The mysterious death of her daughter shattered Jamila, a grandmother in her 60s. She recalls the day she sent her eldest daughter, Karima Baloch, into exile in response to mounting threats in Pakistan.
Citing a popular folk prayer among the Baluch people of southwestern Pakistan, she told Karima, “Go, my child; travel far to distant lands, but do return to your homeland,” upon her departure in early 2015.
But five years later, Karima’s body was returned to her village for burial in Balochistan Province. She was found dead in a lake in Toronto, where she’d lived since leaving Pakistan, in December. “I pray to God that no one sees their enemies return home like my beloved daughter,” Jamila, who goes by one name only, told Radio Mashaal.
Mahganj Baloch, Karima’s younger sister, remembers how she helped prepare her sister for her journey abroad after Karima’s activism made life difficult in Balochistan, where she had risen through the ranks of the Baloch Students Organization, a political organization sympathetic to Baluch militant nationalist groups fighting for the region’s cessation from Pakistan.
“I helped comb her hair and kept the tangled hairbrush,” Mahganj said of the last time she saw her sister. Karima, 37, was not the first to die in what the family deems suspicious circumstances despite Toronto police describing her disappearance and death as “noncriminal.” Since 2007, the family has lost four male members in clashes and crackdowns by the Pakistani security forces.
Their ordeal echoes the circumstances and suffering of thousands of Baluch families whose members were either prominent leaders, foot soldiers, or sympathizers of the militant and political organizations involved in 20 years of separatist insurgency. Thousands of soldiers, rebels, and civilians have been killed in the conflict, and thousands more remain disappeared. The violence has uprooted Baluch and other communities in the province, which borders Afghanistan, Iran, and the Arabian Sea.
But there is no clear path toward ending the violence. Armed separatist factions mount attacks that prompt Islamabad to reinforce its military and security presence in the province while the relatives of those killed and involuntarily disappeared in the region struggle to be heard in their campaign to end the abuses in their homeland. For a week now, Islamabad has reverberated with a sit-in protest of Baluch families who says their loved ones, mostly young male activists, were forcefully disappeared in Balochistan.
Abdulla Abbas, an exiled Baluch activist in Germany, says supporters of the separatist cause -- be they involved in militancy or peaceful campaigning -- have faced the state’s wrath since 2009, when Islamabad started cracking down on suspected sympathizers. He says this approach prompted large-scale forced disappearances and killings of activists, intellectuals, and militants.
“For many years, families of activists beyond the government’s reach [such as those in exile] have faced collective punishment,” he says. “This hard-line approach has led to a spike in militant attacks” in response, he added, alluding to high-profile attempted attacks on Chinese targets in southern Pakistan.
Abbas paints a picture of lawlessness across Balochistan, where the government has employed heavy-handed tactics to quash the insurgency. After the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006, the separatist cause gained such support across the province that the government now holds little sway there.
For most of his life the former governor, chief, and cabinet minister supported a compromise with Islamabad. But since the turn of the century he has increasingly sided with radical nationalists who decry the exploitation of Balochistan’s natural resources.
“Some of the worst abuses in Balochistan today are committed by former separatist militants who have surrendered to the government but are not being reintegrated into peaceful civilian life,” he told Gandhara. “Instead, they are tasked with hunting their former comrades in arms.”
Anwar Sajidi, the editor of Intikhab, a daily newspaper in Balochistan, says the region’s residents are not happy with the state’s mistreatment of them even if they no longer support an armed insurrection in a province that comprises nearly half of Pakistan’s territory.
“The state has so far not treated the residents of Balochistan well,” he told Gandhara. “There is scant development, education, or health care.”
“In many regions, the state has failed to provide basic services required for a good life today,” he added. “The state’s conduct is not fair, which leads some to say Islamabad considers Balochistan a conquered territory.”
Sajdi, who has spent his professional life reporting on Balochistan, says people feel alienated. “There is a feeling here that the state does not consider Balochistan’s residents as equal citizens who are entitled to the same treatment as the residents of Punjab,” he added, citing a longstanding grievance of Baluch ethnonationalists that accuses the rich eastern province of exploitation because of its larger population, better economy, and monopoly of national institutions such as the armed forces, parliament, and the judiciary.
Lawmaker Anwar ul Haq Kakar, a leader of the ruling Balochistan Awami Party, however, says fatigue is setting in within the insurgency. “They are finished. Whatever is left of the insurgency exists because of support from India,” he said, repeating a government line that sees regional archrival India behind militancy in the country. New Delhi rejects aiding Baluch separatists beyond occasionally calling out human rights violations in the region.
Kakar rejects the notion of large-scale rights violations in Balochistan and says the Pakistani constitution requires its security forces to tackle internal security threats including groups engaged in violent campaigns.
“The government of Pakistan is tasked with protecting all its citizens,” he said. “Whatever it does to achieve that is constitutional, legal, and moral.”
He disputes claims by Baluch activists who cite thousands of victims of enforced disappearances. He says repeated government efforts to establish the identity of alleged victims of forced disappearances amounted to nothing. “This is a battle of narratives, so everyone will push their own version,” he said, adding that most of the alleged human rights abuses in the region are propaganda.
When officials attempt to map the family trees of tens of thousands of alleged Baluch victims, Kakar says, their relatives often lack valid IDs or simply refuse to cooperate out of fear.
“It is strange that they are not afraid to talk to international radios, the Washington Post, or even inside the various houses of the parliament,” he said. “But when we ask them to provide data under the mechanism established by the UN commission for enforced disappearances, they begin making excuses and cite fear in resisting to give data so that their claims can be investigated to meet their logical end.”
Criminalizing Forced Disappearances
Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s human rights minister, has a different take. She wants to reform the government commission tasked with tracing victims of forced disappearances and hopes to end the practice. “We want to move a bill [in the parliament] so that we can make a law criminalizing forced disappearances,” she told Naya Daur, a Pakistani news website. “When we will have the law, we will be able to punish those responsible for forced disappearances.”
In Islamabad, Haseeba Qambrani, a Baluch activist, is determined to keep campaigning for her brother and cousin, who disappeared last year. “We are all victims of this oppression and cruelty, so let’s all unite in fighting it,” she told a protest camp outside the parliament building on February 16. “If my brothers committed any crimes, please bring them before a court of law because we recognize this country, its constitution, and laws.”
But in a sign of how some in Pakistan’s corridors of power view the issue, Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s science and technology minister, was sharply rebuked on social media for his remarks about the Baluch protest.
“These mothers can protest in Punjab and yet no one will shoot them after looking at their ID cards,” he tweeted on February 17. “But what can we do about the sorrow of those mothers whose sons are shot in Balochistan just because they are Punjabi?” he added in reference to the hundreds of Punjabi laborers and professional whose murders have been claimed by Baluch separatists since the first large military offensive unrolled in 2004. “Just speak about atrocities everywhere and say you know that the color of Punjabi blood is red, too.”
For many Pakistanis, such statements by a senior government official do not inspire confidence in Islamabad’s ability to resolve Balochistan’s complex issues. “If you cannot resolve their problems, please stop rubbing salt in their wounds,” opposition leader Maryam Nawaz said in response to Chaudhry’s comments while visiting the Baluch protest camp on February 17.