Where were you Lahore, when we were protesting for our missing Baloch brethren?

Published: February 19, 2014
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The protestors had no common ground with the Punjabis, except a historical resentment. PHOTO: FILE

The protestors had no common ground with the Punjabis, except a historical resentment. PHOTO: FILE The protestors had no common ground with the Punjabis, except a historical resentment. PHOTO: FILE The protestors had no common ground with the Punjabis, except a historical resentment. PHOTO: FILE

I attended the long march of the Baloch Voice for Missing Persons (BVMP) in Lahore to show my solidarity with the cause. I was amongst the journalists who came from various news organisations to document a critical portion of the walk that had departed from Quetta last year.

The protestors were entering the capital of Punjab. The reception they got here could mirror the reception they receive in Islamabad.

The walk had caused quite a stir among those who followed the story behind it. The protest walk, led by Mama Qadeer Baloch, the vice president of the BVMP, received due press attention at each stop they made. When they entered Punjab, excitement over the growing popularity of the cause grew.

The protestors were warmly received in Karachi, Hyderabad and several other places in Sindh. There was no reason why the protestors, mostly women, would not get the same reception in Punjab, except, of course, given the history of the Baloch struggle against state brutality.

I met the protestors at the Canal, two hours after they had started walking from Thokar Niaz Baig to the office of the Punjab Union of Journalists on Mall Road. At first sight, the protestors looked like a small collection of people. On a closer look, I saw that they were much more organised; nearly 50 boys had formed a human chain around Mama Qadeer, Farzana Baloch and eight other women who were pushing a cart carrying pictures of their missing men. There was an additional space for female protestors who had joined the walk. Another group of 50 young men flanked the human chain, carrying posters and distributing pamphlets.

Behind them, an ambulance and a police patrol van drove slowly – a constant reminder of the fear we live in.

30 minutes into the walk and I am slowly getting aware of my aching feet. An hour into it, my throat was parched and the layers of winter clothing I had on me felt like a burden I was encased in. My hair was a mess from the wind and my face was burning up from the relentless sun. An hour later, I started wondering when the protestors would finally stop.

I pushed into the group to try to get to one of the ladies who had arrived from Quetta.

I politely called out to the backs of three women wearing hats with Che Guevara’s face on it. One of them turned when I asked,

“Are you with the people who came from Quetta?”

She nodded curtly and kept walking. I tried again. I was desperate.

“How long have you been walking?”

She turned to look at me again. I couldn’t see her face because she had covered it. But I could see her eyes trying to gauge me. I could almost hear her contemplating whether to trust me or not. Finally, she spoke.

“I walked from Karachi

I exclaimed, repeating her answer with complete astonishment. She had been walking since January 10.

“Wow, you walked really far.”

She nodded and looked at me for an long moment. The girls she was walking with were also beginning to show interest. They gave me furtive looks which did not go unnoticed because the only visible part of their face was their eyes.

She spoke again.

My brother is missing

This time I stared at her. I searched her eyes as she searched mine. I hoped to God she hadn’t seen the panic I was feeling. How does a person ask for more details when you already know the answer?

But I also got mad at her for a moment. Why wasn’t she showing me her face? Then I realised that I probably didn’t want to see the grief, fear and exhaustion etched on it. It took me a while before I finally choked out,

“How long?”

I could tell she still clearly remembers the date when she said,

“Since August 13”

I daren’t ask her what that day was like.

“Who took them?”

She gave me a wary look and said,

 “Agencies”

I decided I needed to change the topic. It was too heavy. I have a brother too and the thought process going on in my head had to stop. So I changed the topic and asked,

“How was the journey through Punjab?”

She had a smile in her voice when she replied.

“The people in Dera Ghazi Khan were very nice. We had a nice dinner and a nice place to stay.”

I then asked her,

“What about Multan?”

She shrugged. So evidently, Multan hadn’t fully won her over. I carried on with my inquisition,

“What about the rest?”

She replied with disappointment in her voice,

“From Khanewal onwards, people stopped being welcoming,”

As I processed this, I frowned. She saw my confused face and added,

“They were cold.”

