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Residents Complain Pakistan Attempting To Secure Chinese-Funded Port At Their Cost

Fishing is the main source of livelihood in Gwadar.

GWADAR, Pakistan – As we landed in Gwadar's tiny airport, the rules of business for journalists immediately became clear.

Soon after leaving the airport on a pleasant December day, we were followed by a car full of plain-clothed intelligence agents to the dusty coastal town's only five-star hotel.

Police commandos wearing black sunglasses stood guard along the few kilometres of road from the airport to the hotel. One could see a police officer standing on the roadside every 15 meters. Islamabad seems to be on high alert to secure Gwadar.

This dusty provincial backwater in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province is slotted to serve as the lynchpin of nearly $50 billion in Chinese investments, which will connect that country's western Xinjiang region to the Middle East through Pakistan.

Given the massive economic and political stakes, Islamabad seems determined to secure the town for the influx of hundreds of thousands of workers into the region now locked in a decade-old violent conflict between security forces and Baluch separatist rebels.

Soon after reaching the hotel, one of the intelligence agents following us told me, and the western journalist I was accompanying, to not leave without the security that local authorities would provide. We waited for the promised security detail the next day but only received a phone call from a senior civilian official who wanted to know whether we had received a "no objection certificate" from the authorities in Islamabad.

High tide can smash the wooden boats into the shore.
High tide can smash the wooden boats into the shore.

The next morning, senior police officials paid us a visit, and after three hours of negotiations told us to stay in the hotel and invite in the people we wanted to interview.

Although we were told we were being confined to the hotel for our safety, a local journalist said authorities do not want reporters to snoop around in an area where local ire is rising because of how the Chinese investments are affecting local lives.

One of the chief complaints of local residents is over how they regularly face humiliation and harassment in the name of security. A part of Gwadar's impoverished fishing community has already been ordered to give up their land near the harbor and move to a new settlement, which has wreaked havoc on their livelihoods.

Multiple law enforcement agencies keep adding new security measures for Gwadar's estimated 100,000 residents.

To keep the increasing number of visiting Chinese "Very Important Persons" safe, local are often expect to follow security measures that are akin to a curfew. They are ordered stay away from routes VIPs are likely to frequent. Fishermen going to the sea are advised to arrive early and avoid bringing plastic bags, which carry their nets. Stringent searches turn their daily lives into regimented routines.

Saleh Muhammad, who requested his name be changed amid worries over reprisals from officials, says they feel the security forces are micromanaging their lives.

"We are advised every day where to fish and for how long," he said. "On our way to the sea, we are humiliated [at checkpoints] on the roads, while once at sea we are harassed by the Navy."

Fishing is the only source of livelihood for thousands of families in Gwadar, but the fishermen say that is now being taken away by regulations and fines that makes profits impossible.

"We have been fishing for generations, since Gwadar was part of Oman [till 1958], but now we can't continue this profession because of the security measures at sea and on land," Saleh said.

"The situation is even worse at sea, where every day the Navy accuses us of breaching the no-go areas and we have to pay fines, which feel more like extortion," complained Sageer Murad, another fisherman.

Like Saleh, Sageer requested his real name be withheld. He says they feel very restricted in waters that were once open to them.

"Now we have to pay a large sum for even docking our small wooden boats in the jetty," he said. "Some fishermen have lost their boats because of these regulations. High tides can smash them into the shores."

Locals complain that the overbearing police and military deployment everywhere are doing more harm than good and causing inconvenience to poor fishermen.

Gwadar's dusty roads are blocked during the movement of "Very Important Persons".
Gwadar's dusty roads are blocked during the movement of "Very Important Persons".

Security is stepped up further whenever a Chinese delegation or Pakistani dignitary visits the city. Locals typically are under a virtual standstill. All local cars are barred from the main streets in the town, and locals are stopped every few hundred meters and have to endure frequent frisks and questioning to the extent that traffic comes to a standstill.

Gwadar's fishermen and politicians have approached local authorities repeatedly to complain that they are being harassed in the name of security.

Officials, however, say they take these complaints with a pinch of salt. The measures are aimed at protecting Gwadar's residents from Baluch separatists, they maintain, who attacked Chinese workers and fired rockets on Gwadar's five-star hotel built on a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea. Almost all of Gwadar's residents are Baluch. They have mostly voted for Baluch nationalist political parties.

Under a new government plan dubbed "Gwadar Safe City," life for Gwadar fishermen is expected to become even more regulated. Balochistan's provincial administration and federal authorities in Islamabad are backing the Pakistani Army to take charge of Gwadar's security.

Under the leadership of a senior military officer, Islamabad will spend nearly $100 million to install state-of-the-art security cameras and communications networks. All of Gwadar's residents will be issued new identity cards. The Pakistani Navy will boost its sea patrols around the harbor, and special units will be raised to protect the Chinese workers in the city.

Muhammed Jafar, Gwadar's top police officer, says the measures are already producing results. "Thanks to the sacrifices made by the security forces to bring peace to Gwadar, violent attacks have reduced drastically," he said.

Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports the insurgency, militancy and sectarian violence in Balochistan.


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    Kiyya Baloch

    Kiyya Baloch, a freelance journalist, reports on the insurgency, politics, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.