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Herald Exclusive: Khuzdar, the city of padlocks

Updated 10 Apr, 2015 11:10am

By Maqbool Ahmed

It was only five in the afternoon but the owner of a shop selling automobile parts along Khuzdar city’s Chakar Khan Road was in a hurry. Almost shouting at his lone salesman to bring back display items into the shop, he urged him to pull the shutters down as early as possible. The shop owner was visibly relieved that he was able to shut down the shop “just in time”. Within half an hour, not a single shop was open on the entire road. Same was at the case in other commercial centres of the city, such as Chandni Chowk and Rabia Khuzdari Chowk.

Not all the shops will reopen the next morning, says the shop owner. “A large number of shops in Khuzdar city have been closed for months, some for more than a year, as their owners have left for other places, fearing for their safety,” he says. He himself is unable to shake off his fear. “Please don’t mention my name or identify my shop in your report,” he says the moment he realises that he has been speaking to a journalist. “It is a small town and I will be easily spotted,” he says without specifying who he fears the most: Baloch separatist militants, security and intelligence agencies or a local pro-state militia.

Law and order in the city are, indeed, vulnerable. Well before dusk officials of the Balochistan Levies, a tribal police force, and a special anti-terrorist force stand guard at all entry points of the city, some of them covering their faces for fear of being recognised. Security officials are also stationed on all the main streets — at a distance of just 30 to 50 metres from each other.

For the last five years or so, Khuzdar has become a no-go area for not only outsiders but most of those who once lived there but had to leave due to incidents of targeted killing and kidnapping for ransom.

Khuzdar, located 285 kilometres to the north-west of Karachi on the RCD Highway which leads to Quetta, wears the look of a city under siege. Travelling from the military cantonment on its southern edge to the offices of the civilian administration on the other side of the city, the only impression one gets is of an uneasy quiet, ensured through fear and the use of force. For the last five years or so, Khuzdar has become a no-go area for not only outsiders but most of those who once lived there but had to leave due to incidents of targeted killing and kidnapping for ransom.

Nadeem Gurgnari is one of them. A former president of the Khuzdar Press Club, he now lives in Hub town near Karachi, miles away from his home. During a meeting in Hub early last month, he tells the Herald that more than 60 per cent of Khuzdar’s 70,000 people have migrated to Balochistan’s Lasbela district and various rural districts of Sindh. Deserted houses and closed businesses dominate the cityscape.

Members of the Balochistan Union of Journalists pray for Imran Sheikh – a journalist killed in a bomb blast – outside the Quetta Press Club. — Reuters
Members of the Balochistan Union of Journalists pray for Imran Sheikh – a journalist killed in a bomb blast – outside the Quetta Press Club. — Reuters

Gurgnari traces the origin of trouble in Khuzdar to the mid-2000s when rivalries between two political groups flared up into violence. At the time, a local politician, Naseer Mengal, who is known to be close to the security establishment, was serving as a federal minister. His son, Shafiq Mengal, was tehsil nazim of Wadh, which is also the home town of Balochistan’s first chief minister, Attaullah Mengal, and his son, Akhtar Mengal, who has also served as the province’s chief minister. Given that Attaullah Mengal and Akhtar Mengal were on the wrong side of the politics of then president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf in those years, Naseer Mengal and Shafiq Mengal thought they could strengthen their political base with official patronage. Besides being able to throw official money at local people to win support, the two also launched a propaganda campaign against Attaullah Mengal andhis son. “Shafiq Mengal would often tell journalists that Akhtar Mengal and his father were creating hurdles in development schemes that he wanted to carry out in Wadh,” Gurgnari says. Such accusations soon flared into a full-fledged conflict and the two sides started targeting each other in armed attacks, he adds.

Gurgnari traces the origin of trouble in Khuzdar to the mid-2000s when rivalries between two political groups flared up into violence.

