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Amid Weakening Insurgency, Peace Returning To Remote Balochistan Corner

A new square in Turbat is named after legendary Baluch warrior, Chakar Azam.
A new square in Turbat is named after legendary Baluch warrior, Chakar Azam.

TURBAT, Pakistan -- Qazi Farhad revived his traditional embroidery business by reopening his small shop after 10 years.

His once-thriving business of colorful cloth and leather products had to close when his native Turbat town and the surrounding Makran coastal region in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan were engulfed by a simmering separatist insurgency.

Sitting in his modest shop, which doubles as his workshop in Turbat’s dusty Koshkalat neighborhood, Farhad says his ancestral business is more than just a livelihood.

It is his contribution to preserving and promoting Baluch cultural traditions. But the violence that erupted after the 2006 killing of Baluch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti across Balochistan engulfed Turbut, which servers as the administrative capital of Kech district along Pakistan's southern border with Iran.

“We used to sell our embroidery products to customers and businesses from [the southern Pakistani sea port city of] Karachi, which earned us some $15 to 20 on average every day," he told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. "But rising insecurity and militant attacks devastated our business as customers from Karachi stopped coming here.”

A tenuous peace in Turbat has enabled Qazi Farhad to revive his business.
A tenuous peace in Turbat has enabled Qazi Farhad to revive his business.

Before the onset of violence, Turbat -- midway between the coastal town of Gwadar and the Iranian border -- was a key commercial and educational hub.

Now the valley is on the front line of the Balochistan provincial government's struggle against separatist militancy, and its efforts in Turbat are seen as a litmus test for Islamabad’s resolve to roll back separatist violence.

Farhad now sees a revival of his business with the return of tense security to Makran, amid a marked decline in militant attacks and a visible effort by authorities to woo the region's beleaguered people.

“This business is ancestral, and I hope to return my business to its former glory," he said. "My grandfather used to tell us they were provided leather by the British government and businessmen from Mumbai and London were our customers."

Turbat was once considered a hub of separatist militancy, but now there are indications that the-decade-long separatist violence is waning.

The resulting peace is attracting investors and businessmen from other parts of Pakistan, particularly from Karachi, to exploit opportunities in the border town.

Afaq Zaidi brought his circus troupe to Turbat late last month to participate in the weeklong Balochistan Sports Festival that began on March 23. His 40 performers made handsome profits with their alluring daredevil acts.

Zaidi is satisfied with his business and said people in the entertainment-starved region flocked to his shows.

This circus troupe had successful couple weeks in Turbat after peace returned.
This circus troupe had successful couple weeks in Turbat after peace returned.

"Before coming here, my workers and I were scared [because of Turbat's image as a dangerous outpost]. We also thought we wouldn’t be able to earn enough," he said. "Now I am not reluctant to invest in this town at all. Spectators have even presented gifts to my crew, which gives us reasons they love us."

The appeal of Baluch separatist militants, locally known as Sarmachars, began to decline when hard-line guerillas began to attack local politicians and political workers for participating in Pakistani parliamentary elections.

Abdul Malik Baloch, a former chief minister or the most senior elected provincial official, was a particular target. The mild-manned former physician publically denounced violence and called on Baluch separatists to struggle for their rights through peaceful politicking. Such calls provoked more attacks from the separatists who deemed anyone reluctant to toe their line as a traitor of their cause.

Hardheaded Bureaucrat

“[Such hard-line tactics] led to separatist organizations losing their legitimacy in Turbat,” Sarmad Saleem Akram, the deputy commissioner or most senior civilian administrator of Kech said.

Akram, a hardheaded bureaucrat, is working overtime to restore people's confidence in the often-lethargic government machinery. He has mobilized police and a local paramilitary called Balochistan Levies to improve security. “The security situation here isn’t exemplary, but I claim it is improving slowly,” he said.

Akram, a young bearded former army captain, is popular among locals because of his efforts to improve health care, education, and getting rid of traffic jams.

A city street is being construction by the deputy commissioner Turbat.
A city street is being construction by the deputy commissioner Turbat.

The straight shooter official has become a kind of local hero for publically rebuking intelligence operatives and officials of the powerful Frontier Corps who are often accused of employing draconian measures to suppress the Baluch separatist rebellion.

“It's a common practice. I am always struggling with them mostly on security issues,” he said. “I am here to put things in order, and I am not scared of anyone except Allah."

According to the Human Right Commission of Pakistan, hundreds of civilians, militants, and soldiers were killed in separatist attacks, shootouts, ambushes, and harsh military crackdowns in Turbat town and Kech district during the past decade. Violence in the region was part of the Baluch insurrection that affected more than 20 of Balochistan's 32 districts.

Markan, a sparsely populated coastal region, became a center of militant activities in recent years because it provided the bulk of fighters to the Baloch Liberation Front. Under the leadership of former physician Allah Nazar Baloch, the group emerged as a formidable force across Makran.

But with the group's fortunes fading, peace is returning to Makran, where the Gwadar port is often touted as the lynchpin of tens of billions of dollars in Chinese investment collectively called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

In Turbat, development schemes such as the construction of new roads, a new university, a medical school, and a shopping mall mark the return of stability. After spending years in barricaded offices, officials are now active in regulating traffic, preventing shopkeepers from encroaching on sidewalks.

The revival of cultural festivals and an energetic early campaign for next year's election mark the return of peaceful times from Turbat residents.

A paramilitary soldier guards the sports festival amid tough security situation.
A paramilitary soldier guards the sports festival amid tough security situation.

"There is no more security issue in this district with artists and businessmen coming back to this town from Karachi, Lahore, and other parts of Pakistan, and people of this town are welcoming them," said Colonel Waseem Hassan, the local military commander in Turbat. "Strife-torn Turbat is now transforming into a commercial hub.”

Rights Campaigner

Activists, however, are not convinced. Ghani Pervaz, author and head of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Makran, rejected the government’s claim about restoration of peace in Turbat.

He says security has not improved and the situation in rural areas is alarming, especially in regions close to the Iranian border.

Pervaz blames security forces for using excessive, disproportionate, and at times lethal force to prevent or foil separatist political mobilization and militant activities.

He blamed Islamabad for committing massive human rights violation by using excessive force against common civilians in remote parts of Makran.

“When they [the security forces] are attacked in a mountainous area, they often target common villagers in the nearby villages in retaliation,” Pervaz said. “Across Kech, thousands of people have been forced to flee from their homes by war and violence perpetrated by separatist and security forces.”

He too, however, says that the insurgency has weakened.

“Apparently at the local level, the insurgency has weakened as the number of attacks on law enforcement agencies and government installations have gone down, but separatist groups have changed their strategy too," he said. "Now they are trying to attract more international attention by organizing demonstrations in Europe.”

Pervaz says a number of activists including separatists are seeking asylum in countries such as Germany, Sweden, and Canada, and even in Pakistan's regional archrival, India. In recent years, New Delhi has publically championed the Baluch cause and criticized Islamabad for alleged human rights violations there.

Local politicians see this as a tactical retreat and maintain that separatist militant groups remain a potent threat.

Ongoing Struggle

The mood among local officials in Turbat, however, is optimistic. According to the deputy commissioner office, violence-related incidents have dramatically declined this year compared with the year before.

Deputy Commissioner Akram said violence in Kech this year was lowest since 2013. “We have recorded a 70 percent fall in violent incidents in this district since 2013. There has been only two incidents of violence in March and no casualties were reported,” he said.

In March 2017, Balochistan Republican Army, one of the separatist factions, claimed responsibility for blowing up two bridges on a major highway connecting Gwadar to Turbat and southern districts of Balochistan. The road is seen as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor's western route. On April 13 a bomb attack injured three people in Gwadar.

Ormara, a small town on Makran coast.
Ormara, a small town on Makran coast.

Such attacks disrupt traffic and spread fear. Separately, in the last week of March, militants kidnapped three government teachers participating in population census in Turbat, which prompted paramilitary troops to conduct a search operation in the Balnigwar area close to the town.

Akram says two of the kidnapped teachers have been recovered while an operation to recover the third was under way.

Locals who refused to give their names because of fear said around four people from Balnigwar were being detained by the Frontier Corps during the security sweep in the area.

Such incidents invariably undermine local stability.

As the district administration in Kech struggled to recover the abducted teachers, around a dozen women reached the deputy commissioner's office to protest against the Frontier Corps, which many locals see as treating them unfairly.

“We’re peaceful people and have nothing to do with militancy,” one elderly woman, whose son was detained in the raid, was heard shouting outside Akram's office. “I am responsible for the safe recovery of your beloved one,” Akram said as he tried to console her.

Militant attacks in Turbat have often cause problems for civilians. Security forces sometime whisk away innocent citizens to pressure militants or in retaliation.

“The militants and military both need to enlighten themselves with laws," Akram said. "The problem is that no one knows about the laws.”


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    Kiyya Baloch

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