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When will we start talking about the missing people?

by Mahim Maher

December 10, 2011 | 2:49 am

The Pakistani government stands by as thousands of its young citizens go missing from Balochistan. This ad is the worst form of hypocrisy I've seen in a long time.

There’s a figure of speech among crime reporters in Pakistan, which pretty much anyone across the world can understand if it’s translated: Bæt’ti ke neechay bet’ha dena. Sit you under a light bulb.
I first heard it at Daily Times in Karachi when one of our Baloch reporters resurfaced with his head shaved after an odd absence. When I asked another reporter what had happened, he cryptically answered that they had put him “under a light bulb.”

It was later explained to me that it meant a little chitchat with the intelligence agencies. I suspect no tea was served.

In order for this story to make sense, I’ll have to explain what a Baloch is. The word refers to anyone from an ethnic Baloch background, most likely someone from the Pakistani province/state* of Balochistan, although Baloch people are scattered across the country.

Balochistan is a bit of the ‘dark’ province in Pakistan to borrow from an Orientalist reference to Africa. The reason is a long-simmering insurgency and separatist movement, primarily but not exclusively based on what many Baloch (and indeed other Pakistanis) call an unfair exploitation of the province’s rich natural resources. I am not an expert on the Balochistan situation, which is why I’m trying to be as careful as I can while trying to convey what I know.

The reason I bring Balochistan up today is because it is International Human Rights Day, which the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has dedicated to Balochistan, where hundreds of men have disappeared over the years, ostensibly picked up by the secret agencies, tortured and then killed. Ironically, reporters call the secret agencies ‘farishtey’ or ‘angels’ because they are invisible and hover from above. They come in and do their work and no one knows.

I’ll give you an example of the clampdown on reporting on Balochistan. It is difficult for even the HRCP, Pakistan’s most well respected human rights agitator, to pin down a proper figure of how many people have gone missing or were killed. According to its estimates, 5,000 to 6,000 people (mostly men) have been abducted. From July 2010 to November 2011, 225 bodies have been found – but as anyone can guess, this is well below what the actual figure could be. One of the Baloch separatists gave us a list of the missing and dead yesterday – it was 38 pages long.

Even if I would personally want to confirm each case, or dispatch a reporter in Balochistan to do it, that wouldn’t necessarily be possible. Reporters who ask too many questions get put under a light bulb.
One of them, who has been writing about Balochistan for a long time from Quetta and has since left the country, was repeatedly threatened not to stick his nose in places where it didn’t belong.

So, no one is really willing to talk and investigations, even by the HRCP, are extremely difficult to accomplish. Because of the security threat even international journalists can’t go to the province.

In a press conference at the Karachi Press Club (in Sindh), the chairperson of the Baloch Human Rights Organisation, Nargis Baloch, appealed to the Supreme Court to take suo motu action of human rights violation by state agencies in Balochistan. I reproduce here our reporting of it:

She lashed out at the role of Pakistan Army in the province saying: “Balochistan has been handed over to the army since former president Pervez Musharraf’s regime.  Today there is just a dummy civilian government in the province.”

“Security forces have killed hundreds of innocent Baloch scholars, doctors, students, lawyers and Baloch leaders. Hundreds of Baloch are still missing from various parts of the province while decomposed bodies of people kidnapped from various areas are found on a daily bases,” she said…

Sometimes they (the state agencies) leave papers with decomposed bodies saying loyalty is with the state, Baloch said.

Aside from these press conferences where some information is given, it is a virtual blackout. But worse is that it has actually extended to the virtual world as well. I went to the website for Baloch Hal (which
I assume translates into the Condition of the Baloch). It showed up on a Google search, but when you clicked to go to the website it was blocked by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. I tried
Facebook and encountered the same thing. Scores of Baloch separatist websites have been given the same treatment.

The politics in Balochistan is dirty and all sorts of groups are involved. But someone in the newsroom said to me yesterday that it seemed like a never-ending attrition; the more the ‘secret agencies’ pick up Baloch men and the more violence that is perpetrated, the stronger the resentment and hatred will build.

Indeed, as with all violence, it begets more violence. The Baloch separatists blow up gas pipelines and railway tracks, damaging infrastructure in their own backyard. And worse still, they have been lashing out by killing Punjabis in Balochistan. Their ire is directed at Punjabis, as this province has traditionally been perceived as the seat of power in Pakistan, where all the decisions of government and army are made.

There is a relatively more contained separatist movement in my province of Sindh where ‘nationalist’ parties are forever haranguing the government over the distribution of resources – whether gas or water etc. Someone once told me that naturally resentment would build – imagine villages by gas fields have no gas themselves. They just see the gas pipelines pass through as silently as the people who have disappeared.

In the papers today there is an advertisement from the government. It says ‘Protection of Human Rights [sic] Symbol of an Independent Nation’. It mentions as one important initiative taken the ‘Aghaz-e-Huqooq Balochistan’, a package on the start of rights in Balochistan. But as reports continue to surface of missing men, reports that can’t be confirmed because reporters aren’t allowed to do their job opening, I wonder if this government and those before them have done its biggest province justice – ever.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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I am a 33-year-old journalist in Karachi, Pakistan where I work as the city or metropolitan editor for The Express Tribune, a daily national newspaper in English affiliated...

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