Balochistan: Self-inflicted misery?

Published: September 12, 2014
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Quetta, I should say, was one of the most peaceful places in Pakistan, where the locals of all ethnicities had been living in harmony for time immemorial. PHOTO: ISRAA SHAH

My fondest childhood memories are of rolling down the landscaped gardens of the rest-house located beside the Quaid-e-Azam’s residency in Ziarat. The undulating open space spotted with the frosted looking juniper trees provided an ideal environment for the equally inviting wooden dens; and the fresh dew on the grass under the clear blue sky was then so tempting for us to feel.

Visiting these dream homes used to be the highlight of our summer vacations. The short picnics to Hanna Lake, Ziarat and Wali Tangi were enriching and peaceful to say the least. Quetta, I should say, was one of the most peaceful places in Pakistan, where the locals of all ethnicities had been living in harmony for time immemorial.

Western tourists pose with a group of locals outside a rest house in Ziarat in Balochistan (1974). Photo: Shahzeb Khan Khichi Facebook page

The political landscape, however, has changed within a decade. And the burning down of Quaid’s residency was a monumental loss and a symbolic action against the state.

Visiting this volatile city is now a risk very few take; a walk down its once sheltered streets is almost inconceivable. Contrary to popular belief, the people bearing the brunt of this unrest are mostly the “settlers”. These are people who settled in Balochistan but are not the locals, for example the Punjabis and Hazaras. This label has become a part of their identity after the conflict started.

The overt observation, though not necessarily the real cause, is that some of the Balochis and the Baloch Liberation Army’s sentiment about Pakistan, as a State, and its military are highly bitter. Separatist groups and conflicts rose rapidly after the assassination of Baloch tribe leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti. The conflict and associated chaos caused by sectarian violence and target killings has cost us an innumerable number of lives and misery. Not only is the killing of Bugti considered unjustified, they also feel they have not been treated equally, such as on grounds of socio-economic and political advancement. Which is, on many fronts, an undeniable fact.

National Party Vice-President Hasil Bizenjo remarked on this and said,

“There is a joke in the province that if you want authorities to stop pursuing a murder case, have it claimed by one of the many rebel groups operating in Balochistan”.

Picture in Quaid’s residency, before it was burned down. Photo: Israa Shah

This thought has arguably led to a separatist ideology; some Baloch feel they are better off without links to Pakistan. This aggression has maligned relations between the locals and the settlers, though most Baloch people do not share the same separatist view. The animosity reflects major failure on part of the government to maintain solidarity within the state. However, it is not just a struggle for equality, in the midst of it all, religious minorities have taken major hits which makes one wonder if the external government intervention, in the form of the Frontier Corps (FC), has effectively put an end to this problem. Is the Taliban the sole reason behind this violence or is it the BLA, as they like to call themselves, marking their territory?

Sectarian homicide continues to be the prime challenge in the province today. The province now has a decade-long mutiny as part of its history that is yet to be resolved. Generations and families have been destroyed because of acts of intolerance. It affects the freedom of people; the constant fear of being a target diminishes the quality of life of people engulfed in fear and, consequently, at enmity.

In my opinion, what is happening in Balochistan is an example of extremism that is covered as Baloch nationalism; it is an oft mentioned source of problems around the world today. Extremism has many faces and it greatly effects society today, and threatens lives and livelihood of those involved and those that are not. Moreover, they manipulate religion and nationalism for gains of a few, as the saying goes; one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.

Hanna Lake. Photo: Israa Shah

Another factor that comes to mind is that the Baloch aren’t the only ones demanding separation on grounds of inequality; this has also been the concern of the people in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) region. However, even though the government has done little for them, the people of G-B have sustained themselves far better than anywhere else in Pakistan. They have the highest literacy rate in the country, with no thanks to government, and are independent in all senses of the word, save for a demarcation line drawn out on a map. But the same cannot be said about Balochistan. Despite the government’s shortcoming, the feudal system in Balochistan has made life worse for the people, if anything. The poor have become poorer, and the settlers are facing a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ while the feudal lords enjoy their own life of bubbled luxury. The province, on its own, has not helped itself or proven that it would, in any way, be able to sustain itself alone.

Quetta city. Photo: Israa Shah

The Hazara, Punjabi and Urdu-speaking people residing within the province have been particularly subjected to ruthless brutality. These ‘settlers’, as they are called, cannot roam freely within the city without fear of being killed, victimised or abducted. The violence is not limited to young men; even women, children and the elderly face the same threat. Countless settlers have lost their lives in the face of this ethnic cum religious cleansing, and it is only recently that the media has acknowledged the suffering and highlighted their plight. The numbers of missing people cases reported by the official commissions and those given by non-governmental organisations reflect the gap in media reporting. In 2013, Nasrullah Baloch, the chairperson of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons stated that,

“621? Not at all. 23,000 is the number of registered cases. From this, a whole 14,000 came during the current government’s tenure.”

Despite lack of support from the government or media, the settlers have bravely strived in the face of all this horror. The only refuge they seek from the conflict is to migrate out of the province to other locations, especially Punjab. However, this migration is not an easy option either. Aside from the fact that it is difficult to leave one’s birthplace, it is also a costly affair to resettle entire families to a new area, not to mention starting afresh professionally. Furthermore, it is risky for them to announce their plans of migrating and sell their assets, due to threats.

Hanna Lake. Photo: Israa Shah

From afar, it is hard to imagine the pain of those who consider this province their origin; it is hard to imagine the pain of people whose family members are shot outside their workplace or their young children who are abducted from their own houses.

Quaid’s residency, before it was burned down. Photo: Israa Shah

Why is it that people who have been living in the province since pre-partition are considered ‘settlers’ and in times of trouble are seen as the scapegoats? Why is it that they can no longer call their home, home? Suddenly, their neighbour is not a neighbour anymore. He is the enemy.

Israa Shah

Israa Shah

She enjoys travelling and eating.

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