Balochistan: too small an olive branch

Brutal rule by Pakistan’s security agencies in Balochistan has radicalised moderate Balochs in this largest and poorest province. Now Pakistan’s government has offered a conciliation package. But it looks as if it is too little, too late.
Qurratulain Zaman
27 November 2009

“They ordered me to rape her. She was so thin and was crying when they brought her in the room. I was terrified to look at her, as I thought she was a spy or an agent”, says Munir Mengal, a 33- year- old Baloch, living in forced exile in Paris.

Munir Mengal spent 16 months in underground jails of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. “The low rank officers came back to the room and started beating me because I didn’t obey their orders. They took off my clothes by force, and hers too, and left us alone. In her sobs I heard her praying in Balochi language. She was praying for someone named Murad. That’s how I got to know she is my fellow Baloch. That gave me  the courage to talk to her.” Munir says that, still sobbing, she told him her name was Zarina Marri. She used to be a school teacher. She and her son Murad, who was only a few months old, were picked up by the intelligence agencies from Kohlu.

Munir said, “Zarina was crying and asking me to kill her. Meanwhile, 3 or 4 low-ranking officers came in the room with a toolbox and told me that if I refused to rape her they would make me impotent. I didn’t have a clue why they were doing this to me. I fainted.  In the morning, before the faj’r prayer they kicked me and took Zarina Marri with them. I have no idea what happened to her.”

Munir said he was tortured physically, mentally and emotionally every day. A chartered accountant by education and training, Munir wanted to open up a Baloch TV channel in Pakistan. He was working on his TV channel “Baloch Voice”, when he was picked up for the first time when he flew into Karachi international airport on April 4, 2006.

“After 5 months in an underground jail in Malir (Karachi), one day they took me to Major Nadeem’s office. He said they hadn’t found anything against me and wanted to negotiate with me.” The Military Intelligence (MI) officers informed Munir they had changed their plans. “They were going to take me to meet President Pervez Musharraf.  They trained me how to talk to the president. They told me I had to address him as ‘your Excellency’ and should not tell him anything about what had happened to me in the torture cell”, remembered Munir. “On October 26, they gave me a haircut, new clothes and blindfolded me. Then they took me to some military barracks to meet the then president, Pervez Musharraf.”

Munir said the president expressed concern about the Balochistan issue. “He said he would take care of my family’s future now, although according to him I was becoming more dangerous than the Baloch rebel leaders Nawab Akbar Bugti and Attaullah Khan Mengal.  He said it was just a few sardars, tribal leaders, who were making things bad in Balochistan with foreign aid. “I stayed quiet most of the time”, says Munir.

“They offered to make me the liberal, educated voice of Balochistan against the sardars. They said the’d give me and my family full protection. But I refused to become a part of their game. That is why in the end I fled Pakistan.”

Munir Mengal’s is not an isolated story.

The largest province of Pakistan, Balochistan is witnessing its 5th insurgency since 1947. Many Balochs say that their region was annexed by Pakistan. They believe the centre and the most populous province Punjab has usurped their resources. It is the most impoverished and underdeveloped province of Pakistan. Balochs will tell you, for example, that although vast amounts of gas are extracted from Sui, Balochistan, there are many parts of the province without gas until today.

The Baloch nationalists kept demanding autonomy and an equal share in the resources. However, they never got it. The Pakistan federal government distributes resources on the basis of population, and Balochistan accounts for only four percent of Pakistan’s population.

24 year old Shahzeb is a law student. He was picked up by the intelligence agencies in March this year. In their traditionally decorated first floor living room in Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, Shahzeb’s mother said “We were worried about Shahzeb’s life. My family and I prayed every day for him.” Shahzeb was taking his sister-in-law to a neighbouring district in Quetta when he was picked up.  “They tortured me every day”, said Shahzeb Baloch. “During interrogation, my hands were tied and I was blindfolded. They asked me questions about the Baloch liberation movement. They kept accusing me of being an agent of the Indian intelligence agency RAW and insisted that I had provided weapons to militants.”

Shahzeb was careful not to share details about his three months’ ordeal in the military detention centre in front of his mother. He switched to English in her presence. “I don’t want to repeat all these things in front of her. She starts crying.  They released me on the condition that I won’t get involved in student politics.”

Both Munir and Shahzeb said that they came across many Baloch detainees in the military-run secret jails  - Munir under the military dictatorship of Musharraf, and Shahzeb after the civilian government had taken over last year. According to the Baloch Women’s Panel and the Baloch Student Organization (BSO), 4,000 Baloch are still missing. Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik said this week that the government had a list of 1,011 missing people.

