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The changing face of Balochistan’s separatist insurgency

By MAHVISH AHMAD | 1 July 2014

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[ I ]

IN THE EARLY HOURS of 25 December 2012, the paramilitary Frontier Corps of Pakistan’s Balochistan province launched an operation in the small, remote village of Mai. The operation went unnoticed by all save a handful of local newspapers. According to residents of Mai, which lies deep inside Balochistan, six helicopters and up to two hundred cars carrying soldiers arrived on that winter morning. The soldiers went door-to-door pointing guns, and were surprised when people answered their accusations of being foreign spies with recitations of the kalima. “They thought we were Hindu agents,” said Muhammad Amin, a wrinkled farmer who witnessed the soldiers’ arrival.

Three helicopters circled above the village, and shelled some mud homes. A few abandoned huts with mortar holes still dot the landscape. “It was as if the earth was on fire, and the sky was raining bullets,” Amin said. Three other choppers landed in front of a mosque, where the village’s women and children had hidden themselves. “Soldiers pulled us outside to stand in the cold for several hours,” Mahnaz, a peasant woman, said. Other villages nearby underwent similar attacks. By the time the operation ended, the Frontier Corps had set up 12 checkpoints controlling every entry and exit around Mai.

At first glance, Mai does not look like a sufficiently grave threat to warrant any kind of troop deployment. It is a 12-hour drive from the nearest city—Karachi—and its sandy-brown mud huts are home to a couple of hundred peasants who spend their days grazing sheep and goats. After the operation, critics in Baloch newspapers raged against the Pakistani media for failing to cover it. Abdul Malik, once a member of the senate and now the chief minister of Balochistan, claimed the operation had taken innocent lives, and that heavy bombardment had destroyed several villages. It was a “genocide” that had to be stopped, Malik fumed, and a “brutality” that needed to end. For those who did not know Mai, the attack was a clear example of the rampant violence exercised by Pakistani security forces within their own country.

However, several eyewitnesses claimed that the Frontier Corps had run a highly targeted operation. At the far edge of Mai, atop a small incline, a hamlet of dilapidated mud huts still stands amid much rubble. Inside the huts, long steel bars that supported the ceilings have collapsed, and shards of glass from broken windows can pierce the feet of unsuspecting visitors. On the floor of one hut lie the burnt and scattered pages of a medical textbook. The ripped pages of a book of Islamic political philosophy lie in a heap in a corner. Crumbled pages of a separatist newspaper called the Daily Tawar—its Karachi offices were attacked, either by unknown assailants or security forces, depending on whom you asked, a few months after the operation in Mai—flutter around the empty rooms. Mahnaz said that when the soldiers came that morning, they were looking for a man who used to live in one of these huts: her brother, Dr Allah Nazar, the commander of the Balochistan Liberation Front—an ethno-nationalist militia that is battling for the complete independence of Balochistan.

Today, when war and militancy in Pakistan are often equated with the activities of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, few, even within Pakistan, know much about Balochistan and the separatist movement that has brewed there for decades. Stories of Balochistan’s “disappeared” have received some attention in the press and from the authorities—especially from courts investigating accusations against Pakistani security forces—but have rarely been placed within the context of an ongoing war between Baloch separatists and the Pakistani state. Fewer still have heard of Nazar, a doctor-turned-guerrilla commander who was abducted and tortured by Pakistani security forces for his involvement in Baloch student movements, including the Baloch Student Organisation–Azaad, which he founded over a decade ago. Nazar now leads a middle-class insurgency—of engineers, peasants, college dropouts, ex-policemen, shopkeepers and others—that is the latest iteration of Balochistan’s 67-year-old movement for independence. In a country full of battle lines, Nazar is engaged in an old war between the Pakistani state and a motley group of separatist sarmachars—a Balochi word for militants that means “those who are willing to sacrifice their heads.”

For the Pakistani state, Balochistan is both a strategic asset and an inseparable piece of the puzzle that makes up the country. The province is Pakistan’s largest; it forms 45 percent of the country’s territory, and borders Iran and Afghanistan. It has the country’s longest coastline and largest natural gas reserves, and contains a vast array of resources such as coal, oil, copper, gold, lead and zinc. Other countries have not only kept a close eye on Balochistan, but have, at various points, been involved in its internal affairs. The nature of that involvement has varied from support for the separatist rebellion (Afghanistan, allegedly India); the deployment of fighter jets and gunships to squash the rebellion (Iran); the construction and operation of a lucrative deepwater port (China); the hunting of the province’s fowl (Saudi Arabia); an old lease on parts of its territory (Oman); the requisition of its long and winding roads to transport goods to troops in Afghanistan (the United States); and billion-dollar investments to mine its mineral-rich earth (anyone who can get their hands on a contract).

Rumours of Afghan and Indian support for Baloch separatists regularly cause uproar among Pakistani officials. Last October, Pakistan’s then foreign secretary, Jalil Abbas Jilani, presented previously unavailable “evidence of foreign hands in Balochistan violence” to Indian authorities. A 2010 WikiLeaks cable confirmed that the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, sheltered Brahamdagh Bugti, a young Baloch separatist leader, for several years. (He was eventually packed off to political asylum in Switzerland—a move backed by the United States.)

In this conflict, Nazar is emerging as one of the most important militant leaders operating today. Of the three commanders of active separatist militias in the province, he is the only one who remains in Balochistan, and the only one who does not hail from tribal royalty. The other two commanders of his generation—Bugti and Hyrbyair Marri, who is also living in exile in Europe—are descendants of powerful tribes whose patriarchs once held cabinet-level positions in the provincial government, and also formed and led insurgencies against the state. The Baloch movement has had a leftist cast since the 1970s; the veteran separatist leader Khair Baksh Marri, who died in June this year, was famously Marxist, and the predilection continues among younger leaders, including Nazar. Nevertheless, Nazar’s rise through the ranks of the province’s ethno-nationalists represents a fundamental shift within the hierarchy of the movement. From one led by sardars, or tribal leaders, it is becoming one spearheaded and populated by a non-tribal cohort of middle-class Baloch. Nazar’s leadership exemplifies the shift of the movement’s epicentre from Balochistan’s north-east—home to the Marris and Bugtis, and known for its longstanding separatist sentiments—to the remittance-rich, urbanising south, which is home to a burgeoning educated and professional class, which has historically remained on the sidelines of the province’s politics.

Over two years and more than a hundred interviews with Baloch in the province, as well as in cities such as Karachi and Islamabad, it became clear that the BLF, and other middle-class organisations such as the Baloch National Movement and the Baloch Student Organisation–Azaad, are gaining in influence. Middle-class Baloch are increasingly forsaking statist, electoral politics out of sympathy for a rapidly changing separatist movement. The state’s heavy-handed response—army operations, kidnappings, and bans on the movement’s political wings—has spurred further support for separatists.

Nazar’s role in the separatist movement has placed him squarely on the radar of the Islamabad establishment. During an interview right after the May 2013 general election, a high-ranking politician from the National Party, which governs Balochistan, began to trip over his words when I mentioned Nazar. He asked that his and Nazar’s names not be mentioned side by side. “My life could be in danger,” he said. (The National Party and the BLF have long been at odds, since the former holds the BLF responsible for the 2010 murder of one of its most senior leaders, Maula Bakhsh Dasti. The BLF vehemently denies the charge.) Questions sent to the Balochistan desk of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency went unanswered, as did a request to interview the inspector general of the Frontier Corps in Balochistan, Major General Muhammad Ejaz Shahid. Interviews with other security officials—from the Frontier Corps and the Pakistan Army—were only granted after I promised to keep them anonymous.

At a cocktail reception in Islamabad, Abdul Qadir, a former army corps commander in Balochistan who is now a minister in the federal government, told me that Nazar was a “student leader gone popular.” Indeed, for Nazar’s supporters, he is something of an everyday hero—someone who went from student to medical doctor to guerrilla. “The obvious reason for Nazar’s popularity is his middle-class background,” Malik Siraj Akbar, the editor of the Baloch Hal, a banned online magazine, told me. “The Baloch view him as ‘the guy we met at school,’ or ‘the guy who rode the local bus.’”

Nazar does not make public appearances—since his abduction by Pakistani security forces in 2005, he has been in hiding in the mountains of Balochistan. But, speaking to Baloch around the country, I discovered something of the breadth of his appeal. I once met a young boy who blushed, speaking of the first time he touched Nazar’s feet. Girls wrote him long and frustrated letters asking him when they could join him in the mountains. I discovered poets who composed Balochi songs in his name. In the small Baloch village of Teertej, a group of women at a zikr khana—a mosque for Balochistan’s Zikri Muslims—even told me they named the intricate patterns on their enormous frocks after him.

On the wall of a study centre that Nazar attended as a student at the Bolan Medical College in Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, young Baloch had scrawled his name in large, cursive red letters. In another wall-chalking, members of the BSO–Azaad had drawn the face of the Communist revolutionary Che Guevara next to his famous quote, “Every person who fights for his nation is my elder brother.” When I asked Baloch students about the mural, they told me Guevara represented the founder of their organisation, “the doctor.”

IN NOVEMBER 2013, following several months of vague email exchanges and garbled calls from satellite phones and unrecognisable numbers, I finally came face to face with Nazar himself. After two days of travel, by plane, van, motorbike and foot, and a final ten-hour stretch in an armed motorbike-caravan of nine, I arrived at a small mountain clearing in southern Balochistan. Two huts built of date-palm leaves stood out resolutely on the landscape, defended on all sides by lanky, Kalashnikov-carrying sarmachars perched on the crags, under a star-studded night sky.

A young woman dressed in pink, sent along to accompany me, served qahwa in the hut where she and I were to rest while we awaited Nazar. Blankets and straw mats were strewn across the floor. Our only sources of light were a single light bulb, attached to a portable battery, and a golden-red hearth prepared to keep us warm. It was almost midnight, and we sat enveloped by the total silence of the mountains. My chaperone leaned over to grab some twigs and dry leaves from a small pile next to the fireplace, to keep the fire burning.

After a few moments, we heard crunching leaves and murmured Balochi at the doorway. I saw a moustache, a brown leather jacket, and an M16 rifle. Nazar entered, flanked by nervous boys clutching RPGs, whose shawls covered their faces. The whites of their eyes were nearly neon-bright in the darkness of the hut. Quiet, almost reverent in front of their leader, they stood back, preferring not to greet me before he had done so. Under the light of the bulb, I saw Nazar’s short hair, shalwar kameez, and the chappals on his feet. He nodded and said, unassumingly, “Almost like a Hollywood movie, isn’t it?”

II ]

NAZAR’S EARLIEST MEMORIES were bound up with army action. In 1973, when Nazar was three years old, Pakistan’s prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, discovered a cache of arms at the Iraqi Embassy in Islamabad. In a letter sent to Nixon four days later, Bhutto blamed India, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Soviet Union for hatching a “conspiracy,” with “subversive and irredentist elements which seek to disrupt Pakistan’s integrity.” Linking the cache to the country’s Baloch ethno-nationalists (among other groups), Bhutto dismissed and arrested the first democratically-elected provincial government in Balochistan, shipped its leaders off to jail in the neighbouring province of Sindh, and eventually initiated legal proceedings against 55 people in what came to be known as the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case. Just two years earlier, after a bloody civil war, Pakistan’s eastern wing had broken off to form Bangladesh; he was eager to avoid a repeat of 1971.

What followed was reportedly one of the murkiest and most brutal operations carried out by the Pakistani security forces in Balochistan. In his book In Afghanistan’s Shadow: Baluch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations, the American political scientist Selig Harrison wrote that Bhutto deployed H-1 helicopter gunships and F-14 fighter jets—lent to him by the Shah of Iran—in the province, and sent 80,000 troops to clamp down on the insurgency that the dismissal of the provincial cabinet had sparked.

Balochistan rose in anger. Nazar’s older brother, who would have been no older than 25 at the time, joined the sarmachars in the mountains. Nazar said his father was punished for his brother’s decision—he was detained during one of several search operations carried out by the security forces, and released only months afterwards.

Nazar was born sometime around 1970 in Mai, in Balochistan’s southern Awaran plains. From the tales of village elders, he learned that he was a descendant of the Damanis of western Balochistan—or southern Iran. The Damani clan, lore had it, once famously stood up for a woman who had been raped, taking her in and fighting her rapist. That long-ago decision embroiled the clan in a feud that pushed them eastward, into modern-day Pakistan.

“We inherit our history,” Nazar told me. “It is transferred to us in these sorts of stories.”

Such stories directly challenged the founding myths of Pakistan. In mainstream history books, Balochistan is said to have acceded peacefully to the new republic in 1948. But Nazar was told that Balochistan was “annexed” when Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, deployed troops to the province.

“It was as if we did not exist,” Nazar said about discovering the version of history told in state textbooks. “Our history, our language, our very identity was eviscerated. They wanted us to be gungas—mute and hollow men.” The story of 1948 was not the only disputed narrative, he learned: there was also no mention of the four separatist uprisings in Balochistan since its integration into Pakistan, or any record of the brutal army operations in their wake.

When he was 15 years old, Nazar moved from Mai to the nearby town of Mashkey-Gajjar, where he first met members of the Baloch Student Organisation. The BSO had long been a forum for educated Baloch who were not closely affiliated with any of Balochistan’s notorious sardars. The group’s politics were underpinned by an incipient nationalism, rather than the tribal affiliations that knit early insurgents together. It was the beginning of a political engagement that would define Nazar’s life. In the late 1980s, he moved to Quetta to attend medical school, at a time when Afghanistan, only three hours away, was in the final throes of the long Cold War between the Americans and the Soviets. The war left an indelible impact on Quetta, which became a magnet for the roshan-e-khyaal, or “enlightened thinkers,” of leftist Pakistan. Nazar himself soon began to read “revolutionary literature.”

“We got our hands on Balochi translations of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. We read Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Fanon, and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And we read the greats: Marx, Lenin, Castro, Kafka, Mao, Ho Chi Minh. Even Gabriel García Márquez. I loved his One Hundred Years of Solitude.

With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Nazar and his comrades grew increasingly dissatisfied with what he called the “compromised politics” of the ethno-nationalists they were working with. Throughout that decade, middle-class moderates worked under the collective banner of the Balochistan National Youth Movement, and the larger BSO. These groups were predecessors to two of Balochistan’s major political parties: the pro-Pakistan National Party, formed in 1993, and the anti-Pakistan Baloch National Movement, formed in 1994 and now considered the political wing of the BLF. (The two parties formed following a split between members of the BNYM and the BSO, and have been at loggerheads ever since.)

By 1999, Nazar told me, he and his friends in the BSO had started to talk of armed rebellion. At a party congress in January 2002, he marched out and declared that he was breaking away to establish an organisation committed to Baloch independence. Shortly afterwards, he formed the BSO–Azaad, which would become Balochistan’s “most popular student organisation,” as a senior National Party politician told me. In the run-up to last year’s general elections, the Pakistani government, in its own way, confirmed the fact of this popularity: it placed the professedly non-violent BSO–Azaad on a list of banned organisations alongside militant Islamist groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

But Nazar himself quickly moved on from his own organisation, which became (and remains) a purely political one. He joined an avowedly militant organisation, to “take up arms, to fight for a sovereign, welfare state,” he said. At that point, Nazar and his fellows were mere rookies compared to outfits such as the Baloch Liberation Army, associated with the Marris, which had long experience in the arts of guerrilla warfare. But, before long, the newcomers established themselves firmly on the frontlines of a new wave of the insurgency.

ON 2 MAY 2004, a bomb went off in Balochistan’s southern port city of Gwadar, killing three Chinese engineers and injuring 11 other people. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Front, a militant separatist outfit that had been either established or resuscitated, depending on whom you ask, in 2003. Like many organisations of its ilk, the BLF has many  differing accounts of its foundation. Some trace it to Jumma Khan Marri, a Baloch ethno-nationalist said to have established a group while living in Damascus in 1964, or to Khair Bakhsh Marri and the 1970s insurgency. Others, including Nazar, say the group was conceived in 1999 and established in 2003. I was unable to establish which of these versions, or others, hewed most closely to the truth. But it is certain that the BLF in its current avatar began operating in 2003, and that Nazar, who joined a training camp in March that year, was one of its members, though not yet leaders, at its inception. Nazar told me that the new BLF found support from many separatist groups with greater experience, and also from the Baloch leader Akbar Bugti, a historically pro-establishment figure who became a hardened separatist in his later years.

That same year, Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, set about transforming Gwadar, a tiny coastal village, into a lucrative Pakistani asset, with help from China. “Gwadar was a symbolic attack,” Nazar said, “and the Chinese engineers a perfect target. They had come here to exploit us, to be part of the colonial machinery, not to distribute halwa.” Nazar told me he did not take part in the attack himself—both he and his comrades refused to talk about any offensives in which he might have participated.

To the BLF, Gwadar did not seem like the welcome opportunity for economic growth that the Musharraf government was promising the people of Pakistan. Poor fishermen who had lived on the coast for generations were forcibly evicted in the melee of construction. Contractors arrived, but employment for local Baloch did not. Money poured in—suddenly there were broad roads, new government buildings, high-tech equipment and docks—but it made little difference in the lives of the BLF’s friends and families. The group was convinced that the Pakistani state was doing what it had always done: using development as an excuse to exploit Balochistan’s natural resources.

The building of Gwadar was not the first time that the Baloch clashed with the state over resource exploitation. In 1952, prospectors discovered north-eastern Balochistan’s Sui gas fields, believed to be among the largest of their kind in the world. Baloch accusations against the central government—that gas and profits were being siphoned away from Balochistan to enrich the rest of the country—became a major source of disagreement and conflict. Even today, according to the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources, the government meets only 41 percent of urban Balochistan’s demand for gas. The government blames the spotty supply on the province’s vast distances and scattered, sparse population, essentially casting it as a logistical rather than political issue.

In our interview, Nazar maintained that the “colonial tactics” of the Pakistani state justified the BLF’s bloody actions. But if he had ever nurtured doubts about the path the BLF had chosen, they were erased just a year later, on the day the Pakistani state “disappeared” him.

[ III ]

AT 3 AM ONE MORNING in March 2005, the 35-year-old Nazar was nodding off over a book when he heard strange sounds in the room next to his. He was in a friend’s apartment in Karachi’s Gulistan-e-Johar neighbourhood. At first, he thought the noises came from someone bringing home water and milk. He was surprised when the knuckles emerged from the darkness.

By 2005, stories of men being pulled off buses, attacked in the dead of night and disappeared by Pakistani security forces had already started to trickle out. No one knows just how many Baloch have disappeared over the course of the last decade. Between November 2013 and February 2014, Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, a campaign group of relatives of the missing, completed a 100-day, 2,150-kilometre-long march from Quetta to Islamabad to protest the government’s inaction over Baloch disappearances. The group claims to have documented more than 2,825 cases of missing persons. The Commission of Inquiry for Missing Persons, established by the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2010, says it is currently dealing with 1,475 cases, an undisclosed number of which are from Balochistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan lists over six hundred missing Baloch, but admits that the numbers might be underreported. Human Rights Watch says three hundred people were abducted between January 2011 and February 2012 alone. Several benches of the Supreme Court and the Balochistan High Court are hearing groups of petitions filed by concerned relatives—sometimes ten, sometimes 35, sometimes seven together—to try and get to the bottom of the mystery of the vanished Baloch. Some of the disappeared are armed insurgents or political activists; others are innocent individuals, at most marginally sympathetic towards the separatist movement.

That March morning, Nazar remembered, he found himself surrounded by anywhere between “twenty and 25 men.” Fists grabbed him by the throat, and pushed him to the ground. Feet kicked at him, and lathis slammed into his back. He felt fingers clawing at his neck, searching for a cyanide capsule that he might swallow. At that moment he wished he had one, so he would not have to live through what would follow. His captors blindfolded him, and put a bag over his head. He felt the sharp edges of the three or four steps they threw him down, arms pressed up against him in the backseat of a car, the musty heat of an underground basement.

When his captors uncovered Nazar’s eyes, he saw a white room with a table, two chairs, and a screen set into a wall on one side. For a moment, someone turned on the light in the room behind the screen, and he glimpsed the faces of some men who were likely brought in to identify him.

“They already knew my name when I entered,” he said.

As Nazar waited under a rickety fan, he suspected that he had been picked up, like many others, by the security agencies. He could vaguely make out two men sitting on the chairs in the chamber he was in. One of them, “a drunk, don-looking character, the type you see in Indian movies,” told him what he would do with him. “You’re the chairman,” Nazar remembered him saying. “We’ll turn you into a schizo.”

Nazar cracked a smile, remembering a friend of his who suffered from schizophrenia. In response, the men forced him to lie down on the table. Then one of them stood on his legs, and the other began to hit his hands and buttocks with a lathi. When they were finished they threw him back in the chair. “Muskaraane ki sazaa,” they told him—a punishment for laughing.

They took his picture, took off his handcuffs, and locked his feet in fetters before throwing him into an even smaller cell. After that, everything was a blur: several hour-long interrogations about his “comrades, friends, the BSO,” and threats that he would have to end up selling his body “just like the Bengalis.” “They told me a Bengali only cost 300 rupees,” Nazar recalled. “I was shocked that they knew the price. Did they pay for this sort of thing?” There was the thump-thump of a long pole that one of the men slapped repeatedly on his own palm as he threatened to “stick it” to Nazar. Nazar’s interrogators told him to pray for an aza-e-tanasul, a healthy penis. When I asked Nazar what they meant, he shook his head and said it was an inappropriate topic for us to discuss.

In interviews with Nazar and eight other Baloch men in Awaran, Quetta, Karachi and Islamabad—including a sociology student picked up by security forces from Quetta who dropped out of school to join the insurgency after two months in torture chambers; a peasant from Mashkey-Gajjar picked up in an army operation who has now “gone crazy,” according to his neighbour and friend; and a doctor who left his practice after a year-long disappearance; all of whom asked not to be named—the stories of torture by unidentified officials of the security agencies were chillingly consistent. It seems Quetta had two torture chambers. The sociology student told me one was “pitch black, used for mental torture; the other painted with spirals on the floor, walls and ceiling, used for physical torture.” The doctor described how “they hang our bodies upside down and electrocute our stomachs.”

The peasant’s neighbour said his tortured friend would not want to talk about what happened to him inside the chamber. “It is because he was raped,” he said. “They smeared a pole with oil and spices and stuck it up his behind.”

Nazar denied that his captors had acted on their threat of sexual assault. “No Baloch would ever admit if that happened to him,” he said. “Their interrogation techniques were inhumane … We were their test objects.”

In a 2011 report titled “‘We Can Torture, Kill, or Keep You for Years’: Enforced Disappearances by Pakistan Security Forces in Balochistan,” Human Rights Watch squarely blames Pakistani security forces for disappearances in the province. The organisation found that the disappeared are typically held in unacknowledged detention facilities run by the Frontier Corps and intelligence agencies, of which one is believed to be in an army cantonment named Kuli in Quetta. The report also states that most of those who have been released are reluctant to talk of their time in the torture cells, but that HRW has been able to ascertain that the “methods of torture included beatings, often with sticks or leather belts, hanging detainees upside down, and prolonged food and sleep deprivation.”

The men watching over Nazar repeatedly told him: “We will dump your corpse in a gutter, just like we do to everyone else.” The mutilated bodies of many of the disappeared have turned up on desolate mountain tops, rotting on empty city roads, or dumped in isolated alleys. Often their arms and legs are cut off, their faces mauled beyond recognition, and their bodies punctured with gaping holes. In just seven months, between July 2010 and February 2011, HRW reported that seventy bodies of missing persons were discovered in Balochistan. In late January this year, a group of levies—local Baloch serving as a police force—made a chilling discovery in Tootak, a few hours outside Quetta: a mass grave with 13 bodies of missing people, shot dead. (Locals later told journalists that the number of dead in the grave was under-reported.)

In the months that followed his capture, Nazar’s family and friends campaigned for his release. In August 2005, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan issued a statement saying that the “condition of Dr Allah Nazar is said to be especially grave,” and demanding that “all illegally detained people held in the country be produced before courts.” An HRCP report claimed that Nazar was “virtually paralysed and has lost a substantial part of his memory”; the torture had “physically and mentally impaired” him. On 13 August, he was finally produced before a court at Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab, then moved to Balochistan and charged with acts of terrorism. This recourse to judicial procedure should have been a relief from what had preceded it, especially as Nazar began to emerge as a figure in the public eye over the course of his detention. But the men who handed him over to the police and then remanded him back told him that his supporters’ efforts to free him would be of no use. “We own the courts,” he said he was told. “We decide what happens in Balochistan.”

The Supreme Court only really took up the issue of missing persons in Balochistan in 2009, and the matter has yet to be resolved. When the sitting chief justice first tried to address the issue in 2007, under Musharraf’s rule, he was deposed, sparking a famous lawyers’ movement that eventually led to the reinstatement of democratic rule. The enquiry was reopened in 2009, and in May 2010, under public pressure and on the orders of the Supreme Court, the government established the Commission of Inquiry for Missing Persons. Presently, at least three benches of the Supreme Court, as well as several benches of the Balochistan High Court, hear individual and group petitions filed by concerned relatives.

Nazar was detained for over a year, and finally released in July 2006. “I do not know why they let me go,” he said. “They either thought I would not survive, or that I was not important enough.” Nazar’s sister, Mahnaz, told me that he came by Mai for a few hours to say goodbye to his family after his release, and then escaped into the mountains. The timing was strangely apt; less than a month later, the death of Akbar Bugti caused Balochistan to rise up again, and permanently changed the character of the insurgency.

[ IV ]

FOR THE FIRST FEW YEARS after the 2004 attack on Gwadar, Baloch militants limited themselves to a handful of small-scale operations, mostly targeting  soldiers and gas pipelines. In 2005, just before Nazar was abducted, Akbar Bugti, who had loomed large over Balochistan’s political fortunes for three decades and was widely considered a pro-Pakistan politician, launched a scathing critique of the military regime under Musharraf. The catalyst for this change of heart appeared to be a horrific rape that took place in Sui, a gas-producing town in Bugti’s backyard, the district of Dera Bugti.

On the night of 2 January 2005, Shazia Khalid was asleep in her bedroom when a man entered it. He pulled her by the hair, pressed down on her throat, wrapped a telephone cord around her neck and beat her head with the receiver. He proceeded to rape her repeatedly. According to a 35-page confidential summary, released at the end of that month by an independent tribunal headed by a judge of the Balochistan High Court, Khalid was “semi-conscious” when she stumbled into a nurse’s office the next morning, “with a swelling on her forehead, bleeding from her nose and ear.” In his report on the incident, the New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof wrote that officials from her employers, Pakistan Petroleum Limited, rushed to the scene, and allegedly told her to stay quiet. In interviews with journalists, Khalid accused a Captain Hammad of the Pakistan Army of the crime, and claimed that security forces had tried to cover it up. In a report in the Daily Times, Sherry Rehman, then an opposition member of the National Assembly, stated that “Musharraf pronounced Captain Hammad, one of the accused in the case, innocent before the judicial enquiry was completed.”

The incident echoed the old story about Allah Nazar’s Damani ancestors, exiled from their lands for standing up for a rape victim. It also provoked widespread outrage in Balochistan. The Baloch Liberation Army, a militant group that used to be headed by another tribal leader, the recently deceased Khair Bakhsh Marri, resurfaced with renewed vigour after years in obscurity. Other groups stepped up activity too, firing rockets on PPL gas pipelines to protest the “cover-up” and claiming solidarity with Khalid.

Bugti, who attended Oxford University, was appointed the governor of Balochistan in 1973, after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto dismissed the provincial government. Less than a year later, Bugti resigned the post in protest against the atrocities of Pakistani security forces in the region. Still, he was generally considered an assimilationist, until Khalid’s rape allegedly forced him to change his views. (Nazar, among others, disputed this, telling me that Bugti had switched sides long before.) For over a year and a half, Bugti and Musharraf remained locked in battle. The government’s response to Balochistan’s outrage was swift and harsh; in an interview on GEO TV, Musharraf remarked, “It is not the seventies, where they will climb mountains and we will go running after them. They will not know what hit them, and they will not know where it came from.” On the night of 26 August 2006, 37 militants and 21 military personnel died in a clash between security forces and armed separatists. Bugti was among those killed.

His death prompted Baloch parties to declare a 15-day mourning period. Shutter-down and wheel-jam strikes were announced across the province. Baloch protestors flooded the streets in cities across Pakistan. Hundreds of students in Quetta—many from Nazar’s alma mater, Bolan Medical College—blocked roads and attacked government buildings. “This incident,” a mournful pro-Pakistan politician by the name of Akhtar Mengal said to the Friday Times, “has cut our last link, if there was any, with Pakistan.”

Soon, many Baloch separatist leaders began to escape the country, applying for political asylum abroad. Others turned up dead. In November 2007, a little over a year after Bugti’s killing, Balaach Marri, a commander in the BLA, was assassinated in Afghanistan. In April 2009, the decomposed bodies of Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, the chairman of the Baloch National Movement, Lala Munir, the general-secretary of the Baloch National Front, and Sher Mohammad Bugti, the vice chairman of the Baloch Republican Party, were dumped in Pidrak, 35 kilometres from the southern Baloch city of Turbat. They had been abducted, tortured and killed just five days after attending a court hearing in the city. About a year later, following many threats, Hyrbyair Marri, the alleged commander of the Baloch Republican Army, and Brahamdagh Bugti of the BLA, escaped the country. Their organisations had been the only major militant groups operating in Balochistan, save one—the BLF.

THE SOUTHERN MEKRAN BELT, which borders Iran and Balochistan’s lucrative coastline, had historically been on the margins of the province’s post-1947 political movements. But, in the ten years leading up to Nazar’s abduction, the emigration of Baloch to neighbouring Karachi, the Gulf states and Iran paved the way for a rapid rise in smuggling and remittances, which prompted the urbanisation of this southern corner of Pakistan. Concurrently, an educated middle class emerged, in an area that remained desperately poor. In the course of elevating itself above the concerns of everyday survival, this class became increasingly involved in broader political questions, and so shifted the epicentre of Baloch politics from the primarily tribal north to the increasingly urbanised south. One section of this class became active promoters of pro-Pakistan politics. In 2013, acknowledging the demographic and cultural shifts in the province, the newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, nominated Nazar’s more moderate, middle-class colleague, Dr Abdul Malik, as chief minister of Balochistan. Malik’s appointment ended decades of sardari dominance in the province’s highest office (although the assembly remains dominated by sardars).

But the shift that brought Malik to power also produced the new Baloch separatist: usually “an educated middle-class youth,” as Malik Siraj Akbar, editor of the Baloch Hal, wrote in his book The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalist Movement. The new separatist movement even includes “women and children,” according to Akbar, who “actively participate in peaceful protest rallies in support of a free Balochistan.”

In the years following Bugti’s death, the BLF allied with other militant groups, including the BLA and the BRA, as well as lesser-known organisations such as the Balochistan Liberation United Front and the United Baloch Army. Today, the BLF expresses unequivocal solidarity with all attacks carried out in the name of separatism. A Human Rights Watch report released in 2010 said those attacks have included numerous targeted abductions and killings of “teachers, professors and school administrators.” In one of the more recent offensives carried out by the UBA, 16 people were killed and 44 injured when a bomb was detonated on a passenger train in April this year. The UBA, allegedly a splinter group of the BLA that aims to export the insurgency beyond Balochistan, also took responsibility in the same month for a bomb that killed 24 people and injured 116 in an attack on a vegetable market outside a Pashtun slum in Islamabad.

Over the last ten years, the BLF, which conducts most of its attacks in southern Balochistan, has been accused of targeting Frontier Corps soldiers and other representatives of the Pakistani state. In 2011, the spokesperson of the Balochistan Frontier Corps told me that there were 27 platoons (almost 1,000 soldiers) patrolling Quetta alongside the police force. The spokesperson also identified southern Balochistan, the headquarters of the BLF, as a “place where troops have been concentrated.” In conversations with soldiers I met at checkpoints while travelling through Balochistan over the last two years, I found that many of them were simply young and afraid, deployed from Punjab, unable to speak the language, and frequently afraid for their lives. A security official told me that the armed forces ensured that an increasing number of Baloch were joining their ranks—even if the Pakistan Army states on its website that only a small number of Baloch youth “have preferred this profession, mainly because of illiteracy and ignorance.” Some of the Baloch I spoke to told me that soldiers at checkpoints would try to send them to markets to pick up supplies like water, milk or cigarettes. “They are told we are traitors,” Raheema, a young woman I stayed with in Mashkey-Gajjar, told me, “but are surprised when they find that we are normal people.”

Two months ago, the BLF kidnapped two coast guards in Gwadar, prompting the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to issue a press statement asking for their release. Most controversially, the group has been accused of targeting local Baloch suspected of ties to the Pakistani state. “The BLF has killed the highest number of fellow Baloch by accusing them of spying for Pakistani agencies or being traitors,” Akbar said. These incidents, according to Akbar, had “significantly eroded their support base.” Hasil Khan Bizenjo, a senior member of the National Party, agreed. “They have lost support among the Baloch,” he said, “because they have shut down shops, killed Punjabis, and sometimes attacked and murdered their own people.”

But for many Baloch, attacks by the BLF and other separatist groups are overshadowed by the atrocities carried out by the Pakistani security forces. That fact was even admitted by Bizenjo, who credited increased support for separatist politics to “the atrocious policies of the Pakistani state.” Recently, Lateef Johar, a member of the BSO–Azaad, carried out a 46-day hunger strike in front of the Karachi Press Club to protest the kidnapping of the chairmanl of his organisation, Zahid Baloch. More tellingly, thousands turned up for the funeral of the 86-year-old Khair Baksh Marri last month. The authorities attempted to give Marri a state funeral, but young female separatists from the BSO–Azaad cordoned off his body, draped his casket with the flag of independent Balochistan, and whisked him away to a graveyard of their martyrs.

[ V ]

THE CAST OF CHARACTERS I met during the course of my reporting revealed to me how stark the changes within Balochistani politics in the last decade had been. In Karachi, I met 27-year-old Kareema, who recently became the acting chairman of the BSO–Azaad after Zahid Baloch, the head of the organisation, was picked up at gunpoint in front of her by people Kareema claimed were “intelligence men.” From the pillion of a motorbike in southern Balochistan, I spoke for several hours with the young man driving me, an English literature major who loved George Orwell and said Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles made him cry (“How could anyone treat poor Tess like that?”). In Islamabad, a high-school student told me she was compelled to keep the whereabouts of her favorite Uncle Manan, a senior member of the separatist movement, a secret. “I love talking with him about Kajol,” she said. “He was heartbroken when she married Ajay Devgn.”

In the southern village of Teertej, a medical student explained how he spent a year at Lahore’s King Edward’s College, one of the best medical schools in the country, before dropping out when a friend of his was disappeared, making him fear that he might be next. And at a medical camp for earthquake survivors in southern Balochistan’s Awaran district, a former policeman, wrapped in a shawl and clutching a Kalashnikov, confessed he had found it increasingly difficult to follow orders to arrest his own people. That, he said, was what made him defect to the insurgency.

Abdul Wahab Baloch, the head of the separatist advocacy group the Baloch Rights Council, called the Baloch “a nation without a state, no different from the Kurds.” The separatists’ view of Balochistan is fundamentally different from that of the Pakistani mainstream. Their Balochistan is part of the five-thousand-year-old homeland of the Baloch people, whose rightful territory stretches into Iran, Afghanistan, and some of Pakistan’s other areas, including the country’s richest and most densely populated province, Punjab. This contention is not without its critics. “Lest anyone forget, Balochistan houses other ethnic groups too,” the security analyst Ejaz Haider wrote in a 2010 editorial for the Express Tribune, a national daily, referring to Pashtuns, Sindhis, Punjabis, Hazaras and others. Haider pointed out that separatists target other ethnic groups on racial grounds. Yet, the left-wing activist Aasim Sajjad Akhtar said, this “xenophobic tendency in some nationalist groups” was superseded only by “a parallel indifference in the dominant Punjab province to the authoritarian policies of the Pakistani state.”

My last interview with Nazar ended early in the morning two days after I first arrived in the mountain clearing where we met. We had spoken extensively of Baloch dreams and aspirations—the stuff on which the BLF is built. “In my politics I began to meet more and more Baloch and realised that we are one people,” Nazar told me. “Our psyche is one. The way we view our lives, our joys, our grief, our values, our code of honour. From the northern tip of Kalat state to the southern Kharan strip, we stood united.” Our hours of conversation in the date-palm hut took place over plates of Baloch sajji—mutton cooked underground—and cups of qahwa. Throughout the encounter, we were amid a group of loyal sarmachars, many of whom sat close to us, listening to Nazar speak.

Throughout the interview, Nazar denied all charges of kidnapping civilians, torture and murder levelled against him and the BLF. He said that attacks against individuals living within Balochistan took place only after a “careful background check that is reported directly to the BLF leadership.” They only killed, he argued, those who “threatened the survival of the movement.” This was a sentiment that resonated among separatists. Dr Abdul Manan—the Kajol fan known as “Uncle Manan” to his niece, and the secretary-general of the BNM, the BLF’s political wing—told me, “It is a question of whether we should let that person die, or the movement die. We choose the movement over the individual.” Two of his own cousins had been killed a few months before our conversation, he said.

Two days after my initial visit to Nazar’s home in Mai, where I went a month before I met him, Pakistani security forces launched a second operation in Awaran district. It was October 2013, and I was in Mashkey-Gajjar, close to Mai, asleep under an open sky and covered by a mosquito net, when they arrived.

An earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale had hit the area at the end of September. The Pakistani government, security forces and relief organisations had started to distribute aid in the area, which was also the headquarters of the BLF, where many fighters went to ground. Several times, the army tried to wrest control of a medical camp set up and administered by separatists. On that day, however, the army succeeded, and rounded up men to ask them about the whereabouts of militants. I awoke to explosions and the sound of helicopters circling above the town of Mashkey-Gajjar. Cell phone reception had stopped, or been cut off, and my hosts told me that the army had infiltrated the town to take over the medical camp.

Several village residents, as well the ambulance driver who brought me to these parts, said that around 25 army soldiers stormed the camp early that morning, ostensibly seeking members of the BLF. A fighter who was in the camp escaped, and the soldiers beat the driver before realising he was an innocent bystander and letting him go. The driver, who asked me not to name him, claimed that the army rounded up between four hundred and five hundred men and marched them into the camp. There, an officer gave a short speech announcing that the army had entered Mashkey-Gajjar and had “plans to stay for the next five years.” The army would protect the residents from militants, provided they helped the security forces by identifying members of militant groups. The driver noticed that everyone stayed quiet. They may have been frightened by the thought of reprisals by the militants, and perhaps also wary of the deeply unpopular Pakistan Army.

It took several more skirmishes between the army and the BLF before the former consolidated control over the camp, and named it the “Army Relief Camp.” In a press release issued a few days after news of the operation broke, the Inter-Services Public Relations office denied that any operation had taken place and insisted that the army’s presence in the area was solely for distributing relief goods. According to Riaz Suhail, a BBC Urdu journalist who covers Balochistan, these claims are difficult to verify independently but indicated that the war between the Pakistani state and Balochistan’s insurgents is entering a third phase. After the disappearances and the dumping of mutilated bodies, the security forces are now using “encounters” to eliminate separatists.

On the final leg of my trip, returning from meeting Nazar, I spent a night in Teertej. At the far end of the village, in a small zikr khanna—a mud hut standing under the stars—a group of women sat in a circle chanting prayers. At the end, they sang a song in support of the insurgency. The song was originally sung in celebration of marriage, or shaadi. Now, they had replaced the shaadi with shahadat, or martyrdom:

Reza Jan, shahadat mubarak
You now have a new name
Come, my sisters, see what Reza Jan has done
Reza Jan picked up a pen, Reza Jan made god happy
Reza Jan created, the agencies blackened his face
Mother has sung you a song, she has come to your second shaadi.

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Mahvish Ahmad is an independent journalist and lecturer living in Islamabad. She is also a co-founder of Tanqeed, a magazine of politics and culture


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