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The face of impunity in Balochistan – I

Updated April 17, 2014
This file photo shows a group of Levies personnel. - File Photo
This file photo shows a group of Levies personnel. - File Photo

TURBAT: Along a quiet stretch of Pasni Road, a few kilometres out of Turbat, the tortured body of 19-year-old Naseem Jan Mohammad was discovered a few days ago. “He had been missing for four days,” says a relative. “Two other people from the same village are still missing, and this is a village of only 50 houses.”

The recent abduction and subsequent grim outcome have exacerbated the fear that pervades the area. “I live and work here but I’m too afraid to even go to the market,” reveals an acquaintance of Naseem Jan.

This part of the highway, which could be described as bucolic if one didn’t know better, has a sordid history. It has served as the dumping ground for the bodies of many a Baloch – often merely teenagers – abducted from busy markets in broad daylight, while travelling along quiet country roads, even while asleep at home. Most bodies display signs of torture; many are mauled by wild animals by the time some shepherd stumbles across them.

Turbat is the headquarters of Kech district, which is in southern Balochistan’s Makran belt. Other districts in Makran include Pasni, Gwadar and Mand districts. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), there have been at least 292 enforced disappearances in Makran since 2004.

“The total is probably closer to 500 but we know of about 300 confirmed cases,” says Ghani Parwaz, the HRCP representative in Turbat. “Of these, nearly 100 had been found tortured and dumped, while 150 or so detainees have been released; at least 48 are still missing – 32 from Kech, nine from Gwadar, seven from Panjgur.” (Many more are killed in armed encounters.)

Time and again, residents of Turbat while talking to this correspondent alleged that the Frontier Corps (FC), elements from intelligence agencies and state-sponsored Baloch groups are responsible for the abductions.

They speak of the dread in which they live, not knowing who will be next. “Turbat is not a city for young men any longer,” says a resident.

Anyone with separatist sympathies, it seems, is fair game. Last December a well-known lawyer and social worker, 28-year-old Haider K.B., went missing. “He was picked up by the FC while on his way home from court. He has yet to be found, alive or dead,” says a friend. Bar associations in Turbat and even in Lahore have protested his disappearance, to no avail.

Captain Usman Ahmed, second-in-command of the FC in Turbat, vehemently denies the allegations. “The fact is that whenever we move in a convoy, we invariably come under attack from the Baloch insurgents, and we naturally have to retaliate. But we never barge into homes and pick up people.”

Kech district, particularly the areas lying north and east of Turbat, is one of the major flashpoints in the Baloch insurgency. The banned militant organisations, the Balochistan Liberation Front and Baloch Republican Army, have a significant presence here. So do the state’s security forces, in the form of the FC – known as Makran Scouts here which has checkposts all over the city.

Shocking case

Until a few years ago, those subjected to enforced disappearance were often released through the courts. That changed in April 2009 with a particularly shocking case that sparked protests in several cities. Three prominent Baloch nationalists – Lala Munir, Sher Mohammed Baloch and Ghulam Mohammed Baloch – were picked up from the office of their lawyer, Kachkol Ali, who was present at the time.

“Intelligence officials abducted them and the FC was deployed on the road outside,” says Mr Ali from Norway where he now lives in self-exile as a result of threats he has received, he says, from intelligence agencies.

(An acquaintance of Sher Mohammed Baloch remembers that the latter received a phone call in his presence that left him shaken. “When I asked Sher Mohammed who it was, he said it was someone from the FC threatening his life.”)

Three days later, the horribly decomposed bodies of the men were discovered just off Pasni Road. According to a witness, “When the police superintendent at the scene began to weep at the sight, I couldn’t control my tears either.”

Since then, no disappeared person from the area has been released through the courts.

Before the insurgency set Makran aflame, Turbat was a peaceful town of about 250,000. Residents recall with nostalgia the time when people would throng the main bazaar, sitting at roadside cafes until well after midnight. Now, darkness descends on the town centre at 8.30pm as everyone rushes home. Even the FC, whose trucks bulldoze their way through the streets during the day, retreats from its checkposts to the safety of its camp.

Parts of Turbat are considered “no-go” areas for the FC, areas such as Kahnay Pusht, where support for the insurgency is particularly strong. Wall chalkings in the narrow streets here are blatantly anti-state; some salute the “martyrs” of the conflict.

In parts of town where security forces can patrol more easily, one can see such graffiti daubed over with “Pakistan Zindabad”, etc. Every cemetery is home to at least some graves of militants; they are recognisable by the ‘free Balochistan’ flag draped over them. According to a resident, “Sometimes the flags are removed by the FC, but they reappear again.”

This cat-and-mouse game between the insurgents and the state often explodes into open violence. Armed encounters in the area have taken more than a dozen lives recently. About a month ago in Chahsar locality, in the midst of some date palm orchards, five young men were killed in an encounter with the FC late in the evening. They had reportedly been distributing separatist pamphlets when they were ambushed.

“He was late, and I heard the sound of gunfire, so I called his mobile,” says Mah Khatoon, mother of one of those killed. “When it was received by someone speaking Pashto, I knew.” (Most FC personnel stationed in Turbat are Pashto-speaking men.)

Vicious cycle

While several Turbat residents have no hesitation in saying that many of those killed, allegedly by security forces, are connected to the insurgency in some capacity or the other, they maintain that enforced disappearances, staged encounters, and the kill-and-dump policy are not only unjustifiable on moral or legal grounds, but that they further inflame the situation.

“They kill militants even if they choose to surrender,” says Ahmed Baloch. He narrates the story of a raid conducted on a house in Darmakol village in nearby Pidarak.

“Following an exchange of gunfire, the residents – the father who was a poet, two sons and two cousins – came out to surrender led by the women of the family. The FC killed four of the male members right there in front of the mother and sisters whom they kicked brutally as they tried to intervene. Then they picked up the 80-year-old father, shot him dead and dumped him elsewhere.”

According to Qadir Baloch, another local, “They don’t even spare children. In Kechwar a few days ago, they killed five 14- or 15-year-old boys in an encounter.”

One 17-year-old named Ayaz, who worked at a barber’s shop, was picked up three months ago on suspicion of sending provisions to insurgents. He is still missing.

The families of insurgents or those picked up on mere suspicion of harbouring separatist sympathies, or those who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, virtually have no recourse to justice.

“The police and Levies, depending on who’s in charge of the area, won’t name the perpetrators in the FIRs of missing people,” says Mr Parwaz. “They say that to do so will put their jobs, their very lives in danger.”

At times the police/Levies won’t even file an FIR. Another social activist narrates a case of enforced disappearance in Nasirabad, about 20kms away, in which all the men of a family, except for one who went into hiding, were abducted. “The tehsildar refused to file an FIR, saying ‘we know the security forces have done this but we can’t interfere in their actions. They’re not in our control’.”

The best the families can hope for is that their loved ones will be released unharmed. Those who have been set free, something that depends entirely on their captors’ whim, speak of being confined in a small room with one meal a day, beaten, sometimes severely – and perhaps most chillingly – hearing the sound of the sobbing of other detainees. A few have witnessed others being tortured.

Most of those who return, however, are too traumatised to talk about their ordeal and move out of the area, afraid that people will suspect them of having become informers for the security forces in exchange for their freedom. They may have escaped death, but their lives are never the same again.

Some names have been changed to protect people’s identity.

(To be concluded)