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College Student In Hunger Strike To Protest Pakistani Enforced Disappearances

Lateef Johar
Lateef Johar
Six weeks after beginning a hunger strike, a college student in Pakistan is following through with his pledge to starve himself to protest the enforced disappearances of Baluch activists.

Lateef Johar, 24, sits in scorching heat outside the press club in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi. Forty-five days ago he vowed to starve himself until his friend, Baluch separatist student leader Zahid Baloch, is found.

"I know that I am embracing certain death but I am doing this for Zahid Baloch, who is a wise and determined leader," he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "By volunteering for this hunger strike, I want to tell the world about the suffering of Baluch people, students, and their leaders."

Johar and fellow students allege that the leader of the Azad faction of the Baloch Student Organization (BSO) was picked up by Pakistani intelligence agents in late March. BSO members said they fear that Zahid might be killed by security forces, like scores of Baluch separatists and political activists before him.

The organization, banned by the Pakistani government, is loyal to its former leader, Allah Nazar. The former physician is considered the most powerful separatist guerilla commander in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan.

Nazar, numerous separate guerilla factions, and some exiled Baluch groups have been fighting Pakistani security forces for more than a decade. They want independence for Balochistan - a vast, resource-rich, desert province bordering Iran and Afghanistan.

Islamabad has responded to Baluch separatism with an iron fist. Baluch activists claim that Pakistani security agencies have detained thousands of Baluch men who are often tortured and abused for years without trial or an official record of their detention.

They also blame Pakistani security forces for killing and dumping hundreds of victims of enforced disappearances across Balochistan.

Islamabad acknowledges that many citizens remain missing, but disputes the number of such "missing persons," as they are commonly called in Pakistan. Security forces also reject claims that they engages in extrajudicial killing of suspected separatists.

BSO Azad, however, says that such practices are widespread.

The faction claims to have renounced violence and only provide political support to groups such as Nazar's. BSO leaders claim they engage only in peaceful protest to highlight alleged Pakistani abuses.

"The state is killing us by branding us as terrorists," Johar said. "We want to tell the world that we are engaging in a democratic struggle and that's why I have decided to do this."

Weeks of hunger have devastated Johar's health. He currently weighs nearly 50 kilograms, compared to 76 before going on the hunger strike.

"I only drink 10 to 15 glasses of water everyday and am not eating anything," he said. "I cannot walk. Even sitting up is a big struggle. It is very difficult to sleep and a little noise gives me a headache."

Doctors said Johar may survive a few more weeks, but he is also vulnerable to a sudden deterioration in his medical condition.

He, however, has rejected all pleas to end his protest, and is determined to press on. From a remote village in Balochistan, his parents call everyday, but they too have failed to convince him.

"Pakistan will listen to us when it faces domestic and international pressure because of what I am doing," he said.