the ongoing conflict in Balochistan is rarely part of any national dialogue, let alone an issue that garners international attention.
Balochistan: A forbidding tragedy
By Marc Wattrelot & Willem Marx
Balochistan: At a Crossroads
At a time when Pakistan’s government has been openly considering peace talks with members of the Pakistani Taliban, the ongoing conflict in Balochistan is rarely part of any national dialogue, let alone an issue that garners international attention. French photographer Marc Wattrelot and I have spent months in Balochistan, documenting the bomb blasts and targeted killings by the Baloch insurgency; the extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances conducted by the Pakistan military; the economic deprivation and day-to-day struggles of the Baloch people. The elderly mother of a vanished activist I met near the town of Mand in 2007 constituted one of the most heart-breaking encounters of my journalistic career. I hope that by giving otherwise voiceless Baloch women like her a voice, this book will give readers a window into this forgotten, forbidding and often forbidden region.
Since 2005, Baloch men had reportedly started vanishing from their homes, their streets and various public spaces. They had often been politically active in one of the several Baloch nationalist movements, and the suspected kidnappers were in turn often affiliated to the various constituents of Pakistan’s security apparatus. There was a commonly held theory among the Baloch diaspora members I had met prior to my trip, who were not shy in their denunciations, that the disappearances carried out by the Pakistani security forces were intended to decapitate the non-violent nationalist movement in the province. But by all accounts it was a failed counter-insurgency strategy, since the kidnappings and killings were simply prompting more Baloch to join the various movements against the Central government, many of which had grown increasingly violent in their methods.
My interest in these disappearances had been piqued days earlier when I happened to come across several Baloch women in downtown Karachi, sitting solemn and silent on a busy city street, dressed in colourful saris. Each clutched large cardboard-backed photographs in their hands, studio portraits of a kind typical of Pakistani national identity cards. The men pictured were young and old, some moustachioed, some bearded, but all of them dark-eyed Baloch, staring intensely back at the camera lens. A friend explained that the women were protesting the disappearance of the men whose photographs they held, typically their husbands, brothers or sons…. All they were really asking for, my friend concluded rather gloomily, was for some basic information about the whereabouts, or indeed the respective fates of these missing men.
Another cheerless encounter, engineered by my Pasni companion and would-be educator Rashid Haider, had added to my understanding of the circumstances that often surrounded these disappeared Baloch. After leaving the waterside fish market, Rashid had taken me on a short drive from the town centre to meet an impoverished family whose son was missing. The husband and wife lived inside a small wooden lean-to built on stilts, and they greeted us warmly when we pulled up outside…. The father, a slight man whose dark skin hung from his face, described how their politically active teenage son had been seized by unknown men. He was a member of a banned political group called the Baloch Student Organisation, or BSO. Membership of the BSO was theoretically illegal but had grown increasingly common at universities and high schools throughout the province, the man explained, and his son had signed up as a protest against Pakistani policies in his home province. One day he and several friends, en route to a BSO rally in a nearby town, had vanished. The family had tried to register a disappearance notice with the police, but had been refused the right to lodge a complaint on the grounds that their 16-year-old son was a BSO member. By the time the pair had come to the end of this story, the father quivered with outrage, the mother drowned in tears.
The increasingly public complaints of many other families like this, alongside the protests, denunciations and hunger strikes in public places, had meant this cascade of missing persons’ cases was just starting to coalesce into a scandal of national proportions. Pakistani human rights groups had begun writing reports about the “disappeared Baloch”, and the country’s Chief Justice had promised to launch a series of investigations into the allegations that domestic security agencies were behind this wave of unacknowledged arrests. High-profile Pakistanis, including Benazir Bhutto, were beginning to pay attention…
Just outside Mand, another meeting was arranged. This time my interlocutor was to be an underground Baloch activist, a high-ranking member of the banned BSO. The rendezvous had a cloak-and-dagger feel to it, as we turned off the barely asphalted main road and onto a track, directed by one of our young Mand-based hosts. I was surprised, after entering a simple whitewashed building, to be greeted by a young woman with startling green eyes. She wore a colourful turquoise headscarf and had an attractive smile, introducing herself as Karima Baloch. I wondered aloud why so many people I had met used Baloch as a last name, and after Abdul Hakeem translated this for her, she laughed. It is a way of identifying yourself with Baloch nationalism, she explained, but many rural people are given only one name by their parents. So when a last name is required to be written on Pakistan’s official paperwork, they will simply use “Baloch”. Karima began to describe what she saw as the historical background for today’s unrest in Balochistan. She recounted how military operations conducted by Pakistani authorities had begun in the province as early as 1948. The historical figurehead of the Baloch people at the time was the Khan of Kalat, a hereditary tribal ruler to whom other Baloch tribal chiefs — known as sardars had traditionally offered their allegiance.
Indeed both before and during British rule of the region, all Baloch tribal chieftains had paid at least nominal fealty to this paramount chief. According to Karima, the Khan at the time of Partition, Ahmed Yar Khan, nominally controlled the three other Baloch princely states the British had recognised — Makran, Kharan (to the northeast of Mand) and Lasbela (north of Karachi). During negotiations with the British authorities and the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, it was decided in August 1947 that Kalat would be recognised as a princely state, largely independent from the new Pakistan. But in the months that followed, Pakistan’s new leadership changed its minds, and so it was, during the upheaval of Partition that Makran, Kharan and Lasbela were annexed by Pakistan. Finally in March 1948, Pakistani forces attacked the Khan’s palace in the town of Kalat. At that point, Ahmed Yar Khan was forced to sign a document that acceded the final remaining Baloch territory of Kalat to the new state of Pakistan… Those Baloch who continued to believe in Kalat’s right to independence had subsequently fled into the mountains surrounding Kalat. From around 1950, they began an insurgency against the Pakistani troops stationed in the region… The latest round of violence, Karima explained earnestly, involving hundreds of Baloch resistance fighters, reignited ferociously in 2005 when large numbers of women and children had been killed in an attack on a small tribal town of Dera Bugti…
“It is nothing unusual for the Pakistani agencies to make people disappear,” Karima said calmly. “On a daily basis, during the day, or at night; in front of a restaurant, or in a marketplace, from a house, from our schools, our colleges. It is very common that people are snatched by Pakistan’s secret agencies…”