Two bombs went off in a Quetta billiards hall yesterday. The first targeted those present in the hall, the second targeted the crowd that came to the rescue. My friend Irfan Ali Khudi, a human rights defender, interfaith activist and prolific tweeter, was among the second crowd. He had come to help, just as he had in the past in similar situations. But he didn’t survive this time.
The Al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi said it was responsible for both blasts, adding that the targets were Pakistani Shias. LeJ has been running a campaign of terror on the small ethno-sectarian minority of Shia-Hazaras in Quetta for a decade, and these blast that killed about 100 and injured more than 130 was part of their recently intensified campaign of ethnic cleansing.
I knew of Khudi many years ago when I lived in Quetta, but we reconnected on social media two years ago. Most recently, I met him in Washington, DC, when he was part of a Pakistani contingent of civil society and human rights activists touring the United States under a State Department program.
That evening, I walked over to his hotel, took him out to dinner at an Indian restaurant he picked, and we talked for a while. He spoke about hist trip, what he’d seen thus far and what was to come. Then, inevitably, talk turned to the situation in Quetta.
We tried to dissect why law enforcement, the security forces and intelligence agencies had failed to stop the genocide, why they hadn’t been able to arrest or prosecute a single terrorist in connection with more than 1,000 killings. We talked about the people we knew who were no more and the young men, some of them our friends, who had perished on their way to Australia to seek refuge from the carnage.
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.
It was more real, more personal for him.
I remember suggesting to Khudi not to return to Quetta again. His life was in danger. He’d lead many protests, spoken out against the genocide, become too well known to the terrorists. He could apply for asylum in the US or join his family in Australia. He had done his share of activism on the ground. He could continue to raise his voice from a safe distance.
But he refused the suggestion and went back. He was brave in a way that many people, including myself, are not. He turned down the prospects of a comfortable, safe life in the West to the chaos and heartbreak of Quetta.
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.
But he was on Twitter most days. Which is why when I heard news of the blasts, I checked my timeline to see his updates, but they didn’t come.
Instead, I discovered his last tweet, sent hours before the blast:
— irfan (@khudiali) January 10, 2013
Khudi’s life has been taken, but his courage and his legacy remain. RIP.
Update: If you’re in Pakistan, please consider attending this protest rally in honor of Khudi.