Green Left Weekly's Patrick Harrison spoke to Sahema Saweri, president, and Shoaib Doostizadah, public officer, of the Australian Hazara Students Group, at the January 15 vigil in Melbourne for the victims of the Quetta bomb blasts.
Can you tell me what these vigils have been about?
Sahema: The Hazara community has lost about 110 lives in the twin bomb blasts in Quetta, Pakistan, which took place on January 10; these vigils were arranged to stand in solidarity with the people in Quetta. Violence [against Hazaras in Pakistan] started off in 1999 or 2000, with targeted attacks on our leaders, and then it continued to leaders, doctors, teachers, students, and now any Hazara is being targeted. It has worsened in the last two years and this most recent attack on January 10 is the worst that has ever taken place.
What is your feeling in terms of response of the community?
Sahema: We need more people on the street. We've had protests in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth, there will be one in Brisbane, as well as the vigil in Melbourne. But we've had quite a big number of our non-Hazara friends stand in solidarity with the victims of the attack in Quetta with us. They have been writing about it, spreading the word amongst their friends.
Shoaib: We've been very pleased to have a lot of people see us, look at our posters, ask us what the vigil is about, [ask] what is the incident, why are we protesting. Overall the reaction of the public has been not only sympathetic, but supportive.
For the Hazara community in Australia, a lot of us have close family or friends who still live in that part of the world. So directly and indirectly, we have been affected by this incident. We have felt the very pain that all the families and relatives of the victims have felt, and indirectly as well. That sense of community and solidarity among us is what has driven us to come here today, to show our sympathy for the Hazaras [in Pakistan], that we are with them, we haven't forgotten them.
How does this issue impact on Australian politics, particularly the issue of asylum seekers?
Sahema: I think it should have a great impact because it basically is a demonstration [of] why people take asylum and come to Australia. Especially the Hazara people. Many of the asylum seekers coming by boat are Hazara people from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Attacks like this are the reason people come to Australia. The government wants to stop people from coming to Australia; the best way to do that is provide them safety back home, so they don't need to take asylum, so people don't put themselves on "leaky boats" and risk their lives to come here.
I think we can do this by putting pressure on the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to provide protection to their citizens, and give them the most basic right, the right to live. They don't want anything else, they just want to live peacefully. The Australian and European governments have a big role to play in this. They must put pressure on those governments so the Hazara people and all other communities can live in peace.
Shoaib: The Australian government has been quite harsh with the asylum seekers and refugees recently. The government likes to say people are coming "illegally", [but] incidents like the one on January 10 shows why people chose to come by whatever means necessary.
The Hazara community requests the Australian government to reconsider the approach they have taken to asylum seekers. I truly believe the government does know, does understand the misery the Hazara people suffer in Pakistan but the political debate stops them from doing what they should actually be doing, which is considering the rights of all human beings.
Do you think the Australian government is doing enough for the Hazara people?
Sahema: To be honest, no. I think Australia is actually making it worse for the Hazara people. When they come here we put them in detention centres, sometimes for indefinite periods of years. Why do we do this? They have not done anything wrong. According to Australian laws it is legal to take asylum and come to Australia.
The Australian government has done a lot for us, but right now, they need to be putting pressure on the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to defend our rights, that is the message we want to get across. We don't want all the Hazara people to come to Australia and take asylum, that's not possible and obviously not what we want, to start our lives over from scratch. The best solution is to provide us safety back home.
Shoaib: There are a couple of initiatives the Australian government could take, given these incidents frequently occur in Pakistan. Firstly, our ministers, particularly our foreign minister [Bob Carr] should have a conversation with his Pakistani counterpart and raise this issue.
We also request the government to take this issue to the UN; now we have secured a seat on the Security Council, we need to take the voice of the besieged Hazara community in Pakistan to the UN in order for a lasting solution to this crisis.
Does the Australian government have a particular responsibility on this issue because they have committed troops to the occupation of Afghanistan?
Sahema: Definitely, as an Australian citizen, I don't want any Australian soldiers to die in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Pakistan. Why should they die for a cause, the "war on terror" that's not even ours?
We want our Australian brothers to be safe. We have to do something but the Australian government, instead of sending soldiers to Afghanistan, could be applying pressure to Pakistan and Afghanistan to defend our basic rights. How long can the US and Australia be in Afghanistan and fight for them? We should put that responsibility on those countries to take action for themselves, to take care of their citizens and provide them with the protection they deserve.
These vigils have been well attended but how have the Australian media responded to these killings?
Sahema: We've never received serious attention from the media. They tend to focus on violence, or big interesting events that they think will be interesting to the Australian people. If the Australian people want the asylum seekers to stop coming here, they need to look deeper than this and stand with us.