Generations of Christians in a remote corner of Pakistan have been buried in a local cemetery that served as the final resting place for the region’s non-Muslim minorities.
But Christians and Hindus in Zhob, the northernmost city in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province, now fear that a small parcel of land containing the remains of their dead relatives will soon disappear because of constant encroachments.
Iqbal Masih, a middle-aged member of Zhob’s tiny Christian community, fears he soon will not be able to visit the graves of his father and grandfather.
“This cemetery was first built during the British Raj [in the early 20th century],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I have seen it shrink considerably. Someone has even demolished the perimeter wall we built around it.”
The burial ground in the southern part of Zhob is slowly disappearing, with most graves now turned to irregular heaps of stones. Houses encircle the graveyard, which was once several kilometers away from the hilltop fort that housed the British garrison. Most of the Christians and Hindus in Zhob today are the descendants of janitors and traders who served the British force.
A majority of Zhob’s 100 Christian and half a dozen Hindu families are residents and thus theoretically entitled to the rights enjoyed by their Muslim neighbors. But things are not looking up for them. Deprived of education, most Christians still serve as sanitary workers in various government departments where their jobs are hereditary.
Javed Masih represents the Christian community in Zhob’s municipal government. He blames the local “land mafia” for systematically encroaching on their graveyard because they are unable to resist the powerful local figures behind the land grab.
“The encroachments on our land are completely illegal. We have knocked on every door,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We approached all the [relevant] ministers and even took the case to the court, but to no avail,” he said.
Abdul Saleeem Manokhel is the mayor of Zhob, whose estimate 100,000 residents are predominantly Muslim. He blames some “nefarious elements” within the Christian and Hindu communities for colluding with land grabbers for their cash.
“The land for this graveyard was donated by the government. I am still committed to helping [the communities] reclaim the cemetery land in its entirety,” he said.
Balochistan was once known as a tolerant haven for non-Muslim minorities. But more than a decade of unrest in the province grappling with a separatist insurgency, Afghan Taliban hideouts, attacks by Islamist militants, and high criminality.
A sizeable number of Balochistan’s Hindus and Sikhs have fled the region, with some opting to settle in neighboring India. The region’s Christians, too, are living in fear.
Masih says he fears that within the next few years Zhob’s Christians will have no cemetery in which to bury their dead.
“We will be forced to cremate our dead or dissolve the corpses in chemicals. We might even be forced to just throw them in the river,” he said. “But there are no major rivers around here, so our dead relatives might end up rotting in the open.”
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Barakwal Miakhel’s reporting from Zhob, Pakistan.