Feature: The road less travelled

by Irfan Aslam

“As a child, I used to dream of coming to Lahore to study in its universities but look what fate has brought me here for,” remarks Farzana Majeed, a member of Mama Qadeer’s Voice of Baloch Missing People’s (VBMP) long march.

“Only a few people came out to respond to the cries of the Baloch in a Lahore of 20 million people. This city does not seem to feel our pain,” she said while addressing a gathering in front of the Punjab Union of Journalists’ office.

Mama Qadeer and his group, which includes 10 women and two children, reached Thokar Niaz Baig, Lahore, on February 12 after walking for almost five months since the start of their long march from Quetta.

Just as the marchers were crossing Ferozepur Road, a few hundred yards away from them in the National Hockey Stadium, the Punjab government’s arrangement for breaking the record of the biggest human flag with more than 29,000 students was in full swing. For 10 year old Ali Haider Baloch, the youngest of the marchers, world records were the last thing on his mind. With tears in his eyes he tells us about the day his father, a labourer named Ramzan Baloch, was abducted four years ago. He hasn’t been heard from since.

“I never felt tired, whenever we did, we used to have breaks for tea, drinks or food,” he said when asked about his experience.

“I am also accompanied by my sister Gul Saba,” he said smilingly, while, toying with the small loud speaker that the marchers were carrying with them when asked whether he felt afraid during the journey. Ali Haider Baloch is always walking with another child, Jiand Baloch, who he has befriended during his long journey. Jiand, 12, a student of grade 6, joined the march in Karachi as protest against his missing cousin.

“I developed blisters in my soles and had to change shoes twice,” said Jiand Baloch. Both the kids did not realise the political importance of their march and the response they were getting in the capital of Punjab but they did know their objective very well.

Many of the people who came out to support the VMBP were students, mostly of Baloch origin or their friends, studying in Lahore’s universities. When the marchers reached The Mall the number of people increased to two to three hundred. The day’s walk for long march ended at the Dayal Singh Mansion where Farzana Majeed, the most outspoken female member of the long march, complained about the indifferent attitude of the Lahorites but said she was thankful to those who did come out to support her.

One such person was Muhammad Shehzad, a law student and a participant in the march, who said that despite being a Punjabi he came to support the Baloch people because it was a humanitarian issue. He said he was against the extrajudicial killings and disappearances, adding that the Baloch people should be given provincial autonomy if they sought it.

Noor-e-Maryam of the Pakistan Youth Alliance was appalled at the reception that the VBMP was getting in Punjab as compared to Sindh, saying that she was with the marchers in both provinces and Sindhis supported the Baloch cause more. She said Mama Qadeer and his group were warmly welcomed in Karachi.

“Sindhi nationalist parties, women rights organisations and the general public came out to express solidarity with the marchers,” she said, complaining against the cold behaviour of the media, especially the electronic media, in Punjab. Maryam said the media had a biased approach and public support could not be garnered without its support. She was with the Baloch when the march reached Gujrat, saying she was determined to accompany the march until Islamabad.

For the participants, it’s simply a deeply personal question of justice. “My brother, Zakir Majeed Baloch, a student leader, was taken away by the security agencies from Khuzdar in 2009 in front of his two friends and we are still waiting for him to come back home,” said Farzana Majeed, adding that the news of every newly discovered body horrified the families of missing persons like hers. Ms Majeed said that if the missing persons were guilty of any crime, they should be tried in courts. “What else is the purpose of the law and courts?” she asked.

It was the failure of this very system and the political leadership of Balochistan that prompted Mama Qadeer Baloch to launch this movement.

“They disappointed us and we launched our protest movement with the families of the missing persons,” he went on to say while holding a rosary in his hand. Placing his hand on the shoulders of his seven-year-old grandson, Beauragh, he said his son Jalil Reiki Baloch was picked up by the agencies, was tortured for three years and his body was sent to the family after he was killed.

“Many of the bodies recovered from the Khuzdar mass graves were mutilated beyond recognition and Shafiq Mengal, with the support of the agencies, is behind the disappearances and mass graves,” Qadeer claimed, adding that Kohlu, Dera Bugti and Sui also had mass graves but nobody was allowed to go there.

At the time of the filing of this report, the VBMP is marching in Gujrat on their way to Pindi. A couple of days earlier at Wazirabad, a contingent of women police also started moving with the marchers, raising fears among them that perhaps the women police were there to arrest the female members of the long march.

When Mama Qadeer Baloch was contacted last time (on Wednesday), he said he was determined to reach Islamabad even though police were discouraging him from moving forward. He said the marchers received better public support in Gujranwala as compared to Lahore, adding that he wanted to make people aware of the atrocities perpetrated on the Baloch people.

“We will reach Islamabad even if a single person from the marchers manages to hold a sit-in there. We will submit the list of missing persons and mutilated bodies to the United Nations and ambassadors of other countries,” he said, adding that they would request the United Nations to force the Pakistan government to stop human rights violations in Balochistan.

“By various means, they (police and secret agencies) are conveying a message to us that we will not be allowed to reach Rawalpindi. They want us to abandon the march but we won’t,” he said.

Nabeela Ghazanfar, Punjab Police spokesperson and Public Relations Officer at the Punjab IG’s office, said that police were providing every possible security to the marchers since they entered the province from Rajanpur. However, they were forced to stop at night to ensure their security, she said, adding that Punjab government did not want any harm to befall Mama Qadeer or his fellows. She denied the reports that they would be arrested or stopped at any point during their long march saying, “there is no such direction from the administration or the government that the marchers should not reach Rawalpindi.”

When this report sees print, the VBMP would be hopefully somewhere in the mountains of Jhelum, if they carry on smoothly with their pace of 20km per day. As the marchers near their destination, the electronic media is busy giving airtime to talks with the Taliban who, after slaughtering thousands of Pakistanis, are conveniently considered stakeholders. While the country debates questions like the Taliban’s acceptance of the constitution, the Baloch march — aimed at protecting the rights given to them by that very constitution — continues in silence. Perhaps their footfalls are too silent to be heard in the corridors of power.


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