And I understood. The protestors had left the Saraiki/Baloch belt of South Punjab and had entered Central Punjab, the backbone of the province. Here the protestors had no common ground with the Punjabis, except a historical resentment.

I opened my mouth again, but she cut me off.

“One minute”

She turned around, raised a loudspeaker to her mouth and called out,

“Mama Qadeer, kadam barhao

(Mama Qadeer, step forward)

And from behind me, a chorus of male voice rang out,

Hum tumharay saath hain

(We are with you)

She gave me one last apologetic look and began chanting in earnest.

“Baloch rights are also human rights.

“We want justice.”

Free those who have gone missing

And finally, a chant that sounded like a hymn; they called out a list of names of men who were taken away from their families, like a prayer for their safe return.

The protest walk in Lahore was attended by 200 people. Awami Workers Party and a group of other people’s movements facilitated their stay. When I asked around, I was told that the protestors were all young Baloch and Pakhtuns studying at the Punjab University and the Government College. They didn’t identify themselves through their ethnicity unless asked.

I asked one handsome young Baloch student why he was there. He was almost offended I asked the question when he replied,

“To mark my protest of course!”

I spoke to Noore Maryam, the co-founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance, who was also walking with the protestors. I spoke to her in Lahore and later in Gujrat on Tuesday night once the group had settled in.

She told me,

“Lahore’s response has been quite disappointing. While the protestors had been warmly received by supporters in Gujranwala and Gujrat, entering the cities was suddenly problematic. The protestors, notably Mama Qadeer, received threatening phone calls from untraceable numbers. The callers told us to call off the march for we would not be allowed to enter further cities ‘at any cost’. While these calls had been alarming, we decided to proceed with the march nonetheless. There was nothing to lose.

When we were entering Gujrat, we were stopped by a large contingent of police, something that we had not encountered all through our journey. The police included a team of the Elite Force, which did a head count of the number of protestors (nine women, two boys and several males). They apparently had orders to arrest us if we got violent. They had no idea who we were and had been told that we were a group of terrorists.”

I inquired about the progress of the protest,

“How did you all manage to enter Gujrat, then?”

She informed me that,

“We reasoned with them, of course. We told them we were their sisters and were going to register our protest in Islamabad. When we told them that we were protesting against illegal abduction of Baloch men, one of the policemen exclaimed that his brother had gone missing a week ago. As we spoke to the policemen, we saw their expressions soften. They were immediately sympathetic towards us and eventually, they let us pass.”

I asked her about what they’re hoping to achieve from this protest, when she told me,

 “We want the United Nations to take notice of this brutal policy. When we reach Islamabad, we will protest outside the UN office. We want them to hold the government of Pakistan accountable.”

It was a simple plea.

She informed me that the best way to show solidarity was to show up to the protest in Islamabad when the protestors reach, which was expected to be in three days.

“We know that some Baloch and Pakhtun activists will be joining us in Islamabad. But there is strength in numbers. We hope many people come out and join us in this protest.”

I was curious about how the protestors had managed to stay hydrated through the journey. Maryam told me that the ambulance that has been driving behind them from Quetta was donated by the Edhi Foundation. The ambulance was packed with first aid supplies and a stock of water bottles.

My last question to her was borne out of pure curiosity. I wanted to know the name of the girl who had spoken to me briefly in Lahore. She informed me that it was Zarina Baloch. I looked up the meaning of her name – gold. To me, she immediately became the ‘Golden Girl’. Her brother’s name is Manzoor Qalandarani.

Ali Haider, a nine-year-old boy who I also spotted in Lahore, has not seen his father since 2009. Maryam answered my queries about this boy as,

“He was discouraged from joining the march because he is so young. He is a determined young man and therefore he refused to just stand back and not participate.”

The rest of the protestors included Farzana Majeed, who has the flu as she walks, and has not seen her brother Zakir Majeed since 2009. Sammi Baloch has lost her father Dr Deen Muhammad. Some other names of the protestors include two girls – Samina Baloch and Gul Saba.

The low participation of the Punjabis and the indifference shown to the protestors in Lahore was not missed by anyone. I was left wondering where the Lahoris were.

Is it because the protestors did not bring with them an entourage of singers to entertain them?

