Welcome to Shura City

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As the hub of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's insurgency against the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, the Pakistani city of Quetta has become synonymous in the Western media with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. And indeed, those of us who left in the 1980s, when the city bore the burden of refugees fleeing the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, find Quetta drastically changed -- more religiously and culturally conservative, socioeconomically backward, and fragmented by ethnic disputes.

But there is so much more to Quetta than the Taliban. The city is the provincial capital of Baluchistan province and home to 2.5 million people, belonging to three major ethnic groups: Baluchs, Pashtuns, and Hazaras. These ethnic fractures -- along with religiously fueled animosity between members of the Shiite Hazara sect and Sunni groups -- have left Quetta battered and bleeding. The 400-mile drive from Karachi was once a peaceful affair. Now one takes it at the risk of being kidnapped, killed, or robbed by ethnic Baluch separatist groups.

Perhaps the one aspect of Quetta that hasn't changed is its geostrategic importance. During the time of the Raj, the British occupiers turned it into a garrison city, extending roads and railway networks to Afghanistan and Iran. Even today, the only part of the city with functional infrastructure and capable security is the military cantonment, home to one of Pakistan army's most prestigious and oldest institutions -- the Command and Staff College.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan transformed Quetta for years to come, turning it into a refuge for Afghans fleeing the violence next door. As one resident told me, "Quetta today has become an extension of Afghanistan and the lawlessness that comes with it."

Most Quetta residents are either unaware their native land has been dubbed "Shura City" - so named because it is the home of Mullah Omar's Shura Council -- or laugh it off as a Western construction. For a city that U.S. military commanders consider the epicenter of an insurgency that threatens to derail the international war effort in Afghanistan, its people are largely focused on problems closer to home: ethnic and religious disputes, dismal economic conditions, and declining health standards.

Above, an Uzbek watchman who arrived as a refugee from Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. Three decades later, he is still in Quetta with no plans of going back. He watches over a farmhouse on the outskirts of Quetta with his Pashtun wife and four small children and survives on a salary of 8000 Pakistani rupees (equivalent to $90) per month.

Steep ascent: Quetta lies 5,000 feet above sea level and is encircled by mountains. Temperature in the city can dip below freezing in the winter months, while soaring to the mid-90s during the summer. In this picture, the huts of the nomadic and semi-nomadic Kuchi people are visible. The Kuchis are predominantly Pashtun herdsmen who have traveled between Afghanistan and Pakistan for generations.

Quetta's Times Square: The Kandahari Bazaar is one of the main commercial intersections in Quetta. In more peaceful days, dried fruit used to come from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar to be sold in Quetta's markets. Today, the bazaar sells a catch-all of goods needed for daily life, from electronics to vegetables.

Unfortunately, the city's infrastructure has not kept pace with its rapid expansion. Quetta was initially designed for approximately 80,000 people in 1935, and is home to millions more today. As a result, traffic jams are a routine feature of everyday life.

Whole foods: Buyers and sellers mill around a general store, or parchoon, as it is called in most parts of Pakistan. The bazaars sell everything from spices and dried fruits to carpets and embroidered outfits.

A mountain of shoes: An Uzbek boy sits atop a heap of locally produced and Iranian shoes in one of the most crowded bazaars of the city. Boys as young as 10 years old work alongside their fathers -- and sometimes by themselves -- to support their families.

An embattled minority: The Hazara people emigrated from Afghanistan to Quetta about 120 years ago and make up the bulk of the Shiite minority in Quetta. Today, Hazaras face the same brutality as their forefathers had before them. Fundamentalist Sunni groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and  Sipah-e-Sahaba, which have ties to the Taliban, have launched targeted killings against the group. But despite this persecution, hundreds of thousands of mourners take to the street each year during the Shiite holiday of Ashura to commemorate the death of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

Everything must go: A disabled Pashtun street vendor sells watches and rings. Street vendors are a common feature of Quetta's landscape, selling everything from gun holsters to cheap watches. They are a testament to the rampant poverty in the city: While 60 percent of Pakistanis survive on less than $2 a day, the economic conditions in Quetta are even worse.

The fruit basket of Pakistan: A Pashtun fruit vendor sells bananas on a wheeled cart in a Hazara neighborhood. For some fruit vendors, the cart serves as source of livelihood, as well as part-time shelter during forays into the city center, far from home. On a good day, a fruit vendor could earn up to $10.

Move over, Starbucks: The tiny tea shops of Quetta that dot the bazaars are the scene of much of the city's social life. But one thing you will not see in these chenaki hotels, as they are known, is the presence of women. In fact, the second sex is generally absent from the streets of Quetta -- a testament to the city's social conservatism.

The trash man: Boys as young as eight years old begin their daily routine in the morning, rummaging through garbage on the streets of Quetta. But don't expect to see many backpacks or school uniforms: Children are often required by their parents to peddle scraps of paper, plastic, or metal on the streets of the city. In this picture, a young Pashtun boy sorts out paper from plastic before selling it to vendors.

Child's play: Children from a village near Quetta smile for a picture alongside a stream. Large families are the norm in Baluchistan: The average family size in a poor household is eight people, the majority of whom receive little or no education. According to the director of a recent documentary on the subject, nearly 80 percent of child laborers in Pakistan are 14 years old or younger.

The girl in the green scarf: Literacy rates in Baluchistan are the lowest in Pakistan. According to the 2007 National Economic Survey, 34 percent of citizens in the province are literate -- 39 percent of males, and 27 percent of females.

These educational failings are at least partially the result of a crumbling infrastructure. According to the same survey, more than two-thirds of the institutions in the province are in need of major or minor repairs, while almost 10 percent are in "dangerous" condition.

Bend it like Bilal: Cricket is the most popular sport in Pakistan, but in Quetta the trend is toward soccer. Young boys and grown men can often be found at pick-up games during a long summer evening. Here, young Hazara boys kick around a ball at the end of the day.

Working the land: Baluchistan's fields are still tended the same way they have been for centuries -- by hand. Above, a field worker prepares the ground for seeding. A variety of crops and fruits are grown in Baluchistan's fields -- from wheat, barley, maize, and potatoes to apples, apricots, peaches, pomegranates, and dates.

Standing guard: A Baloch chowkedar -- watchman. His job is to guard a well and its equipment, as well as the water that comes from the well. Much of Baluchistan's water supply is taken from underground aquifers like this one.

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