Pakistani bystanders gather beside a bullet-riddled bus following an attack on a pilgrims bus by a gunman on the outskirts of Quetta on June 22, 2011. – AFP Photo

QUETTA: “They keep changing the menu,” a hotel attendant in Quetta sums up the scale and scope of the target killing of settlers in Balochistan. “Almost all non-Baloch are on their hit-list.”

Nearly 1,200 settlers are estimated to have been killed across Balochistan, mostly in what are referred to as hit-and-run incidents and grenade attacks on their businesses and homes. According to Balochistan Punjabi Ittehad, some 200,000 people have fled Balochistan since early 2008 when the violence against various ethnic groups excluding Pashtuns peaked. Other estimates put the number at 100,000. In any case the migration has been significant.

Muhammad Khalid of Balochistan Punjabi Ittehad says “the militants began to target the Punjabi settlers after Nawab Bugti was taken out by the military (in August, 2006). Before that there were occasional incidents in which Punjabis were targeted”.

The settler killings increased soon after the Feb 2008 elections. It was the time when the Baloch militant organisations such as Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) began to paint such slogans as ‘down with Punjabis’, ‘Long Live Azad Balochistan’, etc. “My own election billboards were sprayed by the BLA activists with these slogans,” says Anwaarul Haq Kakar, a young PML-N leader whose National Assembly constituency in Quetta mostly comprises Punjabi settlers.

“A vast majority of settlers killed in the beginning were service providers from Punjab running barber shops, laundries and tailoring shops. Later the militants also began to target teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals,” says Mohammad Amir, who is also associated with the Balochistan Punjabi Ittehad.

The first ‘high-profile’ killing in Quetta was of the provincial education minister, Shafique Ahmed, in 2009, he says. It was followed by the killings of school and college teachers, university professors and others. Mostly Punjabis were the target but other ethnic groups were also hit --- Urdu-speaking people from Karachi and Hindko-speaking settlers from Haripur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In many cases, people tell this reporter, those hit by the insurgents had earlier received pamphlets warning them to leave immediately.

The target killing has created an atmosphere of fear and terror among the settlers in the entire Balochistan. While Quetta still hosts a substantially large population of Punjabi and other settlers, few remain in the Baloch areas of the province. Even in Quetta the settlers are afraid of going to areas such as Sariab Road, a Baloch-dominated neighbourhood. Many old Sariab Road dwellers, including Pashtuns, have sold their property and moved to non-Baloch quarters of the city for safety.

“The property prices in Baloch areas are at their lowest because of the exodus from there,” a Pashtun dealing in rice business in Quetta says. Only those Punjabi settlers who had been assured of protection by Baloch tribes or those working on government projects under the watch of the security forces still remain in the Baloch areas.

Chacha Raheem came to Quetta from Rawalpindi in search of livelihood more than 22 years ago. He says “only people who don’t have anyone to fall back on or those who lack the financial means to relocate or have (provincial) government jobs are staying back”. Others say there are many who have actually given up their government jobs to return to Punjab.

Around 10 incidents of target killings have taken place in Quetta during 2011. This is a reduction in violence which is often linked by the officials and others to the ‘discovery’ of 170-odd bodies of Balochs believed to be ‘separatists’ involved in ‘murders’ and ‘terrorism’. Amir of Punjabi Ittehad says, consequently, “almost 50 per cent of the settlers who had left Quetta since the start of violence have come back.”

But many, such as Chacha Raheem, do not agree with Amir’s assessment. “Why would anyone come back?” Chacha asks. “To get killed or relocate in another six months or a year?” he wonders. “Who knows what is afoot? No one can guarantee that the Baloch rebels who have gone underground will not resurface and start killing the settlers again.”

It is difficult to put a number on them, but some, at least some of those who had left close relatives behind in the city, are returning to Quetta.

PML-N’s Kakar recalls how the Punjabi settlers “forced out by the government of Sardar Attaullah Mengal in the early 1970s” returned “because the Baloch or the Pashtuns did not have the skills or education to replace them”.

Are we going to see a repeat of that now? The Baloch associated with the ‘resistance’ do not think so. “We want all settlers, particularly the Punjabis and the Urdu-speaking, to leave our land. They are colonialists and our enemies. We don’t want collaborators of the Pakistan military on our soil,” says a former activist of the Balochistan Students Organisation (Azad) who is currently affiliated with the movement for an independent Balochistan. “We are being treated as Red Indian and our existence is in danger.”

He defends target killing of Punjabi and other settlers, saying it will soon lead to ‘freedom from Pakistan’. “How can you expect us to let your people live in peace when our own land has been turned into a hell for us,” he contends, adding that the killing and ‘mutilation’ of a couple of hundred ‘freedom fighters’ cannot quash their movement for liberation. “It won’t be very long before we come back for those who haven’t left our soil yet.”

For many moderate Baloch intellectuals and writers target killings of Punjabis and other settlers --- though a ‘human problem’ --- are a way for the insurgent groups of communicating to the world that ‘we want to be independent’.

“Punjabis came here to live and work under the British Raj as food suppliers, camp followers and providers of skilled labour and services. Now they have become chief justice, IG police and occupy senior positions in the government at our expense,” says a leading ‘moderate’ Baloch writer in Quetta.

“This is like speaking to a press conference for them,” he says and adds it becomes difficult to take a position against insurgency and killings of settlers when people speaking for the rights of the Baloch people are being abducted and their bodies dropped from the air by the security forces, in the presence of a media that is largely silent.

A pamphlet by the Balochistan Liberation Front delivered to several Quetta-based journalists some time ago warned the journalists against becoming a part of the ‘dirty game’ being played by Pakistan’s security forces against the Baloch freedom movement. “Do not try to cover up the Pakistani security forces’ black deeds against the Baloch. Do not also try to play down the forces’ losses at the hands of the BLF,” it said.

It is not Baloch insurgents alone who are speaking through target killings. The security forces are also using bullets and violence to send a ‘tough’ message across to them. Caught in the crossfire are the common people.