At about the same time, many separatist Baloch militant groups started operating in the province, including in Khuzdar, in the wake of the 2006 assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti. For people such as Naseer Mengal and his son Shafiq, this offered another opportunity to consolidate their power. Shafiq soon raised a militia, initially named the Baloch Musallah Difa Tanzeem but now called Baloch Musallah Difa Army, and started attacking the separatist militants.

It is no longer a secret that the intelligence agencies helped him in this endeavour, says a political analyst in Quetta. Fearing for his safety, however, he wishes to remain unnamed. Since then, Shafiq Mengal has used his armed men to not only attack and kill separatist militants but also to decimate his political opponents in particular, and terrorise the local residents of Khuzdar in general, he adds.

“On October 4, 2007, I was going home from the press club when some people kidnapped me on gunpoint. They kept asking me why I had published the report and kept moving me from one place to another,” says Riaz. “My captors then handed me over to another group which told me that I was originally kidnapped by Attaur Rehman’s men.”

By May this year, Shafiq Mengal had become so powerful that his men would target even security officials. That month they killed eight men from the Balochistan Levies at a checkpoint near Wadh, 70 kilometres to the south of Khuzdar. Under pressure from within after the murder of Levies officials, security agencies have withdrawn their public support for Shafiq Mengal and his militia but local sources insist that he continues to receive official backing, at least tacitly.

His name also remains a symbol of fear in Khuzdar. When this correspondent tried to make phone calls to government officials in the city, a local contact advised against it. “Do not try to contact any government official. Shafiq Mengal’s men are sitting in every office. Your identity as a journalist will alert them and this can endanger your life,” the contact warns.

This correspondent disregarded his advice and tried contacting the deputy commissioner on his cell phone anyway. Despite several attempts, however, there was no response. The deputy commissioner did not even respond to a text message sent to him seeking a brief meeting.


Freedom suppressed

Journalists shout slogans during a demonstration protesting the killing of a television reporter in Khuzdar. — AFP
Journalists shout slogans during a demonstration protesting the killing of a television reporter in Khuzdar. — AFP

Amnesty International, in its report earlier this year, termed Khuzdar a “graveyard for journalists”. Reporters Without Borders included the city in its global list of 10 extremely dangerous cities for journalists.

Riaz Mengal, also a former president of the Khuzdar Press Club, is the veritable symbol of the dangerous threat that has befallen the press in the city. In September 2007, he was on his routine reporting duties for an Urdu daily newspaper published from both Karachi and Hub. His sources told him that local police were giving away stolen vehicles to some locally influential people from the area. This was unlawful since these vehicles were considered evidence in the criminal case.

After his escape, he reached a village near Surgaz area in Mastung district, where nobody believed that he was a journalist. His clothes were tattered, his beard unshaven and unkempt, and his appearance resembled that of a beggar. The villagers gave him money which helped him reach the Quetta Press Club where he held a press conference and narrated his ordeal.

Riaz wrote a story based on the information he had and his newspaper published that since he had all the evidence to back it up. Trouble ensued soon after. “I had not thought that someone would be offended by a routine story,” he recalls. A day after the story was published, he received a call from Attaur Rehman Mengal, son of Naseer Mengal and a brother of Shafiq Mengal. “He demanded that I publish a denial of the report. I refused to do that since I had all the necessary proof,” says Riaz during a recent conversation at the Herald’s office in Karachi.

Attaur Rehman kept threatening him to force him to publish a denial. “On October 4, 2007, I was going home from the press club when some people kidnapped me on gunpoint. They kept asking me why I had published the report and kept moving me from one place to another,” says Riaz. “My captors then handed me over to another group which told me that I was originally kidnapped by Attaur Rehman’s men.” The second group kept him imprisoned somewhere in the mountains. He managed to escape on November 25, 2007.

After his escape, he reached a village near Surgaz area in Mastung district, where nobody believed that he was a journalist. His clothes were tattered, his beard unshaven and unkempt, and his appearance resembled that of a beggar. The villagers gave him money which helped him reach the Quetta Press Club where he held a press conference and narrated his ordeal. He also lodged a case against Attaur Rehman and his accomplices. Initially the provincial police’s crime branch in Quetta started investigating the incident and also arrested some people working for Attaur Rehman. But the accused later managed to have the case transferred to some other section of the police which gave them a clean chit, citing lack of evidence. The arrested men were also released. Riaz Mengal challenged the police investigation at the Balochistan High Court, where the case is still pending.