Is it because the walk was just too inconvenient?

Is the cause not grave enough?

Is Mama Qadeer not fun enough? Good looking enough? Not giving away free laptops?

Aima.Khosa

Aima Khosa

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @aimamk

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • mabby

    I think its because those people hate Punjabis, and probably their missing loved ones killed or atleast supported killing of punjabis/non-balochis in Balochistan. Hatred begets hatred.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Possibly the people in general were simply not ‘ properly ‘ aware of the plight of the protesters.
    For a protest to be meaningful takes a fair amount of advance preparation and most importantly the cause has to be seen as a just cause. Simply expecting the average person to somehow know about such matters in detail, is not justified.
    Yes there is much written in the press and on the electronic media but, in my view, there still are issues that are not clear………in simple language the other side of the story has not been clarified.
    I do not wish to sound unsympathetic but I have tried to give an explanation……..and may be i’m wrong. Recommend

  • http://Lahore [email protected]

    I imagine it’s because Lahoris, and Punjabis, are complacent. The state of Pakistan is theirs and works for them. It’s harder for them to identify with fellow Pakistanis who have been left behind by the state. This is not to say that Punjabis don’t have political, economic, and social problems, but just that their sense of ownership in the machinery of the state makes it hard for them to relate to those who not only feel no such ownership but have in fact been actively targeted by the state apparatus. Pakistan will be at peace only when all citizens can feel that sense of ownership and stake in national affairs.Recommend

  • Sajid

    Lahoris were busy celebrating their world record of largest human flag. The patriots obviously know how to love their country.Recommend

  • Ahmer

    excellent and timely piece aima. reminds me of habib jalib

    jaag mayray punjab, k pakistan challa
    toot gaey sub khoab, k pakistan challaRecommend

  • http://peaceandsecularstudies.org diep

    Ms Aima,excellent piece, wish you were kind enough to mention the kids standing at the canal side holding white baloons and a placard stating we are with you. Their parents were showering the rose petals from the overhead bridge. Wonder if you were with them at the reception by PFUJRecommend

  • GM

    Pakistan menas Punjab & Punjab means Pakistan……..Recommend

  • http://@net Chakwali

    Very simple. They do not care about anyone
    else. Just about themselves. PeriodRecommend

  • Aurang Zaib

    The pain of a missing family member remains deeply etched on a person’s psyche, only those can imagine who are experiencing this pain. Seeing the dead bodies, hearing bad news about their missing love ones, the whole baloch society is being converted into walking dead.Recommend

  • Feroz

    In India a million people would have supported this humanitarian march within a week by joining it. Apathy to others problems and suffering has been the bane of PakistanRecommend

  • Hammurabi

    I am from Lahore. I will support a missing person if I am sure he/she is not connected with terrorists.Most of them ,if not all ,have some problems otherwise our agencies are not so callous to round up innocents.Recommend

  • tungi

    one of the reason being that many of us beleive that the missing persons are picked up for a reason: their demand for accessionRecommend

  • umair usman

    this is a hate artcile, really. Implies Lahories do not care about Baloch while such an incident doesnt prove anything concusively. this article will just ignite more provincial hatredRecommend

  • bigsaf

    Balochistan really has become Pakistan’s Kashmir, where men are easily picked up and killed. Worst place to be a journalist too. No accountability or due process, and sad to say, most of us like it that way and will simply dismiss or justify the disappearances due to our biases, everything from ‘Indian conspiracy’ to ‘blame your feudals’ (never understood why Arab or European funding by dissidents gets overlooked).

    Its not just ethnic discrimination and state abuse alone, though it does feed into the nationalist militant insurgency which is also culprit. Its compounded with the extremist presence which seem to have found safe haven.

    There’s a recent article by Ahmed Rashid on the BBC, which is worth a read.
    “Balochistan: The untold story of Pakistan’s other war”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-26272897Recommend

  • Nouman Ahmed

    Irrelevant comparison.Recommend

  • Nouman Ahmed

    Careless generalization.Recommend

  • Nouman Ahmed

    It is the Punjab who played the major role in restoration of constitution in 2008 and it is the Sindh who elects PPP again and again. Now How’s this comparison?Recommend