Why is Balochistan Province demanding independence?

Abducted in Karachi

Thousands of Baluch have been kidnapped by Pakistani security forces in recent years. The perpetrators go unpunished.

By Andrzej Rybak (text and photos), Karachi

Sagheer Baloch was sitting with friends in the canteen at Karachi University when men in civilian clothes stormed the rooms. They packed the bag and the laptop of the 21-year-old political scientist and threw him and his belongings into a white Toyota that was waiting outside the door. That was on November 20, 2017 at around 5 p.m.

Dozens of fellow students saw the incident, but no one interfered out of fear. Because everyone knew: The men belong to the Pakistan Rangers, the infamous paramilitary force of the Interior Ministry. Only they are allowed to drive cars and motorcycles on the cordoned-off university grounds.

The human rights situation in Pakistan is depressing: religious and ethnic minorities are discriminated against, women forcibly married and murdered on the grounds of "honor". Armed conflicts and politically motivated violence play a major role in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh as well as in the tribal areas in the north-west of the country.

Every day, somewhere in the country, people are abducted by members of the secret services or the army: activists from minorities who strive for autonomy, journalists and human rights activists critical of the regime, opposition politicians and students. But worst of all is the Baluch. According to human rights activists, up to 20,000 people from Balochistan have been kidnapped by security forces in the past few decades. Most of them never reappeared. "Today there is hardly an intact family in Balochistan, everyone has lost relatives," complains Tayyaba Baloch, the deputy chairwoman of the Balochian Organization for Human Rights (BHRO). "Every day the army cleanses, sets fire to houses and villages."

Sagheer Baloch, the kidnapped student, is also a Baluch. His sister Hamida doesn't have a good feeling about it. "We haven't seen any signs of life from him since he disappeared," she says tearfully. Although the police recorded the testimony of the witnesses, both rangers and other guards later denied they were involved in the operation. "He does not belong to any political organization," emphasizes the sister. "His only sin is probably that he comes from Avaran." The region is considered a stronghold of the Baloch nationalists.

Balochistan in the southwest of the country is the largest province in Pakistan. It is about the size of Germany, but only a good twelve million people live here, many of them in poverty. After the withdrawal of the British in 1947, the predominantly Baluch-populated area sought independence, but was annexed by the newly founded Pakistan in 1948. The government in Islamabad abolished an initially granted partial autonomy in 1955. This led to new uprisings against Pakistani rule. Thousands of independence fighters were killed by the Pakistani army in the fighting in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The Baluch have a problem similar to that of the Kurds. Their settlement area extends over several countries: Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Kalat Khan founded the first independent Baluch state in 1666, and the region came under British rule in the 19th century. With the special autonomous status in colonial British India, the Baluch have established their right to independence to this day.

Pakistan doesn't want to know anything about that. Demands by the Baluch for more rights are crushed by the army. The last uprising began in 2004 and lasted eight years. In addition, the Pakistani government accuses the Baluch of making pacts with India and of being financed and supported by Indian intelligence services. The Baluch deny this. The Pakistani government has never presented any relevant evidence.

All of this leads to a climate of oppression. Many Baluch feel like enemies in their own country. Anyone who campaigns for Balochistan in Pakistan, whether peacefully or with a weapon, is considered a terrorist. In the fight against the "terrorists", the army uses every means: people are abducted, tortured, killed - without official charges, without a court judgment. The army is even said to have poisoned wells and watering holes to take away the livelihoods of the Baluch. Such reports can hardly be verified - Balochistan is difficult to access for foreigners.

"Last year alone, 2,114 Baluch people were abducted as part of punitive actions by the army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps," says human rights activist Tayyaba Baloch. "545 were tortured and killed. We found many bodies. But most of them are missing a trace." Your organization tries to collect and document all news about human rights abuses against the Baluch. The activists visit the families of the abducted people, give consolation and provide support. "We are repeatedly hindered and harassed in our work by the army and police," complains the 20-year-old. She too is risking her life in her work: "In the past, they only kidnapped Baluchi men, now women are also kidnapped."

Tayyaba Baloch sits under a tent roof on the outer wall of the International Press Club in Karachi. This is the last place in the port metropolis where the Baluch are allowed to demonstrate without being taken away by the police. The families of the abducted people gather here regularly to draw attention to their relatives. "If our brothers are terrorists or have committed a crime, they should be brought to justice and sentenced," says Hamida Baloch, the sister of the missing student.

The uncertainty about her brother is the worst thing for her. Most of the time, the families of the abductees do not learn anything about the whereabouts of their relatives, the wives do not know whether they are still married or already widows. When the missing people reappear, they are mostly dead and bear traces of torture. Many corpses are so badly defaced that they can hardly be seen.

Like Noor Achmad. On January 2, 2018, his mutilated body was found in a field near Mirabad, about 200 kilometers northeast of Karachi. The torturers had torn out his eyes and there were several wounds in his stomach. "It was the military," says his niece Zahra, who was there when Noor Achmad was arrested. "Our car was stopped in front of an army base. They took my uncle to interrogate him and ordered us to go home." That was on July 28, 2016.

The 26-year-old Zahra protested loudly until the soldiers threatened to lock her up as well. She reported the incident to the police. Noor Achmad was a teacher and was highly regarded. However, the police have refused to investigate to this day. "They told us that they would risk their lives investigating the army," says Zahra. The family then filed a lawsuit against the Frontier Corps in the Balochian provincial capital of Quetta - and were immediately threatened by soldiers.

"They used to wear civilian clothes when they kidnapped people," says Asad Butt, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Karachi. Meanwhile the killers acted more and more bluntly. "Now they're pulling up in army cars in their uniforms." Sometimes the local police are even forced to assist with the actions. When Butt asks the rangers to comment on the authorities, they deny anything. "I once presented film recordings in court that showed that the military was involved. Even that didn't work," he says, shaking his head.

The forgotten conflict with the Baluch is currently being burdened by an infrastructure project worth billions: the construction of the Sino-Pakistani corridor, which is to run over 3,000 kilometers from the Chinese border in the north of the country across Balochistan to the port of Gwardar on the Indian Ocean. The project is part of China's plans for a "New Silk Road". An expressway and several power plants are to be built, and raw materials are to be extracted and processed. Balochistan is the most mineral-rich region in Pakistan. Natural gas, coal, zinc and gold are stored in the earth.

Thousands of families have already been expropriated for the project. "The Chinese are stealing our land and our raw materials," complains Jamila Baloch, sister of the killed Noor Achmad. And bitterly she adds: "Syria is lucky, the whole world knows what is happening there. The crimes of the Pakistani army in Balochistan, on the other hand, are hardly known." Neither the opposition, the media, nor the government wanted to take on the army for the Baluchi. "Only pressure from the West can help us," she says. And: "If the US stopped supplying weapons and ammunition, the human rights situation would probably be better."