Baloch activists with photographs of their missing family members at a sit-in protest in Islamabad, December 25, 2023 (Photo: AP)
SAMMI DEEN BALOCH WAS 10 when her father, a government doctor, was abducted from the hospital he worked at in Khuzdar, Balochistan, on June 28, 2009. The abductors, Pakistani security forces, or their mercenaries, came in two vehicles at around 11PM. They went to the room which Deen Mohammed Baloch had just entered after doing a round of patients he was treating. They beat him up, and after he was handcuffed and blindfolded, they threw him into the back of one of their vehicles and took him away. It has been 15 years and there has been no official confirmation of his whereabouts.
“I have very little memory of him,” said Sammi, speaking to Open from Quetta. “For years, I could not say whether I am an orphan or not, and my mother wouldn’t know if she is a widow or not.”
The only news Deen Mohammed’s family has of him has come from jailed Baloch people who are among the lucky ones to have been freed from Pakistani jails. One of them, Ehsaan Arjumandi, released after 13 years from a prison, told the family that he had seen Deen Mohammed in a cell in a Pakistani cantonment. From the time of her father’s abduction, since that tender age, Sammi has been on marches, walking thousands of kilometres with other family members of disappeared people, in the hope that the authorities would be forced to release her father and that she would be able to see him.
In December, Sammi and other affected Baloch women marched to Pakistani capital Islamabad for a sit-in protest. Marches have happened before, but this time it has sharpened the focus on the issue of human rights in Balochistan. However, it is a long fight, which Baloch activists like Sammi are well aware of. Over the last two decades, there have been 7,000 cases of recorded disappearances of Balochis, which activists say is a conservative estimate. In many cases, the families do not come forward because of intimidation by Pakistani forces. “They are scared because someone will come to their door and say they would harm other family members if they reported the disappearance,” said Sammi.
Enforced disappearances are quite common in Balochistan, done in the name of fighting insurgency (for a separate Baloch nation). Victims have included political workers like Sammi’s father and journalists and students. Officially, the Pakistan government has repeatedly denied its hand in these disappearances. Pakistan’s Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar (who is from Balochistan himself) has in the past called these numbers “exaggerated”.
In many cases the disappeared are later found dead. Journalist Declan Walsh describes such bodies surfacing “like corks bobbing up in the dark”. They are found in desolate locations, badly tortured, with a gunshot wound to the head. Many of those abducted are later branded as terrorists and killed in fake encounters. In a recent case, a man called Balaach Mola Baksh was picked up from his home by Pakistan’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) on October 29. He was charged with carrying explosives. A day before his bail plea was to be heard, CTD said it had killed four Baloch insurgents in an encounter in Turbat city. Baksh was found to be one of them.
It is Baksh’s cold-blooded murder that prompted hundreds of women like Sammi to begin a march from Turbat to Islamabad, a distance of roughly 1,500km. They arrived in Islamabad and sat in front of the National Press Club, hoping to get media coverage. They faced a lot of intimidation from the authorities apart from silently suffering the vagaries of a cold winter from which they did not have enough protection. “They tried to cut our rations, block roads. But we kept at it,” said Sammi. Pakistani authorities were hoping that they would lose traction. But this time it did not happen. The news of the protest got more attention than ever.
Along with Sammi and others, Mahrang has been able to bring international attention to the Baloch cause. They have been involved in collecting data more rigorously. They were able to collect data on almost 600 individuals for whom no earlier
record had existed
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Among the women who sat in the almost-freezing temperatures was Najma Baloch, Baksh’s sister. “We refused to bury my brother for seven days,” she said. “For us, he was not only my brother but all of Baloch people.” As they sat with his body in Turbat, hundreds of people joined them. It is this protest that later resulted in the march on Islamabad that has created a formidable ground to show the extent of Baloch suffering.
BALOCH JOURNALIST MALIK SIRAJ AKBAR believes Pakistan’s suppression in Balochistan stems from its fear that the country’s largest province may become another Bangladesh. After its forced accession to Pakistan in 1948, as Tilak Devasher, member of India’s National Security Advisory Board writes in his book Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum, the situation became accentuated as Pakistan treated the province as its colony. With over 40 per cent of Pakistan’s landmass, Balochistan’s importance also lies in its strategic location. Years ago, journalist Selig Seidenman Harrison had written of the Baloch land: “If it were not for the strategic location of Balochistan and the rich potential of oil, uranium and other resources, it would be difficult to imagine anyone fighting over this bleak, desolate and forbidding land.” It has two-thirds of the country’s coastline and three of its naval bases are located there. Big economic projects like the development of Gwadar port, done with Chinese help, has made it tougher for the Baloch people as Pakistan toughened its stance against separatism. As Pakistan kept extracting its pound of flesh from the province, its people continued to suffer. Balochistan has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates. It also has the least literacy and the highest rate of poverty in Pakistan.
The situation became dire especially after the killing, in 2006, of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a popular separatist leader of Balochistan. He was killed in an air force strike along with several others on his hideout in the Marri hills of Balochistan—an assassination ordered by Pervez Musharraf. Political observers like Akbar call this Balochistan’s 9/11. In response to the assassination, Baloch insurgents targeted several locations in Pakistan, leading to even further killings. Many of these were committed by what came to be known as “death squads”, a name given to private militias nurtured and supported by the Pakistani army. These squads would abduct people and in many cases kill them, dumping their bodies sometimes as far as Karachi. In July 2011, a report published by Human Rights Watch quoted a septuagenarian Baloch activist detained a year earlier, who was told by an anonymous officer that even if the president or chief justice told them to release the activist, they wouldn’t. “We can torture you, or kill you, or keep you for years at our will. It is only the Army chief and the [intelligence] chief that we obey,” the officer had told the activist.
The situation became dire especially after the killing, in 2006, of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a popular separatist leader of Balochistan. He was killed in an air force strike along with several others on his hideout in the Marri hills of Balochistan—an assassination ordered by Pervez Musharraf
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THE CURRENT PROTEST That reached Islamabad has been led under the umbrella of the Baloch Yakjehti Committee by 31-year-old Mahrang Baloch. A doctor by profession, like Sammi, Mahrang’s entire childhood was spent on protest marches after her father was abducted in 2009. Two years later, Abdul Gaffar Baloch was found dead with visible signs of torture. He had been a leftwing political activist. In 2017, Mahrang’s brother was also abducted and detained for a hundred days. Along with Sammi and others, Mahrang has been able to bring international attention to the Baloch cause. They have been involved in collecting data more rigorously. During the march alone, they were able to collect data on almost 600 individuals for whom no earlier record had existed. In Balaach’s case as well, it is the pressure exerted by them that forced the suspension of four CTD personnel who may have been involved in his killing. Last month, they were able to speak to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, about the possibility of sending a fact-finding mission to investigate the disappearances and killings.
Even as Pakistan goes to polls, it is clear that it is a long way from a real democracy. No matter who wins the election, political observers maintain it is the military that will continue to call the shots. But Sammi is hopeful. Amidst allegations that their protest is supported by India, Sammi believes that the sit-in in Islamabad was a game-changer. “Even with the crackdown, we could manage a lot of coverage. Social media has also been a turning point. We had ordinary Pakistanis coming to us and apologising to us, telling us they had very little idea about the human rights violations,” she said. She hoped that the international community, including India, would support them in getting justice.