Quetta, Pakistan — Calligraphers linger at the gates of an ancient graveyard in this brooding city in western Pakistan, charged with a macabre and increasingly in-demand task: inscribing the tombstones of the latest victims of the sectarian death squads that openly roam these streets.
For at least a year now, Sunni extremist gunmen have been methodically attacking members of the Hazara community, a Persian-speaking Shiite minority that emigrated here from Afghanistan more than a century ago. The killers strike with chilling abandon, apparently fearless of the law: shop owners are gunned down at their counters, students as they play cricket, pilgrims dragged from buses and executed on the roadside.
The latest victim, a mechanic named Hussain Ali, was killed Wednesday, shot inside his workshop. He joined the list of more than 100 Hazaras who have been killed this year, many in broad daylight. As often as not, the gunmen do not even bother to cover their faces.
The bloodshed is part of a wider surge in sectarian violence across Pakistan in which at least 375 Shiites have died this year — the worst toll since the 1990s, human rights workers say. But as their graveyard fills, Hazaras say the mystery lies not in the identity of their attackers, who are well known, but in a simpler question: why the Pakistani state cannot — or will not — protect them.
“After every killing, there are no arrests,” said Muzaffar Ali Changezi, a retired Hazara engineer. “So if the government is not supporting these killers, it must be at least protecting them. That’s the only way to explain how they operate so openly.”
The government, already battling Taliban insurgents, insists it is taking the threat seriously. During the recent Mourning of Muhurram, when Shiites parade through the streets over 10 days, the Interior Ministry imposed stringent security measures such as blocking cellphone signals for up to 12 hours — to try to prevent remote bomb detonations — and banning doubled-up motorcycle riding. Even so, Sunni bombers struck at least five times, killing at least 50 Shiites and wounding several hundred. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the biggest attacks, highlighting an emerging link between that group and traditional sectarian militants that has worried many.
Yet the unchecked killings have also raised wider questions about Pakistani society: about the spread of a cancerous sectarian ideology in a public that even just a decade ago seemed more tolerant, and about what might be spurring the growing audacity of the killers, some of whom are believed to have links to the country’s security services.
The murders in Quetta, for instance, involve remarkably little mystery. By wide consensus, the gunmen are based in Mastung, a dusty agricultural village 18 miles to the south that is the bustling local hub of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the country’s most notorious sectarian militant group.
Like so many Pakistani groups that combine guns with zealotry, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi thrives in a wink-and-nod netherworld: it is officially banned, but its leader, Malik Ishaq, was released from jail last year amid showers of rose petals thrown by supporters. Now Mr. Malik lives openly in southern Punjab Province, protected by armed men who loiter outside his door, allowing him to deliver hate-laced statements to visitors. Shiites are “the greatest infidels on earth,” he told a Reuters reporter last month.
In Quetta, his followers are similarly unfettered. In targeting the Hazara — who, with their distinctive Central Asian features, are easy to pick out — Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants block busy highways as they search vehicles for Hazaras and daub walls with hate slogans. “The face is the target,” said Major Nadir Ali, a senior Hazara leader and retired army officer. “They see the face, then they shoot.”
In the worst killing this year, militants dragged 26 Hazara men from a bus headed for a religious pilgrimage site in Iran, and executed them in front of their wives. The episode occurred near Mastung.
There is a growing sense of siege in the Hazara community here. Shards of glass are still lodged in the head of Waqar Husain, an engineering student who survived a bomb attack on a crowded university bus last June. Four students died in the attack, and four lost their sight. “It changed my view of life in Quetta,” he said.
Now largely confined to home, Mr. Hussain is still not safe. Threats come via Facebook and Twitter, he said, through taunting messages about the “Shia kaffir” — infidels.
The campaign of fear has forced the Hazara to retreat into ethnic enclaves on the edge of the city. Businesses have moved from the city center to Alamgir Road, a Hazara quarter where discreetly armed men stand watch on street corners. Even the ambulance drivers are armed.
One driver cocked his pistol before leading the way to the site of a recent attack. Across the street, the flag of a banned Sunni group fluttered from a shop with graffiti that read: “There is one treatment for Shiites — it is called jihad.”
The rattle of attacks is just one of several conflicts plaguing Quetta, a once quiet provincial capital now riven by a range of ethnic fissures and violent intrigues, lending it an air of power-keg tension.
Most famously, the city is, or was, home to the “Quetta Shura,” the secretive Afghan Taliban leadership council. But for the Pakistan Army, the main enemy are ethnic Baluch separatists, who killed three soldiers in a bomb attack in central Quetta on Nov. 21.
Foreigners are no longer safe, either treated as Western spies by suspicious officials or abducted as part of a soaring trade in kidnapping. Last April the decapitated body of Khalil Dale, a British Red Cross doctor, was found near Quetta, three months after suspected militants abducted him for ransom.
With such a dizzy array of threats, it is perhaps unsurprising that the security forces have failed to stem sectarian violence. But many analysts see a more disturbing cause: a fatal ambivalence inside the police and military toward jihadi groups.
While the military ostensibly severed its relationship with Islamist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi after 2001, some activists suspect that, at a local level, ties linger. “The authorities are turning a blind eye,” said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. “The most charitable explanation is that they are incompetent. The alternative is that the military enjoys an informal alliance with Sunni extremists.”
A senior official with the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force in charge of securing Quetta, denied accusations of collusion. The situation is “challenging,” he admitted, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But there is no problem with the Hazara. We pursue all criminals, irrespective of sect, caste or religion.”
Regional politics also plays a role. Iran and Saudi Arabia financed rival Shiite and Sunni militant groups in the 1990s, as part of a proxy war for influence. Experts say that, while the Iranian financing has slowed dramatically, private Saudi funds continue to pour in.
In a State Department cable dated December 2009 and published by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton noted that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
The sense of siege has turned to flight for many younger Hazaras, who are leaving their homes in Quetta for Australia, 6,000 miles distant and the largest center of the Hazara diaspora. It is an expensive, dangerous journey: after paying up to $15,000 per head to people smugglers, many are forced to brave perilous journeys in rickety boats across the Indian Ocean. Too often, the boats sink en route, taking hundreds of lives.
Muhammad Hussain, a 39-year-old teacher, said two of his brothers had left for Australia in the past four years — one had almost certainly drowned, he believed; the other, who left four months ago, had still not sent news.
“We just don’t know what happened,” he said, twisting his fingers anxiously as he spoke.