Photo: Balochistan Interior © 2014. Virasami, J.
“Come here, listen to this”, Ali slowly leafed through the pages of the local newspaper, “look, you see this small paragraph? This is an account from a fighter in the villages.” I asked him if he could translate. “Today we lost several fighters but we killed three Pakistani soldiers and shot down their helicopter”. I asked him whether he had visited the fighters in the Bolan Pass. “Yes, I’ve been there in my role as a government official but also as a Baloch, I negotiated with them on the release of a hostage, but I respect their fight”. We had just come down from Ali’s small mountain, he inherited it from his parents and we were now on his 7 acre farm which he had also inherited. He closed the newspaper and looked over to the mountain face, “People mark out their mountains by spelling their surname over it”, and he proceeded to point out where he had spelled out his surname, ‘Kurd’. Ali is however an ethnic Baloch.
Everybody was napping in the summery haze and I went inside to find his small dusty library he’d told me about. A shotgun lay hesitantly against the wall, a few paces away I dug out a book on Baloch culture and history. The book verified what Ali had previously told me, that Baloch are a people and nation unto themselves, that unlike other ethnicities of the region they actually hail from further afield, the Caspian sea region, they are Kurds who travelled a little further. In fact to my surprise they shared some of the same Dravidian ancestry as me, a consequence of mixing with the indigenous Brahui people. Baloch are their own people, with their own proud culture and who, before the arrival of the British and the establishment of Pakistan, tribally administered their own vast lands which now constitutes 47% of Pakistani territory.
I had entered Balochistan from the badlands of Iran, a porous border where Mossad/CIA backed Jundullah rebels slip between Pakistan to lay siege to the South-Eastern interior of Iran. I crossed by land from Zahedan in Iran, to Taftan in Pakistan. Once in Pakistan I was immediately assigned a levy (armed guards of the vast interior between provinces). Taftan swiftly placed me into the reality of Balochistan. No foreigner can travel alone and bus services were unavailable to me as two Czech girls had been kidnapped by Taliban a month prior, even though they had multiple levies, they’re still being held in Afghanistan. Taliban, in the Quetta Shura, are a common sight and it’s long been a US fantasy to start droning them in Balochistan, as they do in N.W Pakistan. I slept in the police station a couple nights acclimatizing to the politics and weighing up my options without a bus.
Wahe Watan O Hushkien Dar. The fatherland even barren is worth anything - Balochi saying.
This is not Pakistan
I watched as a line of roughly 20 men were marched into the police station; they were forced to sit whilst the smaller of the guards shouted at them, as you would an infant. Another larger guard came back with a stick and beat them at random, never too convincingly, then split them into Baloch and non-Baloch for interrogation. All twenty men were then taken into a cell for two people. The guards explained to me they were trying to sneak into Iran without ID and were mostly Baloch who couldn’t find work in Pakistan, a sad reality I would hear repeatedly. Eventually I convinced the local police chief to front half of my journey costs to Quetta as I didn’t have the funds, which was true. My two new armed escorts arrived and I said my goodbyes, the station guards replied “Khoda Hafez”, exactly as they do in Iran, “You say that in Pakistan too!” I said in surprise, the new heavily bearded armed guard responded with an air of certainty, “This is not Pakistan”.
The raging conflict between Balochi Nationalists and the Pakistani government began when Pakistan was created on 14th August 1947. At independence the British Chief Commissioners province within Baluchistan was immediately ceded to the newly created Pakistani state, however the remaining princely states of Balochistan under the Khan of Khalat did not immediately accede to Pakistan, as this was not the popular sentiment in the public. Instead they declared an independent Balochistan. The 1st April 1948 is a historic day for Balochi people, on this day the Pakistani military marched into Kalat and forced the Khan to capitulate, which he did. What ensued was the beginning of the insurgency. The Khan’s brother, prince Abdul Karim, led what is widely recognized as the first of a series of rebellions against the Pakistani state: the Karim revolts. Since the Karim revolts in 1948 there have been continuous revolts, rebellions and often full scale war in resistance to Pakistani occupation.
