Was it dictator Zia behind this or the problem were the people of Gilgit themselves?
Though often considered a cliché, “Paradise on earth,” is the only phrase that comes close to capturing the beauty of Gilgit. Its unmatched elegance, however, has been marred by sectarian violence, transforming the city into a mere shadow of its former magnificence. The Sunni-Shia rift, which began during General Zia ul Haq’s time, has led to numerous killings, leaving deep-seated divides in the city.
The 1988 Gilgit massacre denotes the orchestrated mass killing of Shia civilians in the Gilgit District of Pakistan. The victims were part of a revolt against the Sunni Islamist regime led by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, known for its severe persecution of religious minorities as part of an Islamization program.
Prior to the massacre, there were anti-Shia riots in early May 1988, triggered by a dispute over the sighting of the moon for Eid al-Fitr after Ramadan. This disagreement between Shia and Sunni Muslims led to violent clashes in Gilgit City. Local Sunnis, who were still fasting for Ramadan, attacked the Shias who had announced the beginning of Eid celebrations, exacerbating the sectarian tensions.
In response to the riots and the revolt against Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the Pakistan Army joined forces with a group of armed local Sunni tribals from Chilas, as well as Sunni militants led by Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. They entered Gilgit City and nearby areas to suppress the rebellion. The outcome was a brutal and deadly massacre, with estimates suggesting that anywhere between 150 and 900 Shia Muslims lost their lives. The violence also led to the burning down of entire villages. Tragically, during this period, hundreds of Shia Muslim women were subjected to mass rape by Sunni tribesmen.
The events surrounding the 1988 Gilgit massacre stand as a harrowing reminder of the grave consequences of sectarian strife and state-sponsored violence against religious minorities. After the violence in 1988, memories of the horrific events faded, but the divisions persisted. People started segregating themselves into separate neighborhoods based on their sects, perpetuating a climate of mistrust. A significant incident in 2005, the killing of a prominent Shia cleric, exacerbated the situation, making it easier for violence to occur in neighborhoods of different sects.
Since then, peace has been elusive, with innocent lives lost frequently. Gilgit has become a place where people fear for their safety even while going about their daily routines. Blame is often placed on the government or others, but the real problem lies within the hearts of Gilgitis themselves. Many harbor prejudice and justify violence against other communities, perpetuating the cycle of hatred.
While clerics may influence the situation, the root of the problem lies in the attitude of the common people. Unquestioning acceptance of demands and the lack of protest against violence against other sects only add fuel to the fire. The key to a peaceful coexistence lies in changing this attitude and respecting human life regardless of religious beliefs.
It is crucial, especially for the youth, to open their minds and embrace peace. Instead of perpetuating animosity, they must learn to respect and value human life, regardless of sectarian affiliations. After all, all believe in the same God, and there is no point in the senseless bloodshed that plagues Gilgit. Only through a collective effort to let go of hate can the city truly flourish once again.