Willem Marx, a British journalist based in New York, recently published “Balochistan at a Crossroads” a picture book that chronicles life in Pakistan’s restive southwestern province of Balochistan.
In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, Marx weighed in on the various conflicts in Balochistan, which often result in horrific violence against civilians.
RFE/RL: What prompted you to write a book about Balochistan, which is a vast region but is little-known to people in the West?
Willem Marx: I think it was the fact that it is little-known to people in the West. I’ve spent a fair amount of time there as a non-Pakistani journalist, and so has my photographer friend Marc Watterlot. We started chatting, and we decided that we had so much material about a region that so few people from the outside are able to visit that we really should present this as a book. And we were able to find a publisher that was interested.
RFE/RL: Islamabad is keen on keeping Western journalists out of Balochistan. How did you manage to travel so extensively there?
Marx: On my first visit in 2007, the [Baluch separatist] insurgency had begun, but it was not as severe as it is today. I told the local visa authorities in New York that I wanted to show the changes in Balochistan, specifically the economic changes. They agreed to give me a visa to many of the towns where I had specific reasons to go, and that included [provincial capital] Quetta and Gawadar, where a dam has been built north of the city and a port has been built in the city itself. [I also went to] places like Turbat where there is a lot of date farming going on.
So I had reasons to go to all these places. As part of my reporting, I met with political activists, local politicians, and members of the [Baluch] nationalist movement. On subsequent trips in 2009, I spent a lot of time in and around Quetta, and was focused on the areas around the border with Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Your book talks about disappearances of Baluch separatists. How extensive are the grave human rights abuses in today’s Balochistan?
Marx: Human rights is a serious concern in Balochistan according to outside organizations and those people I have met and talked to inside Balochistan. The insurgency carried out by separatists, as some people call them, or nationalists, as they call themselves, has prompted a very violent counterinsurgency by the Pakistani military and the intelligence agencies that form part of the Pakistani military.
One tactic of that counterinsurgency has been to kidnap those who are voicing their desire for a separate and independent Balochistan. [They] are often taken from their families at checkpoints and other locations. These men are typically whisked away to unknown locations, held for months without due process being observed, without a trial, without even official charges being levelled against them. All the while their existence in the hands of the authorities is being denied by these same authorities. Often they are mistreated, tortured, and sometimes killed. Their bodies will then show up in other parts of their province, potentially by the side of the road. It is an unbelievable act of human rights abuse against these people and I am shocked that it hasn’t got more attention then it has.
RFE/RL: What is your assessment of the Baluch separatist movement? Do they have popular backing, or, as Islamabad claims, is the unrest in Balochistan fomented by its regional archrival, India?
Marx: The idea that India is fomenting this insurgency and separatist movement, on the face of it, is very difficult to believe. Many problems in Pakistan are blamed on India without any evidence being provided. From the dozens of interviews I have conducted during my visits, it is clear there is popular backing for some kind of change in the current status-quo. When I first went there in 2007, many political activists and politicians were calling for greater autonomy.
The mistreatment of many people in the province by the Pakistani military has hardened that attitude, and many of these people are now calling for a fully-independent Balochistan.
I don’t think, based on my visits to the camps of the insurgents, that they are receiving outside funding, because they are living incredibly difficult lives — very, very basic supplies, very basic weaponry.
RFE/RL: You are among the very few Western journalists who met the late Iranian Baluch rebel leader Abdolmalik Rigi, who was hanged in Tehran in 2010. How big a threat do you think groups like Jundallah and Jaish-ul Adl pose to Iranian security?
Marx: My understanding is that Jaish-ul Adl is the successor organization to Jandullah, or the Peoples’ Resistance Movement, as they like to call themselves. I don’t think realistically as outsiders they are going to have a huge impact on any national debate in Iran. But from what they are seeking, which is greater rights for the Sunni minority in that region, I think they are able to bring pressure on local military commanders and local law enforcement. But I don’t think it is necessarily going to produce huge benefits for the people in that region.
If you anger the authorities by attacking them with military force, as these groups have done in the past and continue to do, it is unlikely that the pressure those authorities feel as a result of those attacks is going to result in more lenient treatment of the local population. If anything, it will have the opposite affect.
RFE/RL: Your book paints a grim picture of the situation in Balochistan. Given that we are not seeing any significant movement towards resolving Balochistan’s complex problems, where do you see the region moving in the near future?
Marx: Considering the complexity of the various conflicts that you have just touched upon there, and that includes what happens with the Iranian side of the border, what is going on with drug trafficking, what is happening with the various separatists or nationalist movements, the sectarian violence in and around the city of Quetta, the presence of the Taliban militants, the presence of Sunni extremist groups like Lashkar-e Jhangvi–there is no easy solution. I don’t see that the wealth disparity, which is currently a problem there, is going to be resolved anytime soon, and I fear that this violence will, unfortunately, continue into the near future