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When one’s house is not a sanctuary

June 21, 2007

THE scene in Awaran village near Mashkay district in Balochistan is one of mourning. Almost every home wears a pall of grief. A young Ali Akber sits in the hostile heat of a dark hovel and tries to console a newly-wed bride and an old mother. His brother Munir Mengal went missing on April 4, 2006, upon arrival from Bahrain at Karachi Airport. Mengal is just one of many whose identity threatens his life.

“He was running a Balochi channel called Baloch Voice. When we went to report the case, we were told that an FIR cannot be registered against an agency so we had to file a petition in the Sindh High Court,” recounts a helpless Ali.

Ali Akber, along with his family, has taken a 100-day hunger strike to Khuzdar, Kalat, Karachi and Islamabad but remains without his brother. “The first phone call came on December 28, 2006, from the Military Intelligence (MI) to say that they will allow two women to meet Munir,” says Akber.

“My mother went with her elder brother to see him. Eight people dressed as civilians brought him and the meeting lasted for two and a half hours in the airport restaurant,” he continues.

Ali Akber says that the officials with Munir asked the family to withdraw their case. “My mother wanted to withdraw it the next day but the judge said that he would reserve it for 20 days and reopen it if he was not returned.”

“The MI called again and changed their demand. They said that we should give an application stating that the agencies did not abduct my brother but Akhter Mengal’s clan was responsible for it. This was a very difficult time but we decided against it,” says a tearful Akber.

The family has not heard from Munir again and the case continues. “My mother has been very ill and bed-ridden for four months. My sister-in-law, who married Munir just two months before he was taken away, and I have not sat for our exams. We heard some weeks ago that he had been taken to Rawalpindi from Karachi,” he says.

Munir and hundreds of others were gone in a heartbeat. Picked up from obscure streets or yanked out of their homes, these men are not safe anywhere. When the blindfold comes off, most find themselves in dark, damp cells with blood on the walls, where whips of rubber, leather belts and drills are wielded at them. The torment has been indefinite for most.

For Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, it lasted six months where he was stripped naked and hung from the ceiling for hours on end, deprived of sleep for many days and given anaesthesia injections. Baloch returned on a stretcher. He was in hospital for three days and could not stand for two months.

This was easier than Sattar Baloch’s agony. Sattar came back with holes drilled into his feet and many months later, he is still trying to stand. Dr Hanif Shareef was also kept for six months and says that it is unlikely that he will ever lead a normal life. “They gave electric currents to my genitals and I have not recovered in so many months,” cries Shareef.

Kazim Bugti, nazim of Dera Bugti, was picked up on November 22, 2006, when he came to meet his mother in Karachi and his whereabouts remain unknown. Former detainees say they have heard him crying for his medicines.

“Munir said that he had not seen any light for five months and was given food only once a day,” remembers Ali Akber.

However, Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema of the National Crisis Cell dismisses such stories as incorrect. “The government does not believe in maltreatment of those who have been confined, extrajudicial custody, or illegal confinement. Nobody has come to us with complaints of torture,” says Cheema.

Zafar Jan, a member of the central organisation committee of Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) says that in the last three years, a large number of people went missing but not one has appeared in court. “Those who have returned say there are innumerable people there. They have a Kuli camp in Quetta and two camps in Karachi. One is in Cantonment and the other is in Malir Cantt,” says Jan.

Jan claims that the camp in Quetta is far crueler than the ones in Karachi and people are tortured to own up to being a part of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). Sher Mohammed Baloch is one of many kidnapped by the authorities. “He was in a rally and taken away in front of the entire public but officials blatantly deny it.”

Jan maintains that most of the victims belong to the JWP, Baloch Students Organisation or to the Bugti or Marri belt. “Many, like Gohram Saleh who was a driver, have nothing to do with politics but have not been spared.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) claims that out of the 99 complaints registered in 2006, 73 were Baloch and maintains that 70 per cent of these people are not ‘jihadis’. “We have 400 complaints from all over the country and out of these, 340 are Baloch,” says Ejaz Hassan of HRCP.

So far, approximately 10 Balochs have been released. The highest number of disappearances occurred in 2006 with 93 cases and 35 cases were reported in 2005. Interestingly, the Baluchvoice website records 262 abductees.

Cheema, on the other hand, calls HRCP records ‘scanty’. “There are no addresses and parentage of many people and only their names and provinces are mentioned, so how can we embark on a wild goose chase in so many cases,” he says. “Out of all those who were missing and not specifically Balochs, approximately 108 have been traced out.”

But an irate Jamil Bugti says: “It is a war zone. This is ethnic cleansing on a smaller scale. There is no way to obtain real figures because most people are afraid to report a case. Many a time, those who go to the police station do not return either.”

Bugti also recounts meeting Rauf Sasoli, an activist of the JWP. Sasoli was recently released by the spy services. “The man is destroyed. He is like a zombie because of the torture inflicted on him,” comments Bugti.

The spy arm’s bid to quell the impending insurgency in Balochistan seems to have swept up more innocents than suspected dissidents. But despite dismal returns, numbers continue to grow by the day.

For most, the safest place to fall foul of the law would be home. But for those whose greatest crime is to belong to an area rooted in bitter conflict, even this is not an option.