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Pakistan's Invisible Baluch Displacement Crisis

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers guard the site of a landmine blast planted by alleged Baluch nationalists in the Dera Bugti region in 2006.
Pakistani paramilitary soldiers guard the site of a landmine blast planted by alleged Baluch nationalists in the Dera Bugti region in 2006.

He once dreamed of a bright future and a stable career working for Pakistan's biggest gas company.

Instead, Suhail Ahmed Bugti has been crushing stones for the past 10 years after his clan was banished from their gas-rich homeland in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province into the stony deserts of Rohri district in neighboring Sindh Province.

"Our lives are so miserable that we are just like walking corpses," the 34-year-old says of life in exile. "It is our misfortune that we have become refugees in our own country and nobody is even bothered by our misery."

Bugti's misfortune began after his tribe's patriarch and leading Baluch nationalist leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, was killed by Pakistani forces in 2006. In the months leading up to his death, more than 170,000 Bugtis left their homes in Balochistan's Dera Bugti district and moved into other parts of Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

Ten years later, the authorities and their pro-government tribal rivals are reluctant to allow the displaced Bugti clans back into their homes.

Suhail says his extended family of 28 has survived on hammering stones into gravel for road and construction work. He says a month's hard work earns them nearly $200, which is barely enough to feed them.

Back in Dera Bugti, his clan was one of the most affluent communities in Balochistan. Nawab Bugti was paid handsome royalties, and his supporters had jobs and contracts in Pakistan's oldest gas field, which has warmed Pakistani homes and fueled industry since the 1950s.

"Two of my brothers were employed by the gas company, while three of my cousins were teachers. One of my uncles used to work in a bank," he said. "But they all lost their jobs once we were banished from our homeland."

Suhail says that now most men, women, and children in his extended family crush stones to eke out a living. "Only the very old stay at home," he told RFE/RL's Gandhara website.

He says the 20,000 Bugtis living in Rohri feel as if they have lost everything. "Many of our relatives are scattered across Sindh and the neighboring eastern province of Punjab. It is too difficult to even gather for funerals because we just can't afford to travel."

Bugtis are among the estimated 250,000 Baluch displaced by violence in their homeland since the August 2006 killing of Nawab Bugti, which prompted a simmering separatist insurgency. Thousands of civilians, soldiers, and rebels have been killed in insurgent attacks and government crackdowns.

While Bugtis make up the largest number of displaced Baluch, tens of thousands of members of the neighboring Marri tribe have also been rendered homeless by sporadic fighting between separatists and government forces.

The crisis has forced some 20,000 Baluch tribesmen to seek shelter in neighboring Afghanistan. But the displaced Baluch in both countries have so far received little or no government help or assistance from international aid organizations.

Jan Zeb is one of the 14,000 Bugtis living in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. He says that, while Afghan authorities have not harassed them, they have received little assistance from Kabul or international aid agencies.

"I cannot tell you the miserable conditions we live in," he said. "We don't have food or clean drinking water. We have no healthcare or schools for our children. Their lives are being wasted."

Zeb's wife and four children live in a small hut made of plastic sheets and wooden poles, which offer little protection against attacks.

"Fear and harassment rule our lives," he said. "We are afraid that we are very vulnerable to being attacked by Pakistan."

During the past two years, two grandsons of Nawab Bugti have attempted to lead their supporters back into Dera Bugti, but the government prevented them from reclaiming their homes and property. Hundreds were arrested after thousands of Bugti tribesmen blocked a road to Dera Bugti in February 2014.

Pakistani authorities are reluctant to acknowledge the scale of Baluch displacement.

Anwarul Haq Kakar, a spokesman for Balochistan's government, says only the hard-core supporters of Baluch separatist factions have moved into provinces in southern Afghanistan. He says a handful of communities have left their homes in various Balochistan districts because of tribal feuds.

"Our estimates are that 2,000 to 3,000 people have gone to Afghanistan, while the number of those moving within Pakistan is no more than 7,000," he said. "It is the responsibility of the state to look after its citizens. This is not a major crisis that requires us to seek international assistance."

Former lawmaker Sanaullah Baloch says Islamabad is reluctant to address the Baluch displacement crisis as a humanitarian problem because sees it as an offshoot of separatism by secular Baluch nationalists.

"It is not possible to paint a comprehensive picture or come up with an accurate picture because the Pakistani government is reluctant to allow anyone to look into this crisis," he said. "Islamabad has been trying to tell the international community for some time now that there is no conflict in Balochistan," he says. "This is why this crisis is never highlighted."

Baloch says the displacement crisis in Balochistan is much bigger than the plight of Bugti and Marri tribespeople.

"There are estimates that more than 700,000 people have been displaced across Balochistan since 2005," he said. "These include [the minority] Hindus and other communities, but most are Baluch. These are tribes and communities that were involved in the conflict, but many were not involved and yet were forced to leave their homes."

In recent years, tens of thousands of Baluch civilians have been displaced in Balochistan's southern Makran region, which turned into a main theater for separatist violence since 2010.

The displaced in Balochistan include a sizeable number of ethnic Punjabis called "settlers" for living in the province's major cities for generations. They were targeted by Baluch separatists in what they claimed were retaliatory attacks for atrocities by the Pakistani military, most of whose soldiers and officers are ethnic Punjabis.

The tiny Shi’ite Hazara community, based in Balochistan's capital, Quetta, has been faced with incessant attacks by Sunni extremists, forcing some members of the beleaguered community to seek shelter in other Pakistani cities or attempt dangerous journeys to escape to Australia and Europe.

Baloch says that, if unaddressed, the plight of displaced Baluch will eventually haunt Islamabad.

"Such suffering further fosters a sense of alienation and discrimination among the displaced communities," he said. "Eventually, a new generation will yet again pick up guns against the state."