Life was always tough for Seema Baloch. As an ethnic Baluch woman, her family endured insecurity, neglect, and extreme poverty in their homeland in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan.
But it was the sudden disappearance of her brother, Shabbir Baloch, two years ago that forced Seema to abandon her rural home in Balochistan's remote Turbat district and join the protests in Pakistan’s major cities.
Seema, in her 20s, and her sister-in-law, Zarina Baloch, have helped organize rallies on the bustling roads of the southern port city of Karachi. The family has knocked on the doors of courts, police stations, and a government office tasked with finding disappeared people.
But nothing helped to locate Shabbir, who was 24 when he was detained by the security forces in the town of Gwarkop in October 2016, according to global rights watchdog Amnesty International. In November Seema joined other Baluch families in a protest outside the press club in Quetta, the dusty teeming capital of Balochistan. Seema says she is on an indefinite hunger strike to force authorities to find or release her brother.
“Our family is devastated," she says. "Shabbir was the eldest among our siblings, and he was the hope of my parents. Now my elderly parents and his wife are broken without him.”
Seema's mother is bedridden with a protracted illness while her father has been hospitalized for surgery.
Zarina Baloch says her husband's only crime appears to be his role as a leader of the pro-separatist Baloch Students Organization (BSO Azad faction). "He was blindfolded and whisked away by force along with 26 other people," she said of his disappearance in 2016. "After a few days most of them were released, but Shabbir never returned."
Seema and Zarina's family is prominent among the relatives of alleged victims of enforced disappearances that are engaged in a new protest campaign to prompt authorities to locate disappeared persons in Balochistan, where thousands have died and disappeared amid a simmering separatist insurgency.
“I started this protest all alone after I decided to leave my agonies behind to raise voice for my brother,” Seema said. “And today I am surrounded by more than 100 families.”
According to Nasrullah Baloch, chairman of the nongovernmental Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, most of the women at the protest camps are wives, mothers, and sisters of victims of enforced disappearances who have never before participated in public life. “Today, they are out protesting on the roads for the first time.”
But protesting against enforced disappearances carries risks. Jiand Baloch, a university student, is one of the most recent victims. "They took away my two brothers and father away from us," said Jiand’s sister, Mahrang Bangulzai. "Armed men in plainclothes and [security forces] uniforms took them away,” she said of the raid, which took place in the early hours of November 30.
“I want to know where they have kept them and why," Bangulzai said, adding that her father was released after two days but her brothers are still missing.
Nasrullah says Jiand’s disappearance is linked to his visit to their protest camp and his participation in online campaigning for the issue. “He is being punished for his sympathies for the families of missing persons,” he said.
A simmering nationalist insurgency in Balochistan flared into a separatist struggle following the August 2006 killing of 79-year-old Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti. As violence has ebbed and flowed in subsequent years, the disappearance of a large number of separatist activists, suspected militants, protest leaders, and intellectuals has emerged as a major issue in Balochistan, prompting the region’s main political parties to address the issue.
The Baluch ethno-nationalist Balochistan National Party Mengal (BNP-M) made the recovery of victims of disappearance its top demand as it supported the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) to cobble together the parliamentary majority required to form a new government in August.
BNP-M leader Akhtar Mengal presented a list of 5,000 alleged victims of enforced disappearances to the new government. “People are up in arms when they feel that a few of their votes are stolen. Just imagine what kind of protest will be launched by those whose children have disappeared for years,” he told lawmakers in August. “Ask the mothers who have found the mutilated corpses of their children.”
BNP-M leaders say they have seen a noticeable decrease in enforced disappearances while hundreds of alleged victims have been reunited with their families. “Since our agreement with the PTI government [in August], there has been a decrease in the abduction of civilians and around 300 people had returned home,” BNP-M lawmaker Agha Hasan told Pakistani daily The News.
Haji Lashakri Raisani, another BNP-M leader, says the incidence of enforced disappearances is decreasing. “The victims of enforced disappearances released recently are not ordinary Baluch [activists]. Most of them are religious fanatics,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara, “More people have been disappeared than have been released since we signed a six-point memorandum of understanding with PTI leaders [in August].”
Raisani says some victims of enforced disappearances have also been tortured. “Some of them [who have reunited with their families] are mentally disabled because of intensive torture,” he claimed.
The Pakistani authorities have acknowledged that disappearances happen. A government commission, established in March 2011, has registered 5,369 complaints of “missing persons” – a Pakistani euphemism for the victims of enforced disappearances. The commission claims to have traced more than 3,600 people.
Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari acknowledges that enforced disappearances have a negative fallout for the state in Pakistan and the issue undermines national unity in the multi-ethnic country of 207 million people. “When people in Balochistan are standing up in protest because their children have been mission for 10 or 15 years, what kind of message are we sending to our Baluch brothers?” she told Pakistan’s independent Dawn TV in November.
The Baluch make up some 4 percent of Pakistan’s population and are thus a small minority. They are, however, not alone in protesting enforced disappearances. The Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement that emerged this year, has demanded security and fundamental human rights for Pakistan’s estimated 30 million Pashtuns, the second-largest ethnic minority. Since February, the PTM has demanded authorities hand over thousands of alleged victims of enforced disappearances to the country’s courts so that their fate can be decided in transparent trials. Since 2003, thousands have been killed and millions displaced during nearly 15 years of conflict in the northwestern Pashtun belt.
On December 10, authorities in Balochistan barred PTM leader Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen from entering Quetta. He had flown to the city to meet with Baluch protesters to show solidarity on International Human Rights Day.
Rights campaigners and activists have reported enforced disappearances across Pakistan. Most victims are believed to be suspected separatists, political activists, and Islamist militants.
Mazari argues that enforced disappearances hurt Pakistan because they undermine the rule of law. “It creates disharmony within Pakistan and creates a negative image of Pakistan globally,” she said. “We really do not need to engage in such practices because we have laws and courts, including military courts. It is high time to unite our nation, including our Baluch brothers.”
She urges Islamabad to join the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. “Our ministry’s advice to the government is to sign this convention. It will declare our intention to the world that we are making progress on this issue,” she said. “To resolve this issue, we need to take all the stakeholders onboard, including the [intelligence] agencies, security organizations and lawyers for missing persons, and the civil society.”
Last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told a group of TV anchors that he had arranged for a meeting with Mengal and the country’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, so that the issue of “missing persons” could be resolved. "I have full assurance from General Bajwa that they want to help in resolving the missing persons' issue," Khan told journalists.
Mengal, however, is less optimistic. “Illegal disappearances in Balochistan continue as there has been little movement to address our demands, but it’s an old issue and can’t be addressed in days,” he told journalists last week. “We will give the PTI a one-year time period to resolve this issue.”
In Quetta, Seema and other relatives of victims of enforced disappearances also find it difficult to believe any of the government’s assurances.
“We have been cheated and then ditched with shallow promises by authorities and government officials for years,” she said.
Kiyya Baloch, a freelance journalist, reports on the insurgency, politics, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.