How the city's persecuted minority survives the trauma caused by extremist militant groups who target them for practising their faith.
On September 3 2010, at around 3pm, Mariam (who does not want to reveal her last name), sat down in disbelief, crying, at home in Islamabad, Pakistan.
A few hundred miles away, her hometown, Quetta, was yet again under attack by militants targeting the ethnic Hazara minority, to which she belongs. News channels were reporting that it was a suicide attack and early updates said that at least 50 were killed. This figure also included one of Mariam’s close family friends.
As she lamented his loss, Quetta, already shaken by the impact of the suicide bombing, echoed with the cries of grieving Hazara families who had lost their loved ones in the blast.
One of a string of many attacks against Hazaras of Balochistan province, the explosion occurred during an al Quds day procession, which is organised by Shia Muslims on the last Friday of every Ramadan to express solidarity with Palestinians.
“It was painful,” Mariam says. But the worst was yet to come.
Her younger brother, Mujtaba was spending his summer break at their residence in Quetta. She tried to reach him by phone as a Hazara is more likely to land into trouble than any regular Pakistani.
The phone call went through and Mujtaba told her he was at Meezan chowk – the site of the blast.
"I told him to immediately go home," Mariam tells TRT World.
A few minutes later she called him again to find out if he was home. Several calls went unanswered until one of Mujtaba’s friends received one telling her brother had been shot.
“I don't remember what happened afterwards,” she says.
Mariam later learned that Mujtaba had left home telling their mother he was going to donate blood to the blast victims. He and his two friends first stopped by the blast site to help the wounded victims and send corpses to morgue. An exchange of gunfire broke out between the militants and police, in which Mujtaba lost his life.
Hazaras, who follow the tenets of Shia Islam, have a longstanding history of being subjected to sectarian violence by the Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups in Balochistan. A report released by the National Commission for Human Rights last year stated that 509 members of the Hazara community were killed and 627 injured in various incidents of terrorism in Quetta from 2013 to 2017.
According to Mohammad Jibran Nasir, a Pakistani human rights activist: “The main reason behind violence against Hazaras is sectarian dispute.” He also points out that Hazaras are more vulnerable to being attacked than others Shias, their typical Mongolian features disclosing their identity and making them easily recognisable.
According to statistics issued by the United Nations, militant groups working under the patronage of the Taliban have killed more than 1,500 Hazara Shias in Pakistan in the past decade. Continual violence perpetrated against Hazaras, in the form of suicide attacks, targeted killings and bombings, has forced them to live in restricted areas, which has further led to economic difficulties for the minority.
“Everyone who leaves for work, leaves under the fear that he or she might not return," Mariam says. "Scores of Hazara men and women have left Pakistan for good because employment opportunities [in Pakistan] were extremely limited and the available ones were never safe”.
Human rights activist Nasir says whenever Hazaras face violence from militant groups, it's common to see non-Hazara people being invited to TV studios where they make sweeping remarks and judgements on the persecuted community.
“They don’t even get to talk about their grievances themselves on the media,” he says. “They are not considered important enough to be given a platform, so when they die no one cares.”
After Mujtaba's death, Mariam and her family changed drastically. Her parents are ageing fast and she struggles to find peace and happiness.
“Every time I have been happy, I have wept too,” she says. “We lost our baby – the youngest member of our household – the centre of all our hopes and dreams,” she says.
While Mariam deals with the trauma of her brother's perpetual absence, she also feels that the tragedy defines who she is and what she stands for.
“Someone once told me how he was shot. I chose to forget that. Call it denial, but that’s how I have survived all these years,” she says.
Mariam and her family settled down in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and except for the anniversary of Mujtaba's death they barely visit their relatives in Quetta.
The only memory Mariam holds on to is the last few moments she spent with her brother when he was taken to hospital after being shot.
“I almost fainted at the sight of him lying in the hospital bed,” she recalls. “He looked so pale. I waved at him. He smiled back. That was the last time I saw him.”