Balochistan – Bruised, battled and bloodied Bloomsbury On Amazon from 28 November
this was the first question that the Pakistani secret service officers asked me when they detained me at Jinaah international airport, Karachi, after the computer screens at the immigration showed a symbol next to my name usually used to indicate terrorists and spies. It is a question I have often been asked. I was stopped, I learnt later, because I had been photographed at the United Nations in Geneva in the company of Mehran Marri, the Baloch people’s representative there. I am a journalist and a recognised part of my job is to interview those at the heart of the stories I cover. Indeed, when I met Hafiz Muhammad Saeed in Lahore, he was on the United Nations list of suspected terrorists but I had the approval and the blessing of certain politicians and military leaders themselves. To anyone curious to know why I keep on writing about a place hardly anyone could find on a map, be it secret services or friends, my answer is that I have a weakness for lost causes. I say this only half in jest. It has always been the case and remains so even as I grow older. My weakness is for lost causes; my sympathy with the underdog fighting an unequal battle for the freedom of the people. As my father taught me, the worst democracy is always preferable to the best dictatorship. I fear that a reader hoping for a learned dissertation and a balanced, neutral assessment of the situation in Balochistan will be greatly disappointed. To tell the truth, in an attempt to seek objectivity, I did also try to approach Pakistani government sources for their official version of events but first was met only with vague promises and then a deafening silence. This book is not the work of a researcher, an analyst or a scholar but of a journalist, someone who enjoys storytelling. It is an attempt to give a voice to those who lack one. As far as possible, I have let the Balochs speak for themselves. It is based on long and detailed conversations with the leading actors in the events I describe. Some testimonies I have summarised, others I have included verbatim. Those speakers who are well known will not be harmed by the publication of their words or at least no more than they already have been. The others must remain anonymous. As I point out more than once in the following pages, involvement with Balochistan leads to death, literally, or else a very ugly fate. A good number of Pakistani journalists have been killed. Others, some of them famous, have survived attempts on their lives. For years now, foreign journalists have been unable to get near the region, and those who have pointed this out have been expelled from the country, sometimes violently. The Pakistani press has been subjected to censorship, often self-imposed, and either declines to cover events or does so incompletely; unless something so significant happens that it cannot be covered up or shrugged off. It is not easy to write about a place one cannot visit. Verifying the facts and the data one is presented with is complicated since clear, sometimes considerable, discrepancies exist between information provided by the state and that published by civilians and humanitarian organisations. The current insurrection in Balochistan is perhaps the most complex and bloody of any in its history since its forced annexation by Pakistan. It was born of the brutal, repressive policies and strategies of President Musharraf, and flared up in 2006 after the murder of Nawab Mohammad Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti. That act was described as Balochistan’s equivalent of 11 september by Malik Siraj Akbar in his The Redefined Dimension of Baloch Nationalist Movement. The killing of Bugti was a turning point in the shaping of regional dynamics, creating an irreparable fracture in relations between the Baloch people and the state. The flames of an independence movement had almost died out as a more restrained quest for autonomy took shape. But now they raged once more, fed further by the policies of the two democratic governments that followed Musharraf. In 2011, Akbar wrote, ‘Back in october 2005, when I started working on the issue of missing persons there were only two known families, today every Baloch district has its list of missing persons.’ From 2011 to the present, the situation has worsened. The number of missing persons is in thousands, and more disappear every day. Mass graves filled with unnamed corpses have been found. The people of Balochistan still suffer the effects of nuclear tests carried out in the past in their land, amidst widespread indifference at home and abroad. The revolt has already spiralled out of control, even for those who should be guiding it. Once respected categories, customs, norms and values are no longer valid. The older groups led by tribal leaders have been joined by new ones that acknowledge no authority, whether tribal or local. A new generation of educated youths from established families has appeared; they are social activists who are concerned with human rights, enraged at the systematic exploitation of local resources and the ferocious repression to which the region has been subjected. This ‘new’ revolt is now directed not only at the military but has also focused for a while now on the so-called ‘settlers’ from other regions who have come to live in Balochistan. It is also a revolt against the Chinese presence, considered a ‘colonial’ invasion carried out in the name of the CPEC (China Pacific Economic Corridor).
The CPEC, as if there had been any real need for it, has exacerbated an already difficult situation. No one can predict with certainty what will happen in the coming years or even the coming months. In Balochistan, for a long time now, there have been too many players in the game: the state, the tribal leaders, the ‘enforcers’ employed by the intelligence services, the armed forces, the chinese and sundry guerrilla groups. Then, we have the Taliban brought into the region by the army, the Pashtun who are themselves revolting against Islamabad and various local terrorist groups regarded as strategically useful in one way or another by Islamabad. Balochistan is of fundamental strategic and geopolitical importance, not only to Islamabad and to the chinese CPEC project, but also to the many other players in the region that act as avatars of the powers in the long-running ‘Great Game’. All of them are staking the lives of the locals. For years now, the world, to its shame, has silently ignored the ethnic and cultural genocide carried out in the region. The Baloch people have long been trying to draw international attention to what is happening to them and their homeland: this book is another attempt to do so. It was written on purpose for readers of all types, but especially for those who have had little previous interest in geopolitics, politics or regional conflicts, but do have the desire and the time to learn more about of one of the most reprehensible and inexplicable silences of our times. The indifference accorded to Balochistan is perhaps comparable only to that shown towards the sahrawi. Over the years, every attempt to shed light on the situation there has ended in oblivion. This was true even in the 1970s when the international left embraced all manner of revolutionary and humanitarian causes. Beniamino Natale, with whom I wrote 'Apocalypse Pakistan: An Anatomy of the World’s Most Dangerous Nation', once told me that while he was the editor of Lotta Continua someone turned up in his office. I am reasonably sure this was Mohammed Bhaba, who had led the London Group to Balochistan before leaving to seek financing and enlist the support of the press. Beniamino wrote a couple of articles that failed to elicit any response, let alone arouse any sign of indignation at the time. In the last few years, in both the United States and Britain, there have been one or two commissions of enquiry and reports but these too have fallen into the void. The divisions among local political leaders are not helpful, nor is the absence of a clear contact point for communications. Not having an official spokesperson who speaks in the name of all Balochs, rather than representing a particular party or tribe, is destabilising and renders every step towards reconciliation more difficult. Furthermore, China has recently cast its sinister shadow over Islamabad whenever the Balochs have tried to publicise their struggle against the central government and the genocide they are experiencing. To be sure, this book will change none of this; it contains no shocking or unprecedented revelations but is simply a summary of facts known all too well. It is my duty and my honour to offer my warmest thanks to Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, without whose precious contribution this work would be a very different one. Our conversations enriched my understanding as a journalist and, more importantly, as a person. I also thank all the others who allowed me to share their information and experience. Some of those conversations have been reproduced in their entirety; as regards the others, names and voices remain in my memory and my heart. My sole wish is that a time will come when children can play in the streets without the fear of being abducted, that women in their homes can be sure that their husbands and sons will return and that young women will no longer feel afraid to go to their university or workplace. I hope that dawn will break one day on a free and peaceful land