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Friday, January 18, 2013

Mourning Online for Pakistani Rights Activist Killed in Quetta Bombing

Irfan Ali, a Pakistani activist who was killed on Thursday in a bombing, addressed a rally against sectarian attacks in September in Islamabad.Ghalib Khalil, via Tumblr Irfan Ali, a Pakistani activist who was killed on Thursday in a bombing, addressed a rally against sectarian attacks in September in Islamabad.

Last Updated, 3:17 p.m. Bombs in two Pakistani cities killed at least 115 people on Thursday, with the worst carnage inflicted by two explosions a few minutes apart in the southwestern city of Quetta, taking the lives of at least 81 people. As my colleague Declan Walsh reports from Islamabad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant group with strong ties to the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack in a Quetta neighborhood dominated by ethnic Hazara Shiites.

The group maximized the deadliness of the bloody attack by sending a suicide bomber to detonate explosives inside a snooker hall, and then a second attacker blew up a vehicle outside the club a short time later, killing rescue workers and journalists.

Among those killed by the second blast was a rights activist, Irfan Ali, 33, who was helping the injured. Just before his death, Mr. Ali noted on his @khudiali Twitter feed that he had narrowly escaped the first blast. Then he posted another message, registering his dismay that the group behind the attack had also succeeded in driving some Hazara families out of their homes. The families who moved out, he wrote in his final words on Twitter, had “finally succumbed to the genocidal pressure” from the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. It was, he noted, a “sad day for diversity in Baluchistan,” the northwestern province that has Quetta as its capital.

As my colleague in Islamabad explained in a telephone interview with the PBS Newshour, the Persian-speaking, Shiite Muslim Hazara community “immigrated from Afghanistan about a century ago” and “has suffered a series of attacks at the hands of Sunni death squads over the last couple of years.” More than 100 Hazaras were killed last year, and some of the killers are from militant groups believed to have links to the country’s security services.

A PBS Newshour interview with Declan Walsh, the New York Times Pakistan bureau chief, on Thursday’s bomb attacks in Pakistan.

As news of Mr. Ali’s death spread, he was mourned by fellow activists, bloggers and journalists online. Dozens of tributes to him were posted on Twitter; his Facebook page filled with words of sympathy and respect for his battles for peace and against sectarianism.

The journalist and blogger Shiraz Hassan uploaded an image of Mr. Ali wearing a T-shirt that spelled out the word “Coexist” in symbols from different religions, and quoted the dead man’s Twitter biography: “I am born to fight for human rights and peace. My religion is respect and love all the religions.”

His colleagues at the Youth Peer Education Network, a United Nations affiliate, wrote on Facebook:

Today, is a day of great loss for all of us, the entire Y-Peer family, and the whole Pakistani nation. 103 people lost their lives today in different attacks in Quetta and Swat, but out of 69 who died in a sectarian attack on a bustling billiard hall in the southwest city of Quetta, one is Irfan Ali â€" a great human right activist, peace lover and a district focal point of Y-Peer Pakistan â€" who lost his life while taking the victims of the first blast to the hospital. And in the second blast, he become prey of those who want to divide the humanity on the basis of sects, religions, and who kill people for the sake of their own interest. But this shameful act will not let them achieve their objectives, as there are hundreds and thousands of young people like Irfan Ali, who are brave enough to take the lead, and work for peace and harmony in their communities. Let us pray for Irfan Ali and his brother-in-law who lost their lives. May their souls rest in peace. Ameen.

Another activist, Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, the founder of the Pakistan Youth Alliance, pointed to photographs of Mr. Ali at a demonstration against sectarian attacks on Shiites outside the presidential palace in Islamabad in September. In one image, the activist addressed the crowd through a megaphone; in another he took part in a symbolic protest, lying on the road with fake blood splattered on his chest, as others displayed signs with anti-sectarian messages, including: “Let’s get butchered together!”

Video of Mr. Ali at that protest is posted on his YouTube channel with a note explaining that the protesters demanded “sectarian harmony and peace in the country,” and “also condemned ‘Talibanization.’” The only options, Mr. Ali wrote, are to “save Pakistan from the Taliban, or leave Pakistan to the Taliban.”

Video of the activist Irfan Ali, in glasses, taking part in a demonstration in Islamabad in September, from his YouTube channel.

An 18-year-old activist, Ghalib Khalil, posted a photograph on Tumblr of Mr. Ali speaking to the rally that day with the caption: “I share this picture proudly today in remembrance of a soldier for peace, who had a microphone not a gun in his hand.”

In a tribute to Mr. Ali on her blog, Beena Sarwar, an activist filmmaker, wrote: “I met Irfan in July in Karachi for the first time at the Social Media Mela, but we had been in touch for some time via email. Such a bright, smiling, courageous, committed young man.” She added: “Irfan was vocal and outspoken on many platforms. His presence will be sorely missed but his legacy of fearless activism remains. The best tribute we can pay him is to continue fighting those very forces who killed him.”

She also uploaded an image of the activist flashing a peace sign at a rally.

The Washington-based Afghan analyst Ahmad Shujaa, recalled a recent conversation with Mr. Ali over dinner “when he was part of a Pakistani contingent of civil society and human rights activists touring the United States under a State Department program.”

It took me a while to notice, but somewhere during that conversation Khudi had broken down, silently crying. I had imagined him as a hardened activist who had grown used to conversations about loss because he dealt with it so often. But that night he seemed just as hurt and vulnerble as the rest of us, pained by the memories of the friends he’d lost, the distances the attacks had created between the Shia-Hazaras and the non-Shia, non-Hazara residents of Quetta. In some ways, he was more hurt than me because, while I reacted to the bloodbath from the safety of Washington, he was in the middle of it, occasionally picking up the dead bodies and, as every so often happened, pieces of bodies….

Activism in Pakistan, as in many developing countries, tends to be an elite preoccupation. People who worry about their next meal rarely lead campaigns, rarely go on hunger strike and almost never coin revolutionary Twitter hashtags. People who have a family to feed and clothe are usually too busy to go to attack sites and rescue victims, to hospitals and give blood, to protest rallies and chant slogans.

So, in a way, Khudi was an elite. But he was in the thick of it everyday. He wasn’t a dual citizen, didn’t have a safe perch, didn’t content himself with online petitions or after-work sit-ins.

Here, in chronological order, are just some of the many messages of mourning and condolence posted on Twitter on Thursday night.