“I am a double target because I am a woman and I am Hazara”

The Hazara are a Shia minority who face constant persecution in Pakistan. Ruquiya Hashmi - the first female Hazara candidate for the national assembly - faces death threats daily.

Muhammad Ahmed stands at his small kiosk on the street in a working class district of Islamabad, selling tea and making conversation with the punters. He laughs and serves up cup after cup of steaming chai, made in the traditional Pakistani style with boiled milk and cardamom. His cheerful exterior does not give it away, but just a few months ago, Ahmed fled his home in fear for his life.

“I left everything in Quetta – my house, my shop,” he says. “But you cannot put a cost on your life, or your family’s life. It is not safe for us there. Every time my son stepped out to school it was a trauma wondering if he would come home. It is not a good place for us.”

Ahmed is a member of Pakistan’s beleaguered Hazara community. The Hazara are a Persian-speaking Shia minority who emigrated from Afghanistan more than 100 years ago. They have long been the target of a campaign of terror by sectarian Sunni militants. All Shias face a threat, but the Hazara are easily marked out by their distinctive central Asian features.

Around 500,000 Hazara live in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, a lawless province in Pakistan’s south-west. They have been mercilessly targeted by violent militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who continue to operate with impunity. According to the Human Rights Watch, 375 Shias died in 2012, with at least 100 of those from the Hazara community. In Quetta, as well as elsewhere in the country, individual Hazara have routinely been shot dead by gunmen on motorbikes, meaning that in certain areas, simply leaving the house is a major risk.

That death toll has already increased dramatically in 2013. On 10 January, two massive suicide bombs ripped through a snooker hall on Alamdar Road, in a predominantly Hazara area of Quetta, killing nearly 100 people. After the bombing, the community refused to bury their dead, sitting in the streets in sub-zero temperatures with the coffins until the government took action. The cabinet of the provincial assembly was dismissed and governor’s rule announced but on 16th February, another huge bomb was detonated near Hazara Town, this time killing 73.

Since then, security has been significantly tightened up in the main Hazara areas of Quetta, but this has had its own negative effects. Ahmed describes how these areas, already ghettoised, have been even more cut off. This affected business for shopkeepers, as people from other communities now avoid the area. University students also face problems getting out of the area to attend their lectures. “Fear was our constant companion, so I have brought my family to Islamabad,” says Ahmed.

He was not alone. Zaman Hussain, head of the central office of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) in Quetta, says that many Hazara have fled Balochistan. Many have sought refuge in Australia, America, or the United Kingdom, while others have left behind their property moved to other areas of Pakistan. There is no data to back it up, but he estimates that as many as 100,000 have left their homes.

Despite the grave threat to their lives, those Hazara who remain are refusing to be silenced. Pakistan is gearing up for a general election on Saturday 11 May, the first democratic transition in its history, and this incredibly vulnerable community is determined to take part.

Ruquiya Hashmi, 62, is Quetta’s first ever female candidate for the National Assembly. She is also Hazara. The first few times I call her mobile phone, she doesn’t answer. When we do speak, she is full of apologies: she has been wary of taking calls from unknown numbers because she has been receiving death threats for the last 10 days. “They call my phone and say, ‘don’t participate in this election’. Threatening letters have also been sent to my office, and my workers get calls too,” she says. “I am a double target because I am a woman and I am Hazara.”

She has not been given much state protection. “The government has totally failed to provide us security. They have given us one policeman and he barely knows how to use a gun, so I have my own personal security guards.”

Hashmi, a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q), is standing for both the National Assembly and the Provincial Assembly (in which she has already held a seat for some years). Despite the very serious threats, she is undeterred. “I want to stand in this election for the people of Quetta – not just the Hazara. We want peace.”

Inevitably, the terrible law and order situation, and the high threat faced by her community in particular, has impacted on her ability to campaign. Unable to hold any campaign rallies or public meetings, Hashmi has been going door-to-door in the Hazara areas. For the last fortnight, she has been unable even to do that. “I try to go to one or two houses a day, but I cannot move around much. No-one is safe here, but I will raise my voice.”

She is not the only member of the Hazara community to defy the odds and stand in elections. Mohammed Raza, spokesperson of the HDP, says that from his party, there are five candidates standing for seven seats in the Provincial and National Assemblies. “Our party was already on the terrorists’ target list before the election period, so our movement is very restricted,” he says.

On 23 April, a suicide bomber blew up his car at a checkpoint at the entrance to a Hazara district. Six people were killed. Raza, and other HDP members who I speak to, believe that the target was their nearby campaign office. Many party members were gathered there when the bomb went off.

“We had some government security after the January bombing, but four months ago, they took it back,” says Raza. “At the start of April, the intelligence services told us not to even go to our local market because of hit men targeting our community.”
Hussain says that although security has improved since the bombings early this year, the government has stopped short of a targeted operation. “They know where the terrorists are but they are not doing anything about it,” he says.

Individual residents of Hazara areas have been receiving threatening phone calls, and there is the possibility of attacks on polling day. But Hazara politicians and community leaders are confident that people will come out to vote, despite the very real risks. “We want to raise our voices,” says Hussain.

At his kiosk in Islamabad, Ahmed, who has registered for a postal vote, is cautiously optimistic. “We Hazara are Pakistanis too and it is our right to cast our votes. Most of us have lost relatives and friends. When we protested peacefully on the streets, we had the provincial government dismissed. So who knows what we can do at the ballot box?”

Click here to read more from Samira Shackle on the run up to the general election on 11 May and the place of minority communities in Pakistan

National Assembly candidate Ruquiya Hashmi at an election campaign meeting in Quetta. Photograph: Getty Images.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The New Statesman 2016 local and devolved elections liveblog

Results and analysis from elections across the United Kingdom. 

