Lateef Johar has been on a hunger strike for more than a month (at the time of writing the review), camping in scorching heat outside the Karachi Press Club. Protesting against the abduction of Zahid Baloch, chairman of the Baloch Students Organisation-Azad, Johar says he will continue his hunger strike until the whereabouts of their missing leader is established. If he dies, one of 13 students who have pledged to continue the protest will take his place. Zahid Baloch, one of hundreds of Baloch men reportedly missing, was abducted from Quetta on March 18 this year, allegedly by soldiers from the Frontier Corps. When his family and colleagues went to register a First Information Report with the police against his disappearance, they were told a case cannot be lodged.
Human rights activists, including 72-year-old Abdul Qadeer Baloch (Mama Qadeer) from the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), claim that secret disappearances of young Baloch men, allegedly abducted, tortured and detained by security forces for months and even years is common given the culture of impunity permitted by the state. VBMP has recorded 2,900 cases of enforced disappearances in the last five years. Some are killed, bodies dumped on roadsides or found in unmarked graves. Sometimes victims reappear after months and even years in detention.
As Jalil Raki’s father — Raki was the information secretary of the Baloch Republican Party — Mama Qadeer has suffered the loss of his son. Raki was abducted in 2009 and his mutilated body was found two years later in November 2011, shot through the heart. The face of the campaign protesting enforced disappearances, Mama Qadeer, along with other Baloch activists, has been threatened for his activities. Families of missing men have marched thousands of miles from Quetta to other cities, women tightly clutching framed photographs of brothers, husbands, sons, grandsons. Outside press clubs relatives stand in a line behind photographs of loved ones and wait. The police are more often than not known for not registering reports of missing persons. Security agencies deny knowledge of the disappeared men, despite numerous judgments given by the Supreme Court demanding answers regarding their role in rights abuses and arbitrary detentions.
Jalil Raki’s sister is photographed by French photojournalist, Marc Wattrelot, in Balochistan at a Crossroads, a book that can be read somewhat as a journalist’s (macabre) travel guide to Balochistan. Wearing a flowered chador, her dark eyes looking at his lens, her fingers clasp the picture of a dead man. Jet-black brushed hair neatly arranged and an ink-coloured moustache portrays a serious-minded young man. Wattrelot also includes photographs of abducted and tortured Baloch survivors — such as filmmaker Mustapha Raisini who disappeared in 2004 and was held for two years and Imdad Baloch, a former head of a pro-independence movement who was abducted from Karachi and tortured in detention.
Author of Balochistan, Willem Marx, who met Wattrelot at the Quetta Press Club, first travelled through the province in 2007, determined to investigate stories he had heard about Balochistan and its history. The narrative and photographs speak of human rights abuses that the Pakistani press dare not report, as well as of economic disparities and insurgencies that have made the lives of ordinary Baloch people difficult and dangerous.
Based on Marx and Wattrelot’s experiences traversing a rugged and inhospitable landscape on numerous occasions, where few local journalists have access and where foreigners are banned from entry unless special permissions and visas are granted, this book captures the land’s harshness and its people’s resilience and fight. Last month, Marx told an audience at the Frontline Club, London, that he was given a visa in 2007 to document the political and economic changes taking place in the province. Although he had returned in 2009 to report on the leadership of the Afghan Taliban or the Quetta Shura, he was denied a visa shortly after the book’s publication this year.
As a documented photo-narrative into the heart of Balochistan, the book is a straightforward outsider’s account. It has information from interviews with the likes of militant fighters and oil smugglers straddling the Pakistan-Iran border and clearly reminds at numerous instances that you need a strong heart to report from these districts. In its report on Pakistan’s media this year, Amnesty International noted that out of 34 journalists killed since March 2008, 12 have died in Balochistan and of these, six in the town of Khuzdar. Reporting from volatile districts — such as Khuzdar, where mass graves were discovered earlier this year — has become a dangerous proposition for journalists and researchers who are pressured by all sides, including intelligence agencies, when they investigate rights abuses and enforced disappearances.
