QUETTA had changed in the past few years. Shaal, as the city is known, was strangely still before the latest carnage. Anger and resentment at the state apparatus had gone mute.
For the Baloch, it’s been replaced by fear of the state — spilling into fear of the informer, the neighbour, social media monitoring and public places. The outrage at disappearances reduced to murmurs, sympathy for Baloch insurgents dispelled, and clarity blurred in the fog of war. Resigned, they say that demanding justice from a hapless government is pointless.
The Hazaras no longer demand protection. Instead, they quietly file for asylum elsewhere. They point to a pattern: terror attack, condemnations, assurances, stepped-up security, normalisation, dilution of measures, repeat. Both friends and strangers are apologetic when they refuse to sit on a bus with them or allow them into their shops — not because they’re bigoted but because they fear being targeted with them.
The educated and the youth, harbingers of tomorrow, are being targeted: the Hazaras by the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi; civil leadership by the TTP and its factions; settler (abadgaar) professionals and jawans by Baloch secessionist groups; and dissident Baloch students and leaders by security forces.
The damp and the dry both burn.
The decay is deep. There’s no water in Quetta; the water table has plunged from 12 metres to 245m,. The city that rose, literally from the ashes after the 1935 earthquake, is bleeding again — and Balochistan is haemorrhaging. While poverty has fallen nationally, it has increased to cover over half of Balochistan’s population, more than doubling in rural areas in 25 years. The five worst districts in Pakistan ranked by the Human Development Index are in Balochistan. Maternal mortality is almost three times higher than in other provinces. By private estimates, over 15pc of people have Hepatitis B or C. This is despite enormous discretionary development funds given to the provincial set-up.
There are the geopolitical interests of international players, each with their own betting horses, and the Pakistani state rearing with all its internal contradictions, all overlooking the fact that racecourses are generally elliptical: after all the veering away, adrenaline, fatigue, stress, billions in cost, wins and losses, you come back to where you started. Foreign arms, money or champions can only turn the brittle battleground into quicksand. Modi’s machinations to deflect from Kashmir will only strengthen the militarised approach to the province. Those in the Baloch diaspora who welcome this intervention do so by glossing over its outfall on those who continue to live there.
In the latest terrorist attack, most of the over 70 killed were lawyers. The law community has been targeted before at the district courts; Civil Hospital has also been bombed before — the targeting tactics used in this attack are not novel. To peg it on CPEC is an amnesia-inducing effort to position this attack as a new challenge under new circumstances. The follow-up bombing on Zarghoon Road, in the red zone, further exposes the veneer of security. While every attack cannot be pre-empted, this wasn’t a Loralai bazaar or Harnai hospital — almost every kilometre in Quetta has a visible security presence.
For several years, Balochistan’s people had been warning of religious militants making inroads. Their society is under siege; staggered bombings designed to ensure social breakdown. Ask Peshawar. Empathy and trust are fractured to create atomised life where people cannot help each other without the threat of death. The result is a mode of individual survival where collective identity and citizenship become impossible. And it’s working.
In the search for explanations, we could stop scrutinising route maps and security points around CPEC and look up. Among the four mountains that surround Quetta is Chiltan — or Chehl-tan, meaning ‘40 bodies’ — towering over 3,000m. Legend goes that a childless couple asked a holy man to help them conceive but he refused saying it was against nature’s wishes. They persisted; so he gave them 40 pebbles. They soon had 40 sons. Realising they could not afford to take care of them all, they chose one and abandoned the others atop the mountain. Years later, when guilt prompted them to return to bury them, they found them hale and hearty. The 39 snatched their brother from their parents in revenge and fled, never to be seen again. It is said they continue to haunt Chiltan.
The legend is a parable today, a lesson that if you pick and choose between those who you created, the ones you decide to keep will eventually be lost to the ones you tried to abandon.
The old Brahui-speaking men at roadsides en route to Chiltan may add another dictum to this tale: don’t spawn what is unnatural. Those who speak Balochi may narrate another proverb: when the fires rage, the damp and the dry, both burn.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2016