— Compiled from Amnesty International’s A Bullet Has Been Chosen For You, April 2014
— Compiled from Amnesty International’s A Bullet Has Been Chosen For You, April 2014

On September 29, 2011, says the journalist, Shafiq Mengal called him at the Khuzdar Press Club and threatened to kill him. This forced the former press club president to leave Khuzdar with his family. “On June 11, 2013, my newspaper stopped carrying my reports; instead of supporting me, the management terminated me,” he says. This professional loss was still bearable compared to the personal tragedy that befell him later.

His younger brother, Aijaz Mengal, also a reporter in Khuzdar, covered the story of mass graves found in Khuzdar’s Tutak area earlier this year. The story was published in a Khuzdar-based Urdu daily on January 25, 2014. Three weeks later, Aijaz Mengal was returning home with a friend from the press club when he was targeted by unknown armed men and killed. “At the time no male member of my family was present in Khuzdar,” says Riaz Mengal. “I wanted to be there but my relatives told me that some armed men were not allowing the burial of my brother and they could target me too. I made arrangements for shifting my brother’s body to Larnaka where he is buried now,” he says.

Riaz Mengal says his brother was killed on the same day that a tribunal meeting for the investigation of Tutak’s mass graves was held in Khuzdar, signifying a government failure to protect those who could testify in cases involving human rights abuses and gruesome killings.

Lack of security has intensified his personal predicament too. “How can I follow the investigation into my brother’s murder in these circumstances?” he asks as tears roll down his cheeks.


Silence or death

Across the RCD Highway from the official residence of Kalat Division Commissioner, a pillared entrance bears a signboard – Khuzdar Press Club – written in Urdu. Behind the entrance is a bungalow spread over 600 or so square yards. The iron gate that leads into the deserted building is padlocked and officials of the province’s Frontier Corps (FC) and Balochistan Levies stand guard beside it round the clock.

The gate of the press club was locked after its treasurer, Munir Shakir, was killed in August 2011. There was no one left in the city who was willing to keep it open and risk their lives. Shakir’s was the fourth killing of a member of the press club in two years. The first was Wasi Ahmed Qureshi, a reporter based in Khuzdar, who was killed in 2009. Only days after his killing, Faizuddin Sasoli, a former president of the press club, was murdered. In 2010, another president of the press club, Muhammad Khan Sasoli, was gunned down.

In 2011, Shafiq Mengal’s Balochistan Musallah Difa Army issued a list containing the names of many Khuzdar-based journalists, declaring them enemies of Pakistan and Balochistan, says Gurgnari.

Gurgnari, who has worked twice as the president of the press club, tells the Herald that the building is an old government structure acquired by local journalists. Two rooms and a hall inside it also served as the offices of Khuzdar correspondents of various regional and national dailies. They would send their reports to their organisation through phone, fax and online.

In 2011, Shafiq Mengal’s Balochistan Musallah Difa Army issued a list containing the names of many Khuzdar-based journalists, declaring them enemies of Pakistan and Balochistan, says Gurgnari. On October 6, 2012, Abdul Haq, the general secretary of the press club, was killed. His name was on the list.

A day before Eidul Azha in 2012, Gurgnari’s eldest son, Siraj Ahmed, went to the bazaar for shopping along with his younger brother, Manzoor Ahmed. Both were killed there in a targeted attack. Siraj was working for an international non-governmental organisation in Naseerabad and had come to Khuzdar to celebrate Eid with family, says Gurgnari. Manzoor was a lecturer of Physics at Balochistan Residential College, Khuzdar.

A few days after losing his two sons, Gurgnari shifted to Hub where he now sells eggs to make ends meet.

This article was published in the Herald November 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe to the Herald.