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Paramilitary soldiers stand next to a burning motorbike torched by angry mob in Quetta. — Photo by AFP

QUETTA, May 23: “Welcome to the most afsurda district of Balochistan,” says a local political worker of the PPP as he greets the out of towners in a small room of the building in district Mastung.

A primarily Balochi district that falls in the constituency of Chief Minister Raisani, his pessimism is striking.

But as other voices join in, describing the target killings, the enforced disappearances, the lack of business opportunities and the havoc electricity has wreaked on the agriculture, it is obvious that the worker was not indulging in hyperbole.

A rotund young man sitting next to the worker says without any emotion that his brother, who was picked up 18 months ago, is now back, traumatised. “Woh ek zinda laash hai,” he says with barely a tremor in his voice.

As someone else then speaks up, the young brother falls quiet and pulls a tissue out of his pocket. Is it to wipe away a solitary tear?

He simply soaks up the sweat on his forehead.

His quiet dignity is not unusual. For most Baloch, the loss and suffering of their loved ones is to be borne quietly, with little impact on the national consciousness.

Not for them the national outrage that greets the Salala attack or the emotional outburst at Gyari or even the dramatic outpouring of the mother who went to court to ask for her sons who were picked up from outside Adiala — in her petition she had asked the court for their bodies so she could bury them.

For the residents of this desolate province, human tragedy is spoken about without emotion but it still leaves a mark — like the landscape in Balochistan that is beautiful in its harshness and sparseness where the mountains are relentlessly brown and the grassy clumps dot the topography as if drawn by a child.

Short sentences tell an epic tale.

Take the father of a missing man who says, “Hum bol bol kar thak gaye aur ro ro kar thak gaye.”

But, harsh as their words may be for those who come from the power centres, there is hope in the fact that many of them are eager to reach out to a state and government that has been so brutal. As one young man from an NGO said disarmingly, “We need a jadoo ki japhee,” repeating a phrase that was made popular by an Indian film of some years ago.

Marked change

This is not simply a superficial impression but one shared by regular visitors to the province. Asma Jahangir, a human rights activist and the former president of the SCBA, who has visited Balochistan frequently, insists that the change was marked.

“No one even spoke during the Musharraf years. Democracy with all its flaws has brought some change.” Now she points out that they speak and that they are willing to engage instead of speaking simply of separating.

She is right — from politicians to lawyers to students to businessmen, they all speak of their constitutional rights and not separation. Undoubtedly, none of the people spoken to were self-proclaimed separatists, but the latter succeed only if the society in general provides them the proverbial sea in which to swim. But, if significant numbers demand their constitutional rights, it bodes well.

Representatives of political parties including the nationalists conceded that they would fight the coming elections – in Quetta, in Pishin, a primarily Pushtun district, and even in Mastung where the people have not seen their political representative for years. When asked, a lawyer says he last saw Chief Minister Raisani when he came to submit his papers for the 2008 election.

During an interaction with mid-level political party representatives, a PkMAP member concedes that the boycott of the previous election had caused more harm than good. And Jamaat-i-Islami leader says that the next election, be it the national one or local bodies one, will end the suffocation here.

Even Zulfiqar Magsi, the laconic governor of the province, who like Clint Eastwood answers questions in short phrases offers hope. Criticism may not penetrate his defences and he is open that his role is no more than offering tea to guests, but he agrees that there is a change. “The toxic air of three years ago is dissipating,” he says as he gazes at the wall at the end of the plush room at Governor’s House in Quetta.

The change, which is most evident in Quetta and beyond too, is mainly attributed to the chief justice of Pakistan.

His lengthy hearings in Balochistan earlier in the month simply repeated the antics that those in Islamabad have gotten used to — tell off civil servants; embarrass junior government officials and threaten and warn police officials.

Cases against FC

But in a province where the people have suffered the abuse of the state for years now and where the political government is written off as a failure by most, the CJ is being seen as a saviour because he has tried to take the FC to task and to help the families of the missing people.

As an old man in Mastung remarked, “Allah ke baad courts hain.”

On the surface of it, the mood in the civilian bureaucracy was similar.

One of them explains that despite the fear and oppression, 64 people turned up in the court to register complaints, most of which identified the FC as the culprit. Since the hearings, the civilian authorities have registered a case against a colonel in Khuzdar, while three cases have been registered in total.

This may not seem much and as Mohammad Hanif, the well-known writer and journalist pointed out, “Is it consolation enough for a mother who has lost her son that a case has been registered against a colonel who may never be brought to justice?”

He is right. It is not enough. But can’t we still celebrate the first drop of rainwater after a long drought? It may be too late for hundreds but it still spells hope for many, many others.

This is why in the anger too there is hope, expressed in the question of one long suffering relative who asks why the chief justice could not have come before 500 mutilated bodies were found.

Running parallel to this is also an awareness that the military-led forces whose brutality have led to this sense of alienation are on the defensive.

What is not clear is whether this is simply because of the court’s proceedings and the recent media spotlight on the issue.

Indeed, it cannot be denied that the SC proceedings as well as the hearing on Balochistan in the US legislature earlier this year led to a heated discussion of the province in the print and electronic media.

A third reason, which too is hard to evaluate, is that the military leadership has also realised that brute force cannot work.

A journalist points out that a recent change of military officers posted to key positions in the province also hinted at a change in the tactic if not strategy.

That the strategy of brute force is still in place is evident from the account of a rights activist from Makran who does not feel that elections could be held there.

Healing touch

And unlike the government officials in Quetta who felt that SC proceedings proved to be a healing touch, he recounted that in 2012 alone 17 people had disappeared; 21 had been released and three bodies had been found. Those released and found dead include the 50 who went missing the year before.

“Extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances and raids take place every day,” he says.

His stories, which he recounted in the comforts of a hotel in Quetta which keeps the city’s tragedies and violence at an arm’s length by armed guards and concrete bunkers, bring home the cruelty the state visits upon areas that are now too dangerous to be visited.

He spoke of a fateful day in the last week of April when a small village in Turbat was raided for a man, possibly an insurgent.

Around 30 vehicles turned up and carried out an operation for hours. The operation that took out Osama bin Laden used four helicopters and lasted about an hour. How dangerous could this man have been?

They killed four and kidnapped 16. Those who came back are now so scared they deny being kidnapped. They have erased their own memories.

He spoke of villages that were being emptied of men as the male members were picked up; and if they returned their families sent them to the nearby Gulf; of targeted killings of Baloch, Punjabis and others; and a levies force which did nothing but collect bodies.

“The Pakistani flag flies only where the FC is,” he says. But what does a flag symbolise when it can only flutter under the protection of guns?