Across the border

Celebrating life in a graveyard: For Hazaras in Quetta, a cemetery doubles up as a community centre

For the persecuted community, a burial ground serves as everything from a playground to a marketplace for the Hazaras in this Pakistani city.

“Are you Chinese?” I have been asked many times, owing to my physical appearance.

On hearing “no”, they would ask me: “You must be from Hunza, then?”

“No, I am from Quetta,” I would answer.

Their next guess would instantly be: “Then obviously you are a Pathan…”

“No, I am a Hazara.”

“Oh! So you are one of the people who are being persecuted.”

Persecuted. It is so painful to hear this every time I introduce myself. My friends, too, face the same situation when meeting someone new.

Incidents such as the one a few days ago in which members of a Hazara family travelling to Quetta from Chaman were fired upon, killing four of them, including a 12-year-old boy, have become part and parcel of what it is to belong to our community.

Be that as it may, the Hazaras, a long-oppressed and marginalised people, are also a very resilient one. Despite living with a sword hanging above our heads, we choose to look past the blood and bullets and attempt to have (with some strange measure of success) a semblance of a normal life.

Thus, I was driven to tell the story of my people and my surroundings. For that I launched a project called Humara Mohallah, which shows different neighbourhoods in Pakistan in interesting and relatable ways through visual storytelling.

Recreation in a graveyard

One such story, titled What We Leave Behind, is an attempt to show the Hazara community in Quetta persevering in the face of the inequities they face. It showcases the people who have been ravaged by the ongoing terrorism for nearly two decades.

The wanton persecution has prevented them not only from promoting their culture, but also severely hampered their participation in civic and public life.

The community is confined to a handful areas of the city: Alamdar Road and Hazara Town. It is a prison in the guise of a sanctuary.

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The video features a graveyard, filled with the bodies of the people who have died in terrorist attacks and targeted killings over the years. The story, however, is not just about the graveyard.

It tells much more – about a people who have repurposed the graveyard into a community centre, making it an integral part of their daily lives. A place of reflection, recreation, and ultimate destination, if you will.

A unique and beautiful graveyard where everyone’s loved ones are buried is the same place where a great many memorable moments are spent.

Having always been symbolised as a place of fear and unease, the word graveyard typically brings an almost irrational terror to one’s heart.

However, defying all conventional definitions of a cemetery stands Quetta’s Hazara graveyard: the Bihisht-e-Zainab.

Here, happiness begins from being amongst the dead. The locals celebrate Eid by going to the graveyard and remembering the loved ones they have lost – some souls lost to age, some to illness, while others ripped away at the end of a barrel.

Due to the lack of parks – or any other place to hang out – each day begins with a group of men and women making their morning rounds in the graveyard premises.

As the sun rises, the rejuvenating light chases away the dark insecurities of the night, and life begins anew, the deafening song of birds shattering the stillness of the cemetery.

When the clock strikes 10, the vegetable market located within the graveyard gets filled with women and one can hear the pleasurable sounds of their bangles jingling complemented with the sweet, chirping of their voices.

Along with these women, children can also be seen playing and their elated shrieks fill the atmosphere with a sense of community. A sense of belonging. An illusion of peace.

Marketplace in the graveyard. All photos by author
Marketplace in the graveyard. All photos by author

One day I met an old man passing by on a street in the graveyard. I found myself compelled to strike a conversation with him. I asked the man where he was off to, to which he replied, “I’ve brought my grandson for an outing so his mother can perform her household chores in peace.” The child was gleefully absorbing the sights and sounds from his pram, feeling at home in the resting place of his forefathers.

Just a few paces away from there, some old men sit languidly under the tranquil shade of trees every day, and reminisce about their fascinating past, no doubt one-upping each other, trading barbs or just sharing stories of happiness and heartaches.

An old man out with his grandson for some fresh air.
An old man out with his grandson for some fresh air.

The evening brings with it the most important activity of the day. The stones that are used to mark the graves are given a decidedly less morbid purpose. They are used as an accessory in the game of Sang Girag which the Hazaras have been playing for centuries.

In the game, two teams of three to five players hold smooth round stones – typically the size of a cricket ball – and turn by turn, hurl them at a cylindrical target called a qarqa. Striking the qarqa gets you a point. The team that is the first to reach 10 points is declared the winner.

A man throwing a stone at the qarqa in the game known as Sang Girag. People of all ages gather to watch the game of Sang Girag.
A man throwing a stone at the qarqa in the game known as Sang Girag. People of all ages gather to watch the game of Sang Girag.

People of all ages partake in the action, even octogenarians. Others sit and watch, cheering for the ones they support and laughing at every misstep, many holding prayer beads in their hands.

People of all ages gather to watch the game of Sang Girag.
People of all ages gather to watch the game of Sang Girag.

As night falls, like clockwork, the people make their way back through the pathways of the graveyard that branch off to their respective homes, only to return the next morning to add soul to what would have otherwise been a place devoid of life.

One might wonder why a cemetery has been chosen for the purpose of community building. Due to the widespread fear of being attacked, the people largely do not leave their homes and instead find comfort in a place nearby.

The mountains surrounding our homes act as natural sentries, keeping us safe.
The mountains surrounding our homes act as natural sentries, keeping us safe.

The graveyard offers the distinct advantage of providing a safe space for people to gather as it is guarded by mountains on three sides and the streets all lead straight to their homes.

Though craggy stone, the dry, gray behemoths are perpetual sentries, proving to be effective protection for a people who have been forced to rely on inanimate objects and natural escape routes for their safety.

More than a century old, the graveyard, which once saw only a handful of visitors, now sees an entire community making full use of the only escape they have and, ironically, celebrating their lives among the dead, defiant in the face of systematic ethnic and sectarian attacks and hatred.

As narrated to Sameen Daud Khan, who put it together in the form of a blog.

This article first appeared on Dawn.

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