‘It’s too dangerous. I’ll have to send a driver.’ The voice on the other end of the mobile takes a breath. ‘I hope you don’t mind.’
The caller is Ali Ahmad Kohzad, leader of the Hazara Democratic Party, whom I had arranged to meet. As a prominent politician, Kohzad is constantly under threat, particularly from the Sunni-militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, that has been targeting Hazara-Shias since 2001. At Kohzad’s request I park my white Suzuki van in front of a dull sand-swept petrol pump just outside Hazara Town. The town isn’t really a town, but more a settlement, one of two, where Quetta’s 500,000-strong Shia Hazaras live. I wait to be picked up by his driver, whose name is Arif. When Arif pulls up in a white Toyota Corolla, he is easy to recognise; that’s because Hazaras rarely marry outside their ethnicity and their distinct central Asian features have survived since the 1800s, when they first settled in Quetta. Their distinctiveness also makes them easy for militant groups to spot, and kill. Arif comes armed. I walk up to him and introduce myself; he unlocks the safety latch of his pistol, and says: ‘Have to make sure you’re ready — just in case.’ He then starts the engine. ‘We never venture out of our areas without being armed,’ Arif says, as we begin to drive into Hazara Town.
Quetta is the hill-side capital of Balochistan, Pakistan’s highly strategic western province. Bordering Iran to its east and Afghanistan to its north, it is rich in natural gas, gold, copper, and minerals. It also has the country’s longest coastline and second-largest port in the southern city of Gwadar. Balochistan’s land mass constitutes 40 per cent of the total land area of Pakistan, and yet paradoxically its population is among the country’s most impoverished.