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When pride stands in the way of tears

July 13, 2006

Balochistan diaries: Our special correspondent Bahzad Alam Khan has just returned from Balochistan. This is the first of a series of reports

DEH KHALIAN (District Jafarabad): Fifty-something Fateh Ali says he is too proud a Baloch to cry over the death of a child in public. Yet he struggles to hold back his tears as he recalls how his young daughter was killed when army helicopter gunships strafed the suburbs of Dera Bugti one chilly night last December in an operation that was ostensibly meant to target militants engaged in anti-state guerilla warfare.    

“My girl had just had her evening meal when she was hit by shrapnel from one of the many bombs dropped by the army helicopters that hovered over our mud-brick huts near Haft Wali for hours that night. The troops who took part in the operation must have known full well that they were attacking a civilian settlement unable to return fire,” he says, clenching his fists in helpless anger. “I wish I had the means to take revenge.”    

Ali now lives with hundred-odd Bugti tribesmen on desolate farmland irrigated by the Pat Feeder canal, lined with eucalyptus and acacia trees, in Jafarabad.

With womenfolk confined to an improvised thatched hut, the men, with long-barreled rifles slung over their shoulders, lazily take turns to graze whatever cattle they are left with.    

“The army helicopters destroyed our standing wheat crops. They also destroyed the grain stored from last year’s crop.

We fled the area in such haste that we left behind the bodies of our near and dear ones unburied. Our children are not going to school anymore and young, able-bodied members of our tribe, who were previously employed, are constantly harried by law-enforcement agencies,” says Ali Nawaz.    

Showing remarkable courage in the face of adversity, these displaced tribesmen say they still look up to Nawab Akbar Bugti with unimpaired loyalty.

Asked how they would have felt if the Nawab had mended fences with the establishment through negotiations and they would not have been dislodged from their ancestral towns, they give incensed looks and a curt reply: “No, the Nawab is a fighter.

“Like us, he is also suffering. And we will go back to Dera Bugti only when he returns to his house. We will win our war,” says Nawaz with the resolution of an armed warrior, although, by his own admission, his only worldly possession is a worn-out sheepskin water-container, known as the “khalli” in the vernacular.      

It is unclear how many Bugti displaced people (DPs) actually poured into neighbouring cities and towns following the outbreak of hostilities between the warring tribesmen and the law-enforcement agencies in the early summer of last year.    

The Dera Bugti Nazim, Kazim Bugti, puts the number of DPs at over a hundred thousand. His assertions about the involvement of army helicopters in Dera Bugti military operations lend credence to the claims of the DPs. The accusation is stoutly denied by the government, however.    

The vice-president of the Jamhori Watan Party, Rafiq Ahmed Khoso, says that not only were sophisticated weapons used against largely unprotected civilian settlements but relief workers were also turned away. “I visited many camps of DPs in Nasirabad, Jafarabad, Kashmore and other neighbouring towns. And I was told that Edhi relief volunteers were asked either to leave or operate among DPs without government security.”    

However, a spokesman for the Edhi Foundation says that a four-member team visited camps of DPs in Jafarabad, Nasirabad and Dera Murad Jamali about two months back and returned only when Dera Bugti’s top bureaucracy chief, Abdul Samad Lasi, told them that they would be called when needed. “Mr Lasi assured us that the government would do all it could to help the DPs,” says the spokesman.    

“You can ask anybody here whether he has received government assistance or not. Their answer will be a big ‘no’,” says Mr Khoso, pointing to the Bugti tribesmen in Deh Khalian. They nod in agreement.     But just as the government is rattled about the flight of warlike Bugtis into other areas, people of neighbouring towns and cities view their influx with ill-concealed unease. According to former prime minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, whose constituency (NA-266) is currently playing host to thousands of DPs, Bugti tribesmen can hardly be expected to be greeted with open arms in Nasirabad and Jafarabad, strongholds of the Jamali tribe.    

“Bugti DPs are a problem for us. You see, they are not accustomed to living in peace and harmony. In the past, they lived by plunder and loot. Such offences obviously did not add to their popularity among the people of neighbouring cities who were their victims. But the government seems to be determined to change the demographic complexion of Dera Bugti,” says Mr Jamali alluding to the recent migration of Kalpar and Masouri who were in the bad books of Nawab Akbar Bugti.    

It is widely believed that the Kalpars and Masouris returned to their ancestral towns in Dera Bugti only when they were guaranteed continued state protection and a steady supply of funds, weapons and food.    

“This is nothing but a rumour,” says Mohammad Kalpar (named changed on request) in Dera Murad Jamali.    

“Of course we need protection in an area dominated for long by our enemies. But one thing gives me sleepless nights. I know that sooner or later the government will strike a deal with the Nawab, who has not been killed by troops despite the fact that they know very well where he is in the mountains. And when that happens, the Nawab will persecute us with a vengeance.

We have been betrayed by the government at least twice in the past. How do we know that we won’t be betrayed again?” he asks.