By Karlos Zurutuza
August 13, 2009
Translated from the Spanish original by Daisann McLane
A woman walks slowly across the Dera Bugti desert, laden with wood for her cooking fire. She’s headed towards the town of Pir Koh. For several hundred meters, she follows the gas pipeline that extends north, towards the Punjab. She got lucky; it isn’t easy to find wood in the Dera Bugti desert. Islamabad also got lucky when it discovered natural gas beneath this rocky landscape. Thanks to the gas deposits, the Punjabis have been cooking, heating their houses in winter and producing electricity for half a century. But natural gas has yet to arrive in Pir Koh.
“What has Pakistan given us?” asks Akhtar Mengal, in his home in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital. “The Punjabis [Pakistan’s dominant ethnic group] have confiscated everything: our property, our resources, and above all, our rights. Mengal is the tribal leader of the clan that bears his name, and also the president of the Baloch National Party (BNP). It’s difficult to find a house in Quetta that’s more under surveillance–and, as a consequence, more carefully guarded–than his.
“Why has the world forgotten us?,” exclaims the Sardar (tribal leader) of the Mengal clan.
It’s possible that the world has, indeed, forgotten the Baloch people, but has anyone forgotten Balochistan? Let’s take a look. Obama needs it for his oil pipeline, TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India), Iran and India need it for the IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India), and so does Qatar. China’s constructing a gateway to the Persian Gulf at the port of Gwadar. Meanwhile Australia, Canada and Chile are extracting tons of gold and copper from Baluchistan’s enormous reserves, the second largest in Asia. The greedy scramble for Baluchistan’s treasures will probably heat up even more when the vast stores of petroleum and uranium hidden beneath its deserts are opened up.
“They didn’t even hire us to work on all these projects. The majority of the workers came from Punjab and other parts of Pakistan,” complains Bari, another unemployed 30-something from Quetta.
“Islamabad says that we can’t qualify for these jobs because we’re illiterate, because we don’t have an education. Where are we going to study if nobody builds schools here?” he points out.
The rate of illiteracy among Pakistan’s Baloch is about 80%, a chilling statistic that Islamabad doesn’t hesitate to blame on the tribal leaders. The central government accuses the Sardars of complicity in keeping their people uneducated, in order to hold onto their power: “If the people learn to read, they’ll become unhappy with tribal society”.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the majority of Baloch are not happy with the way things are. And they’re taking action. They’ve launched five armed uprisings against Islamabad since East Balochistan was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan in 1948, after the withdrawal of the British. The last uprising began in 2003 and is still going on now. However, instead of backing down, Islamabad has relentlessly followed a policy of political repression and total suppression of the people. If somebody dares to speak out in protest, they are jailed, or simply “disappeared.”
Everyone from the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to the International Crisis Group has condemned the disappearance of more than 7,000 social and political activists since 2005. One of the most recent and well known cases happened this past April in Quetta. Three political activists were grabbed at gunpoint in their lawyer’s office and then whisked away in a helicopter.
Kashkol Ali was their lawyer. “Justice doesn’t exist in Pakistan,” he declares, sitting in the same chair from which he witnessed the kidnapping. “The control of the country is in the hands of the MI and the ISI, the intelligence services. There’s no judge, no politician, no police officer who dares to stand up to them,” he says.
The testimony from this witness of Pakistan’s “summary justice” is corroborated by the Kafka-esque testimony of Imdad B., member of the central executive committee of the Baloch Student Organization (BSO). After he was abducted in Quetta with six comrades, and tortured for two months, his captors released him to the police in Punjab province.
“We had our eyes blindfolded, always. We knew that we’d been put in an airplane, but we didn’t know where we were going,” explains this young man wearing a red kulla (traditional Baloch cap). “After they released four of us to the police, somewhere in Punjab, the journalists published this story the next day: Security forces captured Baloch terrorists who were plotting to put a bomb in Hyderabad airport.”, he recounts.
Imdad says he has no idea the reasons why they were finally released from custody. But afterwards, the second part of his Odyssey began: seeking legal justice for what had happened to him and his comrades.
The young activist says that the first judge told him, “You have been through a bad experience, but you’re free now. So why keep looking to make problems for both of us?” The second judge told him the same thing. And then the third. Four years later, Imdad is still looking for justice.
Besides the thousands of “disappeared” Baloch, the repression has displaced tens of thousands more from their homes. In the last three years more than 80,000 Baloch families have been forced to migrate to the outskirts of Quetta, or to Sindh and Punjab provinces, after their villages were destroyed.
Zaki D. is also a member of the BSO. In the group’s headquarters in Karachi he plays a video showing a small mud brick village being bombed by a helicopter. It could be one of the Cobras that Teheran gave to Islamabad in the 70s to fight the Baloch insurgency, which always threatens to extend into Iranian-controlled territory. Or it could be one of the helicopters that Washington gave to Musharraf to fight the Taliban.
In his book, Descent Into Chaos (Penguin, 2008), the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid says that of the 10 billion dollars in development aid the U.S. government sent to Pakistan after 9-11, 90 percent went to the military.
The generals defend themselves by pointing to the fact that their country is the major provider of troops to the UN–10,000 in 2007.
In Chagai, very few people can read, and fewer still are untouched by the pain of hunger, unemployment, the “disappearances”. But without a doubt the major worry in this mountainous region on the Afghan frontier is water. Not the scarcity of it, as is the case in so many other regions of Balochistan where it seldom rains. Chagai is lucky to have a lot of underground water. There’s only one problem: it causes cancer. In order to achieve a balance of power with India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy, Islamabad exploded five nuclear detonations here in 1998. The villages close to Raspoh Mountain, where the nuclear tests were conducted, were evacuated. But, the last few years have seen a spike in spontaneous abortions, foetal malformations, and many cases of cancer.
Before moving away from Raspoh village, Wazeer went to live with his brother in neighbouring Dalbandid. He says that the water came out yellow from the taps, although for some time now Wazeer has forgotten what colours are. Like many in the area, eye cancer has left him blind. Nobody told him not to wash his face with this water.
“Punjab has treated us like animals for more than 60 years. How could the British have left us in the hands of these people?” laments this old man, his translucent gaze fixed into the ether between daydreams and forgetting.
Life in Baluchistan
The Baloch are a people divided today by the borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They speak an indo-European language close to Kurdish and Farsi, and the majority are Sunni Muslims. It’s estimated that there are a total of 15 million Baloch around the world, including 2 million living in Iran, 8 million in Pakistan and a little less than a million in Afghanistan. The majority of the Baloch diaspora lives in the Persian Gulf, Scandinavia and the U.S.
Located at the crossroads of the energy highway and with more than 1,000 kilometers of coastline on the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, Baluchistan occupies an incredibly strategic position. It’s also rich in mineral and energy resources.
Baluchistan East is the largest province of Pakistan in terms of land area (44% of the total area), but it is the smallest in terms of population, and also the most underdeveloped. Agriculture is the main source of income, but only a third of the region is arable. Despite its enormous gas and coal reserves, 40% of Balochistan’s energy needs are provided by wood and charcoal.
Three quarters of the women and two thirds of the population over 10 years old are illiterate. At the same time, more than half of school-age children don’t attend school for lack of financial resources and appropriate infrastructure.
Daisann is contributing editor at National Geographic Traveller.