QUETTA, Pakistan – Inside the ruins of a market demolished by a powerful bomb, four tiny white candles — dwarfed by the scale of the destruction — flickered gently in the freezing rain as dazed Shiite Muslim Hazaras wept for the nearly 90 people killed in the blast.
Condemning the Pakistan government for doing little to protect them, the small ethnic group has vowed to set up their own defense force to deal with Sunni extremists they blame for the bombing and a series of other ferocious attacks that have killed nearly 400 ethnic Hazaras in the past 18 months, nearly half in the first two months of this year.
The bomb earlier this month in the Pakistani city of Quetta ripped a swath of devastation that flattened a three-story building and left the ruins of scores of single-room shops exposed to the rain. Blood-soaked rugs were all that was left of a carpet store.
"The ones who did this — they are not human. They are animals," said Surha, a young woman who goes by one name, a common tradition here. She spoke as she grieved at the site, more than a week after the bombing.
Shiite leaders blame inaction by Pakistan's security service for the rising violence against them in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province. They told The Associated Press recently that they are petitioning the provincial administration of Baluchistan to approve a Hazara-led defense force to work with local police.
"Of course, I blame the government," Surha said, her voice getting louder.
Wrapped in a large beige shawl to ward off the cold, she recounted how two of her young cousins died in the bombing after returning home from school to help their father in his used clothing shop.
Her face was wracked in pain. Her voice cracked. "The government is responsible for this situation because daily it is happening to us and nothing is done to stop it."
Many Hazaras, who are mostly Shiite Muslims, migrated from neighboring Afghanistan during the past century. They are easily recognized by their distinctive Central Asian facial features, which Hazara leaders say make them easy targets for militant Sunnis.
"We can't hide who we are. You can see it in our faces. I don't see it getting better," said Allama Muhammad Juma Asadi.
His school, Jamia Imam Sadiq, is just a couple blocks from a massive bombing that killed more than 100 people on Jan. 10. Terrified students ran into the street. It was chaos, he said.
When a second explosion leveled the market on Feb. 16, Hazara leaders began to talk of self-protection and raising a security force of their own.
"Very soon we will have our own people at the checkpoints," Asadi said. "We have discussed setting up our own protection force with the administration."
Radicals have attacked non-Hazara Shiites elsewhere in the country, but some of the worst attacks have occurred in Baluchistan where most Hazaras live. A virulent anti-Shiite group, Lashkar-e-Janghvi, has taken responsibility for all the attacks. The militant organization is made up of radical Sunni Muslims and reviles Shiites as heretics.
About 20 million of Pakistan's 180 million people are Shiites, who mostly live in harmony with the majority Sunni population. But militant groups from both sides have sprung up in Pakistan over the decades, often with suspected financial links to Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, and Iran, a Shiite powerhouse in the region.
"A crumbling state has failed to stop slaughter after slaughter and to provide even basic security to its hapless citizens leaving them at the mercy of the murderers," militant expert and author Zahid Hussain recently wrote in a local newspaper.
The February explosion claimed the lives of 17 members of Bostan Kishtmand's family, which owned more than 20 small shops in the area.
"I went a little out of my mind when I went to the hospital and saw all of my relatives, all dead," Kishtmand said in broken English. "Something went wrong in my head."
After the January bombing, Baluchistan's provincial administration was fired and responsibility for the region's security came under the federal government. It ordered the paramilitary Frontier Corps to restore calm in Baluchistan, a sparsely populated province that was wracked by a bloody secessionist movement nearly two years ago. That gave way to the current round of brutal sectarian bloodletting.
In the February attack, militants loaded a water tanker with about 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of explosives. It passed undetected through two checkpoints manned by Frontier Corps.
Days after the explosion, the ground around the market was still covered in scores of muddy children's clothes, sweaters, dozens of winter jackets and tiny sandals. Several of the stores in the market had sold used children's clothes.
The explosion was timed to have the most devastating effect, Asadi said. It occurred after 7 p.m., when offices were closed and families were in the market shopping. Three schools in the area all held evening classes to teach students English and computer skills.
Fifteen-year-old Inayat Hazara had been improving his computer skills at a nearby institute when the explosion occurred. He touched a dirty white bandage that covered much of his neck as he recalled the explosion, and the horror of the blood and bodies of his fellow students lying nearby.
"The noise was everywhere, my ears hurt. People were screaming and I couldn't see at first the dust in the air was so thick," he said.
Like tiny missiles, thousands of glass shards ripped through the computer lab where he was studying, he said.
"Everyone wants a good life, but I don't know how you have it here," he said.
Retired senior police officer Faqir Hussein said he supported a special protection force, but warned that a Hazara-only one could spark even more sectarian conflict.
A city of nearly 3 million people, Quetta is divided into neighborhoods that include ethnic Pashtuns and Baluch — another minority that dominates Baluchistan province. Hussein said that the other groups often live and work in Hazara-dominated areas, but that Hazaras themselves rarely go outside their own neighborhoods.
He said a mixed protection force would be preferable at checkpoints where the neighborhoods intersect.
"If a Pashtun comes to a checkpoint, he won't accept to be stopped and searched by a Hazara and that could start violence," explained Hussein, who is a Hazara.
He said there were parts of Quetta that are "no-go" areas for Hazaras because militant Sunnis are hiding among the local Baluch and Pashtun populations. While they might not support the militants, many local people are too terrified to turn them in.
Among the worst parts of Quetta is Sariab Road, a main avenue that is dominated by Pashtuns and Baluch. It has been the scene of numerous attacks and bombings.
Hussein turned down a job at the police training academy because he would have to drive along the avenue.
"Not because I am a coward, but I also don't want to commit suicide and it would have been suicide to drive everyday on Sariab Road," he explained. "Today not one Hazara drives on that road."
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon