QUETTA: For years, human rights groups had hoped that there might be an international outcry over a little-known epidemic of abductions, torture and murder in the Pakistani province of Balochistan where the local Baloch stand alienated and disillusioned with Pakistan's establishment.
Now, the relatives of the missing are placing their faith in a visiting UN team to highlight allegations that security forces are waging a campaign of mass disappearances aimed at silencing calls for Baloch independence.
The Pakistani establishment has often blamed a 'foreign hand' behind the call for separation and independence but on several occasions its civilian government has accepted its failure to improve the lives of ordinary people in Balochistan while heavily relying on the province’s resources.
Even Pakistan's Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had launched a rare move by the judiciary to hold the military to account over the disappearances, declined to meet the UN team.
He had warned this month that the province was a "volcano ready to explode" and said it was dangerous for outsiders to review Pakistan's internal affairs.
Since a popular movement by lawyers that helped reinstate the chief justice after his suspension by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, there hasn't been much progress in the case of missing persons that the Supreme Court continues to hear.
“How many will they kill?” said Yusuf Baluch, who found the mutilated body of his son, Asif, last year, several months after he was taken away in Karachi.
Overshadowed by a US-funded campaign against Taliban militants on the northwestern frontier with Afghanistan, the conflict between separatists and the state in Balochistan receives scant outside attention except in February this year when the National Assembly unanimously passed an opposition-sponsored resolution to condemn a US Congressional hearing on Balochistan.
The resolution stated that the initiative would jeopardise Pak-US ties, which were particularly strained at the time. The foreign office soon echoed the lawmakers’ stance by lodging a formal protest with the US.
On the other hand, the military has repeatedly denied committing abuses and has blamed the killings on an array of militant groups active in the resource-rich province that borders both Afghanistan and Iran.
But human rights groups have gathered extensive evidence from relatives of the disappeared that raises serious questions over the conduct of the security establishment.
Re- kindled hopes
The arrival of the UN delegation last week kindled hopes in the province that the disappearances would finally start to gain global attention, but stirred controversy in Islamabad.
“If the UN has taken the pains to send a team to Pakistan, it means the world now knows what's going on,” said Asif Baloch, a former student activist. “At least the news is out.”
The delegation was sent by a panel on enforced disappearances set up by the Geneva-based United Nations Commission on Human Rights and arrived in Pakistan last week.
Led by a French law professor, the team's mission is primarily to gather information on cases of disappearances and serve as a conduit between relatives and the government.
Nevertheless, families of the missing gathered ahead of its arrival in Balochistan's provincial capital, Quetta, on Saturday to urge the UN to take action to bring their loved ones home.
Even as the delegation began its tour of Pakistan, news of more disappearances reached Quetta.
On Wednesday, two days after the UN mission arrived in Islamabad, residents in southern Balochistan alleged security forces had taken away two more men in vehicles.
Baloch National Voice, a monitoring group, said another 14 men were detained at a military checkpoint on Friday. The bodies of six of them, all bearing gunshot wounds, have since been discovered, the group said. It added that the dead men had been blindfolded and their hands tied behinds their backs.
More than 300 bodies dumped
Parents and siblings of the missing have accused intelligence agencies of abducting people in many parts of Pakistan, but nowhere is the phenomenon more acute than in vast, sparsely populated Balochistan.
More than 300 bodies have been found discarded by roadsides or abandoned on waste-ground in the province since early 2011, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Many of the remains bear cigarette burns, broken limbs or other evidence of torture.
Baloch activists say the grisly trail is evidence of a state-backed “kill-and-dump” policy designed to intimidate separatist guerrillas and their sympathisers. The activists say several thousand people are still missing, though provincial authorities put the figure at several dozens.
Security forces deny committing abuses and say insurgents sometimes don military uniform before kidnapping people.
Major-General Obaidullah Khattak, head of the Frontier Corps, the main security agency in Balochistan, remains the only senior security officer who appeared before the Supreme Court to answer questions over the situation upon being summoned. The court has however not been satisfied with his explanations.
“Criminals must be acted against and brought before the law,” Khattak said in a recent interview in Quetta.
Army officers say the separatists have killed hundreds of what are termed “settlers” from other parts of Pakistan, in particular Punjab.
Suspicion among the military elite
A region of bone-dry desert and barren hills endowed with reserves of copper, gold and natural gas, Balochistan has witnessed waves of revolt by nationalists.
While the Baloch separatists' goal of independence seems a remote prospect, Balochistan nevertheless exhibits a litany of state failure, alienation, corruption and missed economic opportunities that present a microcosm of Pakistan's wider woes.
In Islamabad, the UN mission has sparked suspicion among the military elite, who are sensitive to any suggestion of interference in Balochistan.
Concern among lawmakers that the UN visit may threaten Pakistan's sovereignty prompted Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to assure the National Assembly last week that the team had been invited by the government and had no investigative powers.