJ. That the ruling PPP party and the largest opposition, the PML(N), cannot begin to utter those three letters demonstrates how afraid they are.
It all felt very different in Karachi for a brief moment over the weekend, during the Karachi Literature Festival – thousands of people walked, free of charge, through the doorways of the city’s iconic Beach Luxury hotel to buy books and listen to writers and human rights activists and journalists.
But, as time went on, the Quetta bomb blast of the previous day found its way explicitly or implicitly into many of the sessions. Arif Hasan, an urban planner and teacher, said in a discussion of the violence: “The ethnic divide is understandable; it is linked to land. The religious divide is not understandable. It is being deliberately promoted.”
By whom, and for what? Everyone in Pakistan has their theories: it is the deal the intelligence agencies have made with militants in exchange for support in Kashmir; it’s an attempt to derail forthcoming elections; it’s linked to the army’s struggle against Baluch nationalists; it’s “the foreign hand” causing instability; it’s the Saudi influence; and on and on. But what will it take for the civilian government and – more importantly, the military – to do what is necessary to make it stop? This is the question that makes Pakistanis, uncharacteristically, fall silent.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into over 20 languages.