Shia killings: The story of Dera Ismail Khan

Dera Ismail Khan during Muharram

Manzoor Abbas Ansari is just one of the thousands of men who have been killed in Dera Ismail Khan this past decade, leaving behind his wife and children.

Dera Ismail Khan is a city situated in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a province in Pakistan which contains almost exactly the same number of Shia Muslims as Sunni Muslims with the percentage being almost fifty-fifty. But this area is not an ordinary district; it is a district filled with extremist groups who murder Shia Muslims every day. Why? Because they are Shia.

Within Islam, Shia Muslims are a minority as opposed to Sunni Muslims who are the majority sect. Depending on the location, Sunnis make up 80-90% of the Muslim population, as opposed to Shias who only make up to 5-20%.

However, Sunni Muslims do not face many of the terrors and oppression which Shias face for their beliefs in many parts of the world. Especially in some Muslim majority countries, where Shias are, of course, a minority, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

There are few differences between what Shia Muslims believe compared to what Sunnis believe. However, some groups such as the Taliban go as far as to kill Shias for these minor differences, causing division, even though many in Islam want unity between the two sects.

A river in Dera ismail Khan

The Indus River in central to life in Dera Ismail Khan [Fatima Batool]

But this isn’t a new feature of Dera Ismail Khan. This is a regular occurrence there, and it has been going on for many years, spanning decades of violence between Shia Muslims and extremist groups who have wanted Dera Ismail Khan to get rid of the Shia community.

Even though this has been going on for decades, there was a time when the killings weren’t as bad. Times where Shia men could still travel in some areas without worrying about not making it home alive. Times when people weren’t forced to flee the area where their generations all lived and grew up, due to death threats.

Now, for the people of Dera, those times are only very distant memories which they cultivated in their minds and cherish, with the hope that someday they can live safely in this area again.

Despite Shia Muslims being killed in Dera Ismail Khan for years now, the media keep quiet about the suffering that the marginalised Shias in this part of Pakistan have to face. If the media talked about the killings, Dera Ismail Khan could get the exposure they need for the killings to stop.

My grandfather, a retired university professor who specialises in Biology, had to flee Dera Ismail Khan after living there for more than sixty years after he received a death threat from the Taliban. They said that he must leave the area or else they will not hesitate to kill him. So he had no choice.

“This area will always be home to me and my family, but I had no choice to leave.”
 Iftikhar Hussain Shah

“I lived in Dera my entire life, before moving to Islamabad due to receiving death threats. They knew I was a Shia Muslim. This area is home to me and my family, and it will always be home, but I had no choice but to leave. Some people cannot leave because they are too poor to do so, and are forced to live here in danger there, and some don’t want to leave as it is home for them,” my grandfather, Iftikhar Hussain Shah, told me.

Shia and Sunni Muslims, as well as people of other communities, were all living in peace in Dera Ismail Khan centuries ago where they all got along. According to Shia locals, the killings became extreme once the Islamic revolution happened in 1979 and Zia-ul-Haq took over the government. Since then, the killings have become uncontrollable, and corrupt agencies have made it extremely difficult for Dera Ismail Khan to be safe again.

I spent a week in Dera Ismail Khan last year in the area of Husseini Chowk, which largely consists of Shia Muslims, as a result it is a dangerous place to live since extremists know where many of the Shias are situated. While there, I learned that the army in the area doesn’t do anything to help the Shia population, and usually help the opposing side. Women in the area are required to cover their faces, and some men do too. “It is to hide their identity, so they are not targeted,” explained Hussain Shah.

Dera Ismail Khan place of worship

One of the many places of worship in Dera Ismail Khan [Fatima Batool]

While in Dera Ismail Khan, I too heard gunshots and learned that a man was killed just five minutes away from where I was staying. Living there and experiencing something like that was a major eye-opener – this is the reality of living in an area like this, yet for the people that live here, this is just another day and is just something that they are used to.

It is evident that something needs to be done to control the area. The current prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, may only have taken power in August 2018, but his PTI has been in charge of the KP Assembly since 2013, but have done little to prevent the killings and suicide bombings, even after the PTI candidate was killed in a suicide bombing in July 2018, just before the national election.

A group of Shia Muslims protested outside Imran Khan’s home in Islamabad in February 2018, asking for him to acknowledge the problem, yet the situation in Dera Ismail Khan has worsened to the point where some people cannot go into certain areas or else, they will be killed immediately. These areas are called the no-go areas. These are areas where Shia Muslims get killed instantly, due to the hostility of the people occupying them.

Syed Abul Hassan is trying to help Shias living in Dera Ismail Khan, as an active member of a Shia charity called the Shaheed Foundation. The organisation helps families who have lost a loved one to Shia targetted killings by supporting them financially with funeral costs and money to live, since many of the Shias killed are men with families.

“I have hope that one day, the people of Dera Ismail Khan can live there in peace like they used to years ago.”
– Aamer Abbas

“There are hardly any facilities in Dera Ismail Khan and not much support there for the Shia community. Just this week, a whole street of people were reported missing by their families, the problems which Shias face here are endless. There is also brainwashing that happens in Dera where Sunni Muslims can be taught to believe that Shias are bad,” said Abul Hassan.

The missing person issue in Dera Ismail Khan has been going on for many years, often the army or other groups have captured young boys. With no information on their whereabouts, their families have no idea whether they are alive or dead. Often, they will try and make the Shia become Sunni, brainwash some Sunnis to falsely believe that the Shia community do things they don’t do or kill them.

The topic of conversation angers Abul Hassan who has made posters, arranged many protests and donated to the Shaheed Foundation many times to help in every way that he can. He also migrated to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan for better opportunities since there is hardly any work available in Dera.

But some still have hope and believe that they will, one day, win over the area of Dera Ismail Khan again. Aamer Abbas, a Shia Muslim who has grew up in the area of Dera Ismail Khan most of his life, before moving to London for a new life, said: “I have hope that one day Dera will be free and In Sha Allah (God willing) people from all communities can live there in peace like they used to years ago.”





Featured image by Aamer Abbas

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