The latest atrocity committed against Pakistan’s beleaguered Hazara minority -- a suicide bomb attack on Tuesday on a bus carrying Shia Muslim pilgrims in Mastung district near Quetta, killing at least 25 people – has elicited an outrage and horror across the country that might be unprecedented in its scope. Protesters, including women and children, in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province where most Hazara people in the country reside, as well as in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Multan and Hyderabad, staged sit-in demonstrations to express their anger over the killings. In many cases, their assemblies tied up traffic and blocked other normal daily routines.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an outlawed militant organization, claimed responsibility for the Mastung suicide bombing, and warned it would conduct even more such attacks.

Some Hazara in Quetta are taking an extraordinary measure in protest. “Our sit-in … will continue and we will not bury the dead until an operation is launched against the culprits who attacked and killed the pilgrims,” said Syed Musarrat Agha, the acting president of Balochistan Shia Conference, according to Pakistani media. The Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen, a political organization that seeks unity between Shia and Sunni Muslims, has called for a nationwide strike on Friday to protest the killings. “For the Hazara, every day and every calendar year is smeared with blood and more blood,” said Sajjad Hussain Changezi at a protest. “Every nation marks its calendar with special occasions and festivals. But the Hazara child is forced to remember the dates of the year in association with the acts of violence against our community.”

The protests appear to have reached the attention of the country’s highest levels. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar and Minister for Information and Broadcasting Pervez Rashid to travel to Quetta to negotiate an end to the protests with the local Shia Hazara populace.

But some Hazara lawmakers accused some state officials of conspiring with militant groups to create a deeper state of chaos in Balochistan in order to compel the government to intensify its offensive against the province’s separatist movements. “If the authorities do not take notice of the sectarian killings immediately, the situation will further deteriorate,” said the chiefs of the Hazara Democratic Party, Abdul Hassan Hazara and Mirza Hussain Hazara, in a joint statement. As the targeted pilgrims were on their way to visit Shia shrines in neighboring Iran, the chief minister of Balochistan, Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch, reportedly ordered local officials to identify a safer route for such journeys and avoid roads deemed to be high security risks.

But who are the Hazara, and why have certain segments of Pakistan declared war on them? The Hazara ethnic group live in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and are generally distinguishable by their "Mongolian" features (they are believed to be the descendants of the soldiers of Genghis Khan). They have been shot at, bombed and stabbed in what appears to be a coordinated campaign of violence against this small part of Pakistani society. Since 2001 (excluding the latest bus bombing), Pakistani media estimate that at least 800 Hazara have been slaughtered in the country.

The motivations for the mass murder of Hazara in Pakistan are complex and confounding. Some believe it is a case of fanatic Sunni Muslims killing Shias, other think it is simply a matter of ethnic prejudice, but some Hazara leaders say they are being wiped out due to geo-strategic issues engulfing both Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The Hazaras are being systematically killed because they are anti-Taliban,” said Tahir Khan Hazara, a political activist. 

However, Balochistan is also involved in its own insurgency movement, which the Pakistani government has brutally sought to crush – making the Hazara a helpless, innocent pawn in this deadly game. Some Hazara think that Pakistani security forces are killing Hazara to camouflage their persecution of Baloch nationalists. Zaman Dehqanzada of HDP alleges that Pakistani security forces are murdering Hazara to punish them for refusing the fight the Balochs. “We are not going to destroy our relations with our brothers in Balochistan,” he said. (The founder of HDP, Hussain Ali Yousufi, was himself murdered by LeJ in 2009.) As Farsi-speaking Shias, the Hazara are suspected by some of being spies for Iran and perhaps conspiring to engineer a Shia revolution in overwhelmingly Sunni Pakistan.

Dr. Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, believes the attacks on the Shia Hazara are driven by one single factor: sectarian hatred. Sunni extremist groups operate with impunity in Pakistan, he said in an interview, and they are bent on eliminating Pakistan's Shias, who comprise 20 percent of the population. “There are large representations of Shia in Balochistan (which borders Shia-dominated Iran), and hence they pose a convenient target for Pakistani Sunni sectarian militants,” Kugelman noted.

Hazara suffered immense loss of life in Afghanistan when it was under Taliban control – tens of thousands were massacred. Taliban viewed the Hazara as loyal to the Northern Alliance government that overthrew the Afghan Taliban. The chaos in Afghanistan forced tens of thousands of Hazara to flee to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Their lives in Pakistan are one of poverty and despair. According to the Joshua Project, the Hazara are “looked down upon and despised by other ethnic groups. They are some of the poorest people of Pakistan and suffer an alarming array of health problems; eye diseases, leprosy, and tuberculosis are very common.”

Meanwhile, Kugelman lamented that the Pakistani state has shown little interest in curbing sectarian violence--in marked contrast to anti-state violence practiced by the likes of the Pakistani Taliban, which the military has tackled through offensives in the tribal areas. “Until Pakistan cracks down more on sectarian strife and its perpetrators, sadly the Hazara will suffer many more attacks,” he concluded. “It makes for a very troubling state of affairs.”