Most observers agree that things became worse in Balochistan during the Musharraf years, after Musharraf sent the army in against the Baloch tribes. Nawab Akbar Bugti, head of the Bugti clan, a former chief minister and governor of the province in his eighties, was forced to hide in a mountain cave and finally killed in an airstrike by the Pakistan air force.

Suriya Ameeruddin is a senator from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in Balochistan. “A few years ago, we used to live in harmony, in peace. Pashtuns, Baloch, Hazaras and Punjabis - all of us used to live next to each other but since the day Pervez Musharraf martyred our Nawab Sahib, the situation has turned violent”, she said.

Relations between the different ethnic groups have become bitter. Senator Suriya Ameeruddin is not an ethnic Baloch, but a “settler” in Quetta. But she lives in a Baloch-populated area. “Every day when my son and daughter- in- law leave for work I am afraid. Boys come on motorcycles in busy markets and residential areas, kill and vanish. Not a single ‘target killer’ has been caught so far. No one has the courage to catch them. It’s the law of the jungle here.”

Quetta looks like a war-zone, with army checkpoints even in the markets and parks. The city is clearly divided in two parts. One is the “cantonment” fully controlled by the army and paramilitary forces; the other area is a stronghold of Baloch separatist groups – like Balochistan University.

 A 24- year- old former president of the Baloch Student Organisation (BSO) said, ‘’you feel you are entering a garrison, not a university. Pakistan’s security agencies have left us no political way forward. They have radicalised all the liberal forces by torturing them.’’

According to him, the BSO serves as a nursery for nationalists who are in hiding or fighting in the mountains. The student leader’s father was an active member of the established Balochistan National Party (BNP), which traditionally stood by Pakistan, while demanding more rights for the Balochs. But he and his brothers advocate a “free” Balochistan. ‘’We have convinced our father after long fights and arguments. Today he is a radical like me.’’

Not long ago, the student was a patriotic Pakistani. He had a poster of a war hero, Captain Karnel Sher Khan as a teenager. “Pakistan needs to reflect upon what made me hate Pakistan”, he said. “They make us feel that we are slaves. I can wear western clothes and move freely in the city but if I’m wearing my baggy Baloch shalwar, they’ll strip search me.”

The one and a half year old democratic government has finally tabled the long awaited Balochistan package named “a beginning of Balochistan rights” in the national assembly this week. Prime Minister Gilani promised to bring back the missing people to their families, to re-integrate exiled Baloch leaders into the political scene and to withdraw the army and paramilitary forces from the province.

Balochistan will finally enjoy political autonomy like the other provinces, and economic development, the government promises. However, all Baloch parties have rejected this package. They say they were not consulted, and after sixty years they have lost their trust in Pakistan. 

Malik Siraj Akbar, the bureau chief of the English national paper “Daily Times” in Quetta, said, “although the democratic government has taken over, the machinery is run by the security agencies. The chief minister and governor have no role. There are more than 50 ministers in the government, but they have nothing to do.”

Mukhtar Chalgiri, the regional director of the Strengthening Participatory Organization, one of the few NGOs still working in the province, added:

“Ordinary people are unhappy. Inflation, poverty and a sense of deprivation leads to all this violence we see in our society today. Every cabinet member in this government is corrupt. They are selling jobs.”

Many Baloch parties are boycotting the political process altogether. Their demands have become more radical over the years.

Dr Abdul Hakeem Lehri, a senior leader of the Baloch Republican Party said, “we’re not interested in living with the corrupt Pakistani elite any more. We want freedom.”

The Baloch Republican Party (BRP) is considered the political face of the underground, separatist Baloch Republican Armay (BRA). Hundreds of their activists have disappeared. Party chief Brahamdagh Bugti, a grandson of the slain leader Akbar Bugti, is in hiding. For many youngsters, the handsome 28- year- old Bramdagh is a kind of Baloch Che Guevara. Pakistani officials say he is in Afghanistan, and have accused India of supporting him through its consulates there. But party leader Lehri rubbished all claims that the separatist movement is run by a “foreign hand”:

“If Pakistan had any real evidence that India supports us, would they have spared us? Every Baloch household has a reason to fight with them. This version is just to satisfy the Pakistani elite.”

From his forced exile Munir Mengal too rejects the economic package proposed by the Pakistani government. He pointed out that many Baloch nationalists are socialists and abhor religious fundamentalism. “There is no solution with packages, and our problem can’t be solved with dialogues either. Our ideology is different from Pakistan’s. We can’t live under an imposed and fake religious identity. We are secular people.” And he added a question: “Do you really think these economic packages will satisfy Zarina Marri’s mother?“

Former school teacher Zarina Marri is still missing, and no official record exists about what happened to her after she was last seen by Munir Mengal in Karachi.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData