IT was a surreal setting. The ruins of a village in Awaran, Balochistan, bathed in the light of the nearly full moon.
A tiny mosque was the only structure, it seemed, that had been left standing here after two earthquakes in late September killed an estimated 400 people in the sparsely populated Awaran and Kech districts.
In this particular village, there were close to 60 casualties, including about 20 deaths.
Here, in the shadow of the mosque, I heard from locals about lives that have become yet more difficult in this impoverished district, not only because of the earthquake but as a result of what has transpired in its wake.
For this disaster has not only highlighted the ruinous policies long pursued by the security establishment towards Balochistan, it has perhaps further exacerbated the fault lines that threaten Pakistan’s integrity. The province, wracked by the fourth insurgency since independence, is poised on a precipice.
An activist from the Baloch Students Organisation-Azad, a banned group with substantial support among the youth, was present at the little gathering. He related how the army came to deliver relief to the village in the form of tents and food supplies. The people, he said, destroyed the goods. “How can they accept help from those who humiliate them? Their sons have gone missing; they’ve suffered terribly at the hands of the army.”
Two men from the village were still missing — picked up, claimed locals, by Frontier Corps (FC) personnel several months ago.
The ‘missing people’ are a recurrent motif in the stark, forbidding landscape of Awaran. It’s a thread that ran through most of my conversations with local people. One that was echoed in the weary but determined footsteps of those who have marched from Quetta to Karachi to raise a voice for the missing Baloch.
The term refers to individuals — students, doctors, farmers, journalists, etc — allegedly abducted by agents of the state, including the FC and intelligence personnel. Most remain untraced while many are murdered and dumped, their bodies often bearing signs of extreme torture.
Although the numbers are disputed, rights groups estimate that thousands of people have been kidnapped over the past decade and detained in secret prisons, allegedly by security forces. The home department of Balochistan has stated that 592 bullet-ridden, mutilated bodies have been found in the province in the last three years.
It’s scarcely surprising there’s so much hostility here towards the state.
The state for its part issues stock responses from the army and intelligence agencies, claiming ignorance of the abductions and murders. But there are only so many abductions that can be carried out — often in broad daylight with witnesses present — before denial starts to ring hollow.
Since the earthquake, say locals, large convoys of army and FC have been conducting raids on villages in the district, sealing off the area before going from house to house. Several young men have been picked up this way they allege, although some have been released unharmed after being interrogated.
The army’s increased and visible presence has reportedly driven nearly half the population to migrate from the area.
Awaran is seen as the epicentre of the ongoing insurgency that exploded in the province after Nawab Akbar Bugti’s death in 2006 at the hands of the army.
This time, it has been a markedly vicious conflagration. Insurgents have responded to state violence with killings of non-Baloch people in the province, bringing a new element to the conflict.
The banned Baloch Liberation Front and BSO-Azad are particularly active in Awaran, largely because Dr Allah Nazar, leader of the BLF and founder of BSO-Azad, is a native of Awaran’s Mashkay tehsil. Before the earthquake, the area was almost totally under the insurgents’ control.
Physically at least, the army has established its presence in parts of Awaran district. Earlier, it could not venture beyond the military barracks in Awaran city. One can now see army encampments on several surrounding hillocks.
The tricolour ‘independent Balochistan’ flag has been replaced by the Pakistani crescent and star in nearby villages. Students have had to hastily relearn the national anthem, the singing of which had long been forbidden in the local schools.
However, despite its relief operations in the area which were substantially hampered by armed attacks from insurgents suspicious of its motives, the army has not won any hearts and minds here.
Its refusal — in the name of security risk — to allow international NGOs to conduct relief operations in the affected area illustrates that the imperative to maintain a veil of secrecy over the unrest in the province trumps concerns for the welfare of those in dire need of specialised disaster assistance.
Pakistani NGOs who depend on overseas donors have also found their sources of funding choked off by bureaucratic red tape. A Rs70 million project funded by Oxfam and specifically meant for earthquake relief has recently been cancelled as a result. Local NGOs maintain there are remote areas where even tents have not been delivered.
At the same time, there are disturbing signs that establishment-favoured, faith-based charities have been given free rein to operate in the district.
Wall chalkings of the Jamaatud Dawa’s Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), Jamaat-i-Islami’s Al-Khidmat and Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Al Khair Trust are visible everywhere. Black-and-white FIF flags line the main street in Awaran city and JI’s banners exhort the faithful to prayer. Along the road leading into the city an FIF camp/madressah is under construction.
Interestingly, virtually no one I spoke to could vouch for the ‘charities’ doing any relief work in the area. All indications point to these having been injected into the landscape for the purpose of undermining an essentially secular insurgency.
If so, this is yet another manifestation of the establishment’s disastrous policy of using religion to further political objectives, a policy that has brought the state of Pakistan nothing but grief. In such a bleak scenario, one cannot help but ask, is it even possible to bring Balochistan back from the brink?
The writer is a member of staff.