Haseeba Qambrani’s daily routine revolves around praying, grieving, and protesting.
The young woman in Pakistan’s restive southwestern province of Balochistan says she is doing everything in her power to bring back her disappeared brother and cousin, whom she says were taken by the security forces in February.
She and her family are desperate to ensure that Hassan and Hizbullah Qambrani avoid the fate of their elder brothers Salman and Gazain Qambrani, whose mutilated bodies were found in August 2016 after a yearlong disappearance.
Pakistani officials have not commented on this specific case. While they have declared the numbers of claims of disappearances in Balochistan to be exaggerated, they have taken a number of steps to find the thousands of disappeared who have gone missing across the country’s conflict zones and cities during the past two decades.
For relatives, the fate of their disappeared loved ones is a constant agony. Every day Qambrani joins her sister to offer a wazifa or special prayer. While standing on one leg for nearly an hour, they recite specific verses of the Koran in the hope that a miracle will bring back their relatives.
“We are alive but have stopped living because we are living in a big void. All our waking hours are spent in the hope that my brothers will return,” she told Radio Mashaal. “We answer every knock on the door and every phone call in the hope that it might bring some news about our brother and cousin.”
She says her brother Hassan disappeared after he left the house to shop for groceries on February 14. “That day, we kept on delaying dinner as we waited for him to return because my father wouldn’t eat without him,” she recalled. “I tried to call him and I left a message, but he never replied. Later that night, an elderly woman in our neighborhood told us she had seen Hassan being taken away in a police van.”
Qambarni’s ordeal came to the fore when her family joined a sit-in protest of ethnic Baluch families in the provincial capital, Quetta. For more than 11 years, hundreds of Baluch families have demanded the return of loved ones, mostly men, who have disappeared amid the two-decade-long separatist insurgency in the vast region bordering Iran and Afghanistan.
“We don’t celebrate but just mourn,” she said between sobs in a viral video of her first appearance at the protest in June that went viral. “We don’t know what else to do. Just have mercy and return our brothers.”
Hassan is among the thousands of disappeared Baluch whom families and politicians in the region say have been picked up by the security forces as part of counterinsurgency operations in the sparsely populated region.
The issue has figured prominently in the region’s politics for years. In June, the Balochistan National Party (BNP), a major ethno-nationalist group, left the ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party. Akhtar Mengal, the BNP leader, blamed Islamabad for failing to find only a few hundred of the more than 5,128 people they had identified as missing.
He says that since the new government assumed office more than 1,800 people have disappeared in Balochistan while the authorities have only found or reunited over 450 people. “If you can’t recover people, at least stop disappearing more people,” he said.
Abdul Malik Baloch, a former chief minister or most senior elected official in Balochistan, says the disappearances are directly linked to the Baluch nationalist insurrection.
“As long as the insurgency is not resolved, the disappearances will continue,” he told the Independent Urdu. “Whenever there is [a security] incident, they [the security forces] pick up 10 people.”
Malik’s National Party, a secular group, is demanding a negotiated solution to the separatist insurgency in Balochistan, but Islamabad and leaders of the separatist groups have hardly engaged in any negotiations.
Pakistani military and civilian officials are largely mum on the issue. A weeklong quest to get a comment about Qambrani’s case from senior officials did not succeed. Two senior officials working as spokespeople for Balochistan’s provincial government did not reply to repeated telephone calls, texts, and WhatsApp messages from Radio Mashaal.
Lawmaker Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, leader of the ruling Balochistan Awami Party, recently told Reuters that the numbers of missing are "exaggerated." The claim is in line with a longstanding official view. Pakistani officials have maintained that the numbers of forced disappearances are exaggerated and say that many disappeared are not in government custody.
Since 2011, a government-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has registered nearly 6,700 cases of forced disappearances across Pakistan. While the commission claims to have solved over 4,000 cases by tracing the missing, it has only registered over 500 cases from Balochistan. In July 2019, a Pakistani military spokesman said the Pakistani Army had set up a special cell in its headquarters to deal with the issue.
But for many in Balochistan, the continued disappearance of their loved ones keeps their lives in a limbo.
“My mother always cries. She weeps when she looks at the three children of my dead brother and the baby that was born a few days before Hassan’s disappearance,” she told Radio Mashaal. “Even when she drinks or eats, she grieves and wonders whether her son is being fed.”
In the absence of a law declaring the practice illegal, a demand repeatedly made by human rights watchdogs and endorsed by Pakistani politicians, families such as Haseeba’s are unlikely to get the answers they are desperately seeking anytime soon.