Into the interior
My journey from departure in Taftan to Quetta took roughly two days, the Taftan commissioner had duped me into believing he would front my journey to Quetta when instead I was dropped off in the remote village of Dalbandin. After a meeting with another influential commissioner, and five minutes of blagging, I landed a free trip to Quetta and my hotel for that night. His free trip was not as simple as I imagined. 15 pickup trucks, a couple of hitches, several cups of tea and three pit stop meals later we arrived into Quetta late at night in pouring rain. It was a surreal day, I had travelled with perhaps 30 different armed levies, shared traditional tea and meals with many Baluchi police, some whom I would go on to later live with and heard countless tales of cross border battles and living legends, far too many to recount here.
Once in Quetta, and after building good rapport with my final escort, I was given the privilege of staying with a friend, 99% of foreigners must be escorted at all times in this highly volatile city. On any given day in Quetta there will be either a kidnapping, a bombing, an assassination, a discovered body and sometimes all four. The day I arrived was no different, just thirty minutes before our armoured Jeep had entered the city centre a bomb had been detonated on its outskirts. The friend I stayed with was Ali, whom I mentioned at the beginning. Ali is a local businessmen, high ranking government official, farmer, and family man. The nine days I spent living on the office floor of a school he administers were some of the most insightful times of my life. He was keen to teach me what he knew of the Balochi struggle and I was keen to learn.
I sat in his government office and watched as he spoke at length with guest after guest, after the last one had left I asked him, how does the struggle affect you and your friends personally? He responded in absolute directness, “you see this man who just came in, he is smiling, we must all smile, but a few months ago his brother, a lawyer, went missing, a few weeks ago his body was found on the road, tortured and killed. Everybody has either, in their family or a friend’s family, lost a life to this struggle.” Ali’s position in the local government means that he is the highest authority on governmental money flows in and out of Baluchistan, on this topic he told me, “Our Balochi assembly are working hand in hand with the Pakistani government to plunder all our money and resources, no regard is paid to the ordinary Baloch, they are all thieves.”
The Struggle Continues
I sat in Sibi station on my 24hr train to Karachi and looked around at the shattered ceiling, the exposed metal was emerging out of rafters and the brick walls were broken. Just a week or so ago 17 people had been horrifically burned alive when Balochi Insurgents exploded a carriage whilst it was in the station. I sat down for some food in the reopened small restaurant and wondered how things could’ve escalated to such horrific acts. After 1948 the next serious rebellions were in the 1950’s which escalated in October of 1958 into a small military invasion of Baluchistan, events escalated almost uncontrollably. Pakistani army garrisons were being established on a perpetual basis throughout Balochistan in classical colonial style and sporadic warfare continued to plague the region until a ceasefire was reached in 1969.
The third Baloch rebellions of the 1970’s were by far the most devastating and escalated into a fully blown war. Baloch people undertook a strategic move to cooperate with Pakhtoons of the neighbouring NWFP province forming the National Awami Party (NAP) in order to pursue political means to secure Balochi fate. As the Bhuttos swept up over Eastern Pakistan, the NAP enjoyed a decisive victory, winning all seats in the western provinces of Baluchistan and NWFP. Punjabi settlers from Eastern Pakistan were increasingly made targets of Balochi violence and all it took was an unfounded pretext of secrets weapon caches in the Iraqi embassy for the Pakistani army to once more lead a military attack against Baluchistan. It’s also important to note that the insecurity of Pakistan was catalysed further by the bloody independence struggle of Bangladesh.
In April 1973 Bhutto in a dangerous move dissolved the regional Balochi government under false pretences of exceeding constitutional authority, what resulted was large scale violence. Balochi guerillas of roughly 15,000 ambushed army convoys. Bhutto responded by jailing the then removed political leaders and placing the full might of the Pakistani army in Baluchistan, placing almost 80,000 troops all across the region. What brought the most disastrous blow to Balochi nationalists was the unwarranted involvement of the Shah of Iran. The Shah under the posturing of the trouble possibly spreading into Iran sent in 30 US cobra helicopters to decimate rebel hideouts, he also provided a stream of intelligence and $200 million in aid. Reeling from this significant counterpunch several Balochi leaders went into self exile and in 1977 as the war was winding down Zia-al-Huq instigated a military coup, overthrew the Bhutto regime and began a plan of appeasing the Baloch cause.
Is there an end in sight?
Before heading to Peshawar I decided to pay my friend Hamal-Khan a visit in his home town of Usmanabad in Baluchistan, on the border of Karachi. I met Hamal-Khan, a Balochi policeman, when catching rides to Quetta from Taftan, he invited me into his checkpoint for some simple food and ensured the levies understood my intention of staying with Ali in Quetta. I stayed with Khan, a proud Baloch, and his family, for several days, sleeping on the floor of their communal space. After a day I had an opportunity to visit a school they ran. The school was fast running into debt but provided an invaluable service to the community as they allowed each child’s family to pay according to their means. The majority of the students had escaped or still live in severe hardship. Hamal-Khan introduced me to students who had fled US drone battered Waziristan and who had escaped the US invasion of Afghanistan or natural disasters in and around the region.
In Hamal’s home I spent a lot of time talking with his cousins who were roughly my age, our conversations were a sobering opportunity to see how vastly our lives differ. His cousin Abdul explained to me how he’d only just returned from Iran a month ago and barely escaped death when being beaten by Iranian police when they inspected his documents and found nothing. They sent him back immediately. Abdul had a gentle demeanour and looked upon his hardship with humour, I struggled to do the same. I asked him about finding employment and the Balochi Liberation Front, he answered:
“I don’t get work, when an employer hears my name and knows I’m Baloch they turn me away. I save up money to go into the city to find work and get turned down, sometimes on the way home the Pakistani police stop me and ask me for my name, when they here I’m Baloch they insist I am a terrorist, they tell me unless I pay them 500 rupees they will arrest me. I can’t afford to look for serious work any-more. The BLA offer some of us an opportunity, they say come and fight against those who hate you because you are Baloch, come and represent your people and of course they feed you, teach you and give you money for your family. I won’t go but I understand why people do.”
I knew the state prejudices were true, I myself had heated confrontations with Pakistani police, them pointing their guns at and trying to arrest me because I look like a Baloch and am bearded. By 1990 the nationalist sentiment which had been subdued by superficial promises began to resurge, this was owed largely to the Baloch Students Organisation. The BSO runs out of Quetta University and have long been central both ideologically and logistically to the Baloch insurgency. The students are fast becoming the primary target of the Pakistani military machine. Whilst I was in Quetta they suffered a huge loss to their organisation when Pakistani soldiers stormed the union within the university compound and kidnapped their current student leader, everyone is certain that his fate is fatal.
In 2005 Marri and Bugti, political leaders whose two tribes constitute the largest Balochi factions presented a 15 point agenda to the Pakistani government. Within a year Bugti was killed fighting the Pakistani military and the situation spiraled; his death was viewed as a martyrdom by the agitated youth, riots ensued. Since the early 2000’s until now, and particularly after 2006, Baluchis have been continually kidnapped at random by Pakistani frontier corps. Although official statistics place the missing between 5-10,000, most locals know this figure to be over 15,000. Recently a bold and brave march comprised of families of missing persons walked thousands of kilometres to Islamabad in order to demand answers from the capital.
Make or break
The Balochistan Liberation Force, an armed wing of the BSO, appeared on the scene in 2003 and immediately had a profound effect on the scope of combat in the region. It’s leader, Dr Nazar, has become Balochistan’s “Sub-Commandante Marcos,” both an articulate, intelligent spokesman who pens open letters to the public and a formidable guerilla fighter who continues to take out Pakistani soldiers in a furious flurry of desert warfare. His 2006 capture led to an image of him, frail and ill on an ambulance stretcher, which went viral and brought him nationwide attention. The mounting public pressure led Pakistani authorities to then release this nascent hero an ongoing opponent of Islamabad’s mandates.
Dr Allah Nazar is the face of a new dynamic within the Balochi struggle for sovereignty, a current which sadly still retains the sometimes gratuitous violence of previous liberation groups in the region. I got an opportunity to discuss the issue of Baluchi nationalism with students in Lahore’s National College of Arts, a place full of progressive thinkers. The students turned out to be of the same opinion as others I had spoken to in Karachi: that Balochi nationalism is both patriarchal and classist in its background and that the Sardar system, the traditional tribal system, is no longer representative in its current format. They are right, the tribal Sardar systems traditional values have long been warped, owed entirely to British colonisation and the allocation of absolute power to certain tribal chiefs - a recurrent theme across the empire where the sun never set.
I am a doctor but I am a Baloch. I have a nation, I have a land, I have roots in my land and in my nation. I have a culture and I am connected with my culture.
“I have seen the poverty. My arms are not a sign of terrorism, because my arms are bound totally by a political ideology, that ideology is to help for freedom and to seek it not only for Balochistan but for the rest of the world,” Dr Allah Nazar, BLF.
This tribal irresponsibility has only further eroded since Pakistani independence, however the newer waves of Baluchi thinking differ, Dr Nazar being case in hand. Dr Allah Nazar in response to allegations that wealthy Sardars finance the uprising has responded that, “all the tribal chiefs are in the pocket of state, all the tribal chiefs are puppets, they are playing and are an alliance of ISI and Military Intelligence”. He cites the ceaseless expansion of the Pakistani military occupation as the crux behind the necessity to take up arms. As human rights breaches accelerate from both camps, the worlds citizens cannot afford simply to ignore this conflict, which Balochi nationalists call “a deepening struggle for freedom”. Although the BSO/BLF movement want Baloch to decide their own fate, Dr Allah Nazar and his companions have envisioned a just Baluchistan state, which is as follows:
“I want it to be a democratic, secular and welfare state where every citizen – irrespective of their class, gender, religion or caste, has access to free education and healthcare. Every citizen should enjoy equal rights without any discrimination. Also, an independent Balochistan would not enter into the nuclear arms’ race and it would promote peaceful co-existence among neighbouring countries. The state would promote arts, science and literature under the policy of free-speech. I strongly believe in free-speech and it’s one thing that can guarantee the prosperity and success of a nation.”
In Peshawar I was fortunate to stay with a wonderful Pakhtoon man called Qaisar. One evening stroll we stopped, pulled up our traditional Shalwar Khameez and crouched down in the grounds of Peshawar University, just outside of his home. He explained how some 40 years ago in this very same place the first Mujahideen fighters also crouched, discussed and brought about the birth of Al-Qaeda. As Qaisar and many others know and repeat, Pakistan is the hornets’ nest of extremism and from inside its confines it exports these homemade dangers eastwards. One eyed Mullah Omar of the Taliban famously made a home in Pakistan, Bin Laden retired to Pakistan; it is the home and haven of Islamic Extremism.
One of the central arguments of Balochi nationalists is that an independent state of Balochistan offers an opportunity to create a physical buffer between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan and cap the flow of extremists into the Middle East and Africa. As getting information out of Balochistan grows harder, the global discussion is fast getting sidelined. The Balochi press clubs regularly hold protests, over 30 journalists have been killed in Baluchistan in the past 6 years, simply because Pakistan, like any occupying state, does not want an alternate version to their line escaping the region. One thing is for certain, so long as the Pakistani government continue to militarize their presence in Balochistan, to usurp their natural resources and to corrupt them from the inside, Baloch people will continue to resist and the bloodshed will deepen, we as an international community must not be silent onlookers.