However, unprecedented access, curiosity, luck and a well-connected driver and fixer meant Marx and Wattrelot had companions they could rely on and who wanted the story documented. The ordinary Baloch wants to be included, Marx says about the people he met on his travels, and “it is the future to which they are all looking, often with trepidation.” Interviewing local dissident leaders, nationalist guerrilla fighters, Pakhtun mine workers, student activists, mothers of missing men and politicians, Marx and Wattrelot were able to access the darkest stories, document rapid socio-political changes and the army’s counterinsurgency strategies. They traversed more than 500 miles of Balochistan’s coastline with “mangrove swamps, dolphin reserves, golden sands,” and seem to have successfully dodged questions from military men and security forces.
Despite its deposits of natural gas and mineral wealth, according to the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources, only 13 towns in Balochistan have natural gas facilities, with 59 per cent of the urban population without basic energy. It is the least literate province in Pakistan with an adult literacy rate of 18 per cent and infant mortality rate of 130 for every thousand births. Balochistan lacks accessible schools, health facilities and jobs for its people — despite the Gwadar port project.
Deprivation and economic disparity has fuelled disillusionment. Calls from separatists for a pro-independence movement are nestled in history as Marx discovered when he met Karima Baloch. She is same student leader who now sits with Lateef Johar outside Karachi’s Press Club, demanding that the Quetta police register a FIR against Zahid Baloch’s alleged disappearance. Karima’s history lesson traces the Baloch people’s deep resentment to Partition when Makran, Kharan and Lasbela were annexed by Pakistan.
There is a phrase in Balochi which translates as “he’s gone to the mountains,” implying that a member of a family has gone to fight with the insurgency. Wattrelot photographs men living a guerrilla existence, focused on a struggle defined as a “movement of national liberation.” Comprising various Baloch tribes — Marris, Mengals and Zehris — most fighters have a university education, operate in camps of around 12 men and believe that the Pakistani state is the occupier using brutal methods to subjugate. Marx argues that this strategy targeting non-violent elements of the nationalist movement — including enforced disappearances of student leaders — is alienating the Baloch even more.
There are telling photographs of BLA fighters, the most riveting of which is of them dancing at night by the light of a camp fire. The strain of living in the mountains tells on their appearance as they cradle long barrel rifles, some with their faces covered. Another photograph, taken before he fled for Afghanistan and set against a vast landscape dotted with stones and tribesmen in the distance, captures Brahamdagh Bugti half-smiling in a Fedora-like hat.
However, Marx is not unaware of the attacks on civilians, including school teachers, professors and doctors in Quetta, which takes away the moral high ground that Baloch nationalists have used to reset sympathy for their cause. Their cause doesn’t excuse them from acts of terror targeting civilians. The Sibi train attack in April, claimed by the United Baloch Army, killed 16.
Marx also recounts his 2007 meeting with Abdul Malik Rigi, the young leader of a Sunni militant group Jundullah known for its audacious attacks on Iran’s military and government from the Balochistan-Iran border region. The writer says he was “loathe to spend too much time in his company,” though clearly mesmerised by Rigi’s charisma. The group which had claimed responsibility for attacks against government forces in Sistan-Baluchestan province and had been supported by Baloch refugees in Europe had targeted Shias in Iran. In this rare interview, Rigi claims he was not fighting for an independent Balochistan. Marx’s account of the meeting is detailed but doesn’t address the talk about Jundullah’s meetings with American officials regarding the group’s activities in Iran.
What you take away from this first-hand narrative is that the array of militant organisations operational in Balochistan and the young and proud student activists fighting for their rights are not the products of current times only. History (of disillusionment with the state) drives their cause. There is beauty in barrenness and resilience in a troubled past that stretches beyond state boundaries.
Balochistan at a Crossroads
By Willem Marx and Marc Wattrelot
Niyogi Books, New Delhi