Welcome to the New Statesman's elections liveblog. Results will be coming in from the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, local elections in England, and the mayoral contests in London, Salford, Bristol and Liverpool. Hit refresh for updates!

22:57: The Sun's poll - again, not an exit poll, I'm not kidding around here - of Scotland has the SNP winning by a landslide. (I know, I'm as shocked as all of you) But more importantly, it shows the Conservatives beating Labour into second place. The Tories believe they may hold onto Ettrick as well. 

22:55: What news from Scotland? Labour looks to have been wiped out in Glasgow. Liberal Democrats think they might hold at least one of Orkney or Shetland, while the seats in Edinburgh are anyone's game. 

22:52: Hearing that turnout is low in Waltham Forest, Lewisham, Hackney and my birthplace of Tower Hamlets (the borough's best export unless you count Dizzie Rascal, Tinchy Stryder or Harry Redknapp, that's me). Bad news for Labour unless turnout is similarly low in the Tory-friendly outer boroughs. 

22:47: YouGov have done a poll (note: not an exit poll, it should not be taken as seriously as an exit poll and if you call it an exit poll I swear to god I will find you and kill you) of the Welsh Assembly. Scores on the door:

Labour 27

Plaid Cymru 12 

Conservatives 11

Ukip 8

Liberal Democrat 2

There are 60 seats in the Assembly, so you need 30 seats for a majority of one. 

22:40: In case you're wondering, how would closing a seven point deficit to say, six, compare to previous Labour oppositions, I've done some number-crunching. In 1984, Neil Kinnock's Labour turned a Tory lead of 15 per cent at the general election to a Conservative lead of just one per cent. In 1988, one of 12 per cent went down to one per cent. (He did, of course, go on to lose in both the 1987 and 1992 elections). In 1993, John Smith's Labour party turned a deficit of eight points at the general to a Labour lead of eight points in the local elections. William Hague turned a Labour lead of 13 points to one of just six in 1998, while Iain Duncan Smith got a Tory lead of just one point - from a Labour lead of nine. In 2006, new Tory leader David Cameron turned a 3 point Labour lead to a 13 point Tory one. Ed Miliband - remember him? - got from a Tory lead of seven points to a two point Labour one. 

22:35: John McDonnell is setting out what would be a good night as far as the party leadership is concerned - any improvement on the 2015 defeat, when the party trailed by close to seven points. Corbyn's critics say he needs to make around 400 gains.

I've written about what would be good at length before, but here's an extract:

"Instead of worrying overmuch about numbers, worry about places. Although winning seats and taking control of councils is not a guarantee of winning control of the parliamentary seat – look at Harlow, Nuneaton, and Ipswich, all of which have Labour representation at a local level but send a Conservative MP to Westminster – good performances, both in terms of increasing votes and seats, are a positive sign. So look at how Labour does in its own marginals and in places that are Conservative at a Westminster level, rather than worrying about an exact figure either way."

22:31: Oh god, the BBC's election night music is starting. Getting trauma flashbacks to the general election. 

22:22: A few of you have been in touch about our exit poll. Most of you have been wondering about that one vote for George Galloway but the rest are wondering what happens - under the rules of the London mayoral race (and indeed the contests in Salford, Bristol and Liverpool), 2 votes would not be enough for Sadiq. (He needs 2.5). However, all the other candidates are tied - which makes it through to the second round. What happens then is the second preferences are used as a tie-break. Of the tied candidates, Sian Berry has the most second preferences so she goes through to face Sadiq Khan in the final round. Final round is as follows:

Sadiq Khan: 3

Sian Berry: 2

3 votes is above the quota so he is duly elected. An early omen? 

22:19: Burnham latest. A spokesperson for Andy Burnham says:

"Approaches have been made to Andy Burnham to give consideration to this role. It is early days and no decision as been taken. Whatever the decision, he will continue to serve the leader of the party and stay in the shadow cabinet."

22:17: Anyway, exit poll of the office. We've got:

Sadiq Khan: 2

George Galloway: 1

Caroline Pidgeon: 1

Sian Berry: 1

22:15: Update on Andy Burnham. He has been asked to consider running. More as we get it. 

22:13: People are asking if there's an exit poll tonight. Afraid not (you can't really do an exit poll in elections without national swing). But there is a YouGov poll from Wales and I am conducting an exit poll of the four remaining members of staff in the NS building. 

22:11: It's true! Andy Burnham is considering running for Greater Manchester mayor. Right, that's it, I'm quitting the liveblog. Nothing I say tonight can top that. 

22:09: Rumours that professional Scouser Andy Burnham is considering a bid for Greater Manchester mayor according to Sky News. Not sure if this is a) a typo for Merseyside or b) a rumour or c) honestly I don't know. More as I find out. 

22:06: Conservatives are feeling good about Trafford, one of the few councils they run in the North West.

22:03: Polls have closed. Turnout looks to be low in London. What that means is anyone's guess to be honest. There isn't really a particular benefit to Labour if turnout is high although that is a well-worn myth. In the capital in particular, turnout isn't quite as simple a zero-sum game as all that. Labour are buoyant, but so are the Tories. In Scotland, well, the only questions are whether or not the SNP will win every single first past the post seat or just the overwhelming majority. Both Labour and Tory sources are downplaying their chances of prevailing in the battle for second place at Holyrood, so make of that what you will. And in Wales, Labour look certain to lose seats but remain in power in some kind of coalition deal. 

22:00: Good evening. I'm your host, Stephen Bush, and I'll be with you throughout the night as results come in from throughout the country. The TV screens are on, I've just eaten, and now it's time to get cracking. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.