The war-torn country is witnessing the unprecedented revival of a long-neglected community
By Karlos Zurutuza
“We are the only nation that has fluent relations with all the rest in the country,” claims Abdul Sattar Purdely. A former MP during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah (1987-1992), Purdely today is a professor, writer, and one of the main advocates for the Baloch language and culture in Afghanistan. In his late sixties, he looks tireless.
“In coordination with the Afghan Ministry of Education, I have written the schoolbooks in Balochi up to the 8th grade (15 years old) and they’re already being used at three schools,” Purdely tells The Diplomat just before producing the full set of volumes.
In the absence of comprehensive census data, Purdely puts the population of Afghan Baloch at about two million, “not all of them being Balochi speakers.” However, the Baloch in Afghanistan are just a tiny portion of a people divided today by the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, living in a vast swathe of land the size of France. Theirs is a rugged terrain that boasts enormous deposits of gas, gold and copper, untapped sources of oil and uranium, as well as a thousand kilometers of coastline near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.
But despite the wealth under their sandals, the Baloch inhabit the most underdeveloped regions of their respective countries. Afghanistan is no exception.
The three schools the professor points to are in Afghanistan’s remote Nimroz province, the only one that shares borders with Iran and Pakistan. In Nimroz, Afghanisan’s Baloch minority are the majority.
Zaranj, the provincial capital located 900 km southwest of Kabul, lies within walking distance of the official border with Iran, across the Helmand river. For centuries, the local Baloch have lived on the banks of one of the country’s main water sources, but the droughts of the past ten years have forced many families to leave their native land. Officials at the water supply department in Zaranj told The Diplomat that Iran is to blame for diverting and storing water from the Helmand river. But accusations go beyond interference in the water supply.
“Tehran is constantly trying to quell any Baloch initiative here, in Nimroz, as they consider it a potential threat to their security,” Mir Mohamad Baloch, who describes himself as a “political and cultural activist,” says.
Nimroz shares borders with Iran’s restive Sistan and Balochistan region, a largely neglected area where Baloch manifestations of any kind are systematically banned. And Iran seemingly looms large even on this side of the border. Mohamad Baloch recalls a painful episode that started with a “humble project to offer workshops on the Balochi and English languages to local people,” but ended in dramatic fashion.
“Two years ago we rented a flat in Zaranj to set up a library and help develop our culture. Pressure from Iran, either through phone calls, personal visits, or even via Kabul, mounted to the point where our place was finally ransacked and one of our teammates killed,” recalls the 45-year-old Nimrozi, who insists that the operations will resume “at an undisclosed location in Nimroz, and definitely far away from the border.”
“An independent Balochistan, that is my life dream,” adds the activist, before producing a map where the three parts come together in one political entity. (The Baloch in Pakistan did declare their independence after the partition of India in 1947, but their land was annexed by Pakistan in March 1948.)
For the time being, the staff at Zaranj’s National Radio and Television continue to work unmolested on their daily program in the Balochi language. Just one hour a day – from 17:00 to 18:00 – may still seem modest, but it is a significant step for the community. General manager Sadullah Baloch briefed The Diplomat on the initiative’s antecedents.
“It’s the only TV program in Afghanistan but we had to struggle for years to get this space as they were only allowing us 10 minutes. Today we cover a 100 km radius so our show can be seen almost throughout the whole province,” he explains. Plans for the future, he adds, are to grow “in both contents and space.”
The first TV channel in Balochi was set up in 1978, a move that would precede the printing of the community’s first books and newspapers. A sharp cultural decline in Afghanistan followed the fall of the Communist government, with Baloch suffering years of brutal repression for their very moderate vision of Islam. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, issued a fatwa against the people of Nimroz, calling for the ethnic cleansing of the Baloch and Shia population.
Nimroz still remains the center of the Afghan Baloch, but as Purdely puts it, his is a community “scattered all over the country.” Among this diaspora are some senior figures. Naim Baloch, for instance, is governor of neighboring Helmand province. Another Baloch, Abdul Karim Brahui, was governor of Nimroz province until he became the President’s Advisor for the Afghan Nations last year. Brahui is also the head of the Afghanistan Baloch Solidarity Council, a commission working for the rights of this community in Afghanistan.
Brahui, a former commander of the Nimroz Front, an armed group that fought against the Russians and the Taliban over the years, recently spoke with The Diplomat from his office in Kabul. “Despite significant advances during Karzai’s period, the Baloch community is slowly being forgotten.” Pressure from the outside, he adds, is also to blame: “Both Pakistan and Iran are trying their best to worsen our situation by either bribing Afghan Baloch leaders or threatening them. In fact, several of them have been victims of targeted killing, but this is not new for us.”
The alleged interference has not yet managed to compromise another recent Baloch educational effort, such as the Balochi language department at the University of Kandahar, 480 kilometers southeast of Kabul. Lessons here are given by professor Hassan Janan, a former teacher at the University of Balochistan in Quetta, a city in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, until he was arrested in 2008 and imprisoned for a year.
“After my release I went back to teaching but I was constantly threatened by the security agencies. I decided to escape to Afghanistan after a colleague was abducted and killed,” recalls the 33 year old.
Human Rights watch has labeled the situation in Pakistan’s Baluchistan region as being of “particular concern because of a pattern of enforced disappearances targeting political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers,” adding that disappeared people “are often found dead, their bodies bearing bullet wounds and marks of torture.”
Janan accepted professor Purdely’s offer to resume his work as a teacher in Kandahar last year. The project was launched with only three students, but numbers have since grown by 200 percent.
“We started the second term on September 5 with 60 students, 18 of whom are women,” the teacher explains. “The majority of them are Baloch who cannot speak their language, but who are aching to learn it.” Despite the hardship, he noted, “many things are easier for us here, in Afghanistan, than back home.”