The unhappy province

Published December 24, 2006

THIS government of Pakistan seems to be digging itself into a hole as far as the province of Balochistan is concerned. It has on its own admission used jet planes, gunships, and missiles against the rebels of the province.

The rebels have been rebelling against the attitude of the government towards the underdevelopment of the province, its extreme poverty, its illiteracy, its lack of food, potable water, health facilities and the lack of all else that goes towards the making of a democratic state, highly enlightened and reasonably moderate.

Balochistan, 43 per cent of Pakistan’s land mass, housing but four per cent of its population of 160 million, some 6.5 million deprived, in poor health, illiterate, hungry and thirsty, mainly in thrall to the local sardari system, has of late been targeted by President Pervez Musharraf, who, after having rid himself of Thorn Nawab Muhammad Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti in a gun battle fought between the Pakistan army troops and the Nawab’s private army, has promised to do wonders for Balochistan and the Baloch — they are to be developed to the teeth.

They will be the recipients of much government funds, in return, of course, for cooperation and the cessation of bomb blasts and rockets faring by members of the movement demanding enhanced autonomy and a share in the gas-rich, poverty-stricken province. So far, the dissenters seem not to be in a cooperative mood as we read daily reports in the press of bombs going off here and there causing casualties and deaths.

So, it should not have been so strange to read the report in this newspaper on Friday, ‘Balochistan instability displaced 84,000 — UN help sought to save IDPs from starvation.’ But it was because of the story related. 84,000 Baloch, out of 6.5 million, is a lot and that they have been displaced through the acts of the government is not disputed. Reportedly, the government has so far not acknowledged the existence of the 84,000 though various UN agencies have known about them for many months and have been trying, almost begging, to help — but were always prevented from doing so by the caring, enlightened and moderate government of Pakistan.

Suddenly, the government has somersaulted and asked for United Nations help in feeding the starving 84,000. The provincial government has generously allowed the various UN agencies to “carry out nutritional intervention in districts of Naseerabad, Jaffarabad, and Quetta,” where the bulk of the displaced citizens have gathered — their plight has been described as ‘utterly desperate’ and is growing more desperate with the onset of winter. A one million dollar relief package will, however, be carried out through health facilities under the supervision of the local authorities who have up to now been unwilling to help in any manner.

This immediate volte face has apparently been brought about through acute embarrassment following a news item in the Christian Science Monitor of December 21 based on, “an internal assessment by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), shown to the Monitor,” which “paints a disturbing portrait.”

The disturbing portrait has it that 59,000 of the 84,000 wretched souls, bona fide citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, its mighty army of half a million men, its banks dispensing hefty loans for cars, weddings, jewellry and air-conditioners, are women and children. Of the thousands of children, a large number are so acutely malnourished that it is feared that they will die without immediate medical attention. One foreign observer has remarked, according to the CSM report, that it is a “crime against humanity situation.”

Helping the government dig itself deeper into a hole was the statement made without thinking, obviously, in view of the later development, by presidential spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan who claimed the UNICEF report to be “untrue” as most of the displaced persons “have gone back.” Disturbing also are reports by local aid workers that military trucks were used to round up the displaced men, women and children and hide them before they could get to them. According to the CSM, last week “the government abruptly cancelled a planned tour to Balochistan by a visiting delegation from the European Commission.”

This is all more than merely disturbing — the lying and the deception by both provincial and federal governments. Political oppression is the name of the game played in Balochistan, and on this score the governments are now trying to cover up their sins by appealing for help to save lives. It is indicative of the failure of the federal government, the cabinet of 80-plus, headed by an astute banker, that it has neither the means nor the wherewithal to feed 84,000 starving citizens.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is now working on a list of what is known as the ‘disappeared’ of Pakistan, citizens who are considered a political nuisance, who have been arrested and taken to undisclosed locations. So far, the HRCP can confirm that 242 men have simply disappeared since 2000, 170 of whom hail from the province of Balochistan. To name but a handful of the more prominent Baloch ‘activists’ who have simply disappeared into thin air : Muneer Mengal, Gorem Saleh, Raja Ahmed Khan, Hafiz Saeed ur Rehman Bangalzai, and Ali Asghar Bangalzai. Now, apart from the suffering caused to these men and the other 237, one must also take into account the impact on the families of ‘enforced disappearances’ (as such victims are known by Amnesty International). The families and dependents who have no idea of the whereabouts of the disappeared, or as to whether they are alive or dead, are also victims. Enforced disappearances take a heavy toll on parents, wives, children and other relatives. They suffer extreme anxiety, and are frustrated in the face of pretended official ignorance, contradictions and even harassment.

To quote from a September 2006 Amnesty International report on Pakistan and its dismissal of human rights : “To be unaware of the fate and/or whereabouts of a family member for a prolonged period of time and to fear for his or her life and safety may in itself amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The knowledge that torture is routinely used in Pakistan adds to the dear of the relatives.” There is also economic hardship involved, for when the main earners are victims of enforced disappearances this places a heavy burden on the families left behind.

All we see of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz now (on the front pages of our press) are photographs of him strutting about inspecting honour guards in remote countries of this world, or praying in Makkah. When I last met him, many years ago, he was not an unmitigated whatever. Now, I ask him : “How does it feel being prime minister of a country which ranks as it does in the international statistical records?”

Enjoy !




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