Karima is seen as either a dangerous political actor and a threat to the nation’s security or a local hero and a beacon of hope.
Karima Baloch is a terrorist. Or a human rights activist. Depends on whom you ask.
If you ask her, as OZY did, she’ll tell you: “We believe in peaceful means of struggle.” But then she confuses the issue by adding: “Those who have taken up arms against state forces have also a good justification.”
This petite but strong-minded 28-year-old woman is the leader of Pakistan’s most controversial student organization, the Baloch Students Organization-Azad (BSO-Azad), which campaigns for the independence of Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan, home to a nationalist armed insurgency that’s lasted 60 years. The government banned the organization in 2013 for “supporting terrorism.”
Karima these days travels through the region organizing protest and rallies. She’s often seen sitting in front of Karachi’s Press Club holding signs with the face of disappeared activists or marching through the streets waving BSO-Azad flags and signs calling for freedom.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, Karima is seen as a dangerous political actor and a threat to the nation’s security. Meanwhile, a thousand kilometers southwest, deep inside Balochistan, she’s a local hero and a beacon of hope.
The Baloch ethnic minority — which has its own language, traditions and culture — spreads across several international borders: Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite being roughly the size of Germany, it’s home to only 5 percent of Pakistan’s population. And while the region is rich in natural resources — oil, gas and minerals — and strategically valuable — it has three borders, 750 kilometers of Arabian Sea coast and a deep-sea port in Gawadar — its people are among Pakistan’s poorest and least educated.
In many ways, the story of the Baloch people is echoed throughout South Asia and the Middle East. Whether talking about Kurds, Pashtuns, Sunnis or Shiites, ethnic and religious groups spill across national borders, creating minorities in larger countries that feel highly threatened by separatist movements. Separatists are often seen as more worrisome than militant groups of the same ethnicity, and the conflicts seem insoluble.
“Pakistan has already lost Balochistan, but it won’t let it go,” says Burzine Waghmar from the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “And there’s little that civil society can do to change that.”
Belligerent Baloch nationalists have fought for independence since the year after Pakistan’s 1947 birth, with an insurgency led by groups like the Baloch Liberation Front and Balochistan Liberation Army. Karima joined the BSO-Azad in 2006, when violence escalated after two attempted assassinations of then-President Pervez Musharraf during visits to Balochistan. She says she tried to mobilize classmates in college and different political groups but realized that she’d have to join a disciplined organization to be effective. She keeps her face hidden to protect her identity, and only her piercing green eyes are visible above her veil. “We have had no choice but to go clandestine since we were banned. But the leadership can’t really hide,” she says.
Contacting her was a challenge and she insisted on written questions, perhaps for good reason. Many of BSO-Azad’s activists have been incarcerated or killed by the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies. Karima’s predecessor was allegedly kidnapped in March, and she says her house was been shelled with mortars twice, though no one was hurt.
That’s just the latest violence that’s invaded her world. Human Rights Watch has reported a growing number of kidnappings of Baloch activists by the Pakistani military and security agencies alongside extrajudicial executions, torture, displacement and excessive use of force against protesters. Dead bodies are often dumped on empty lots or alleys — 116 in 2013. In January 2014, three mass graves were discovered in the region of Khuzdar in Balochistan, and while many corpses were too decomposed to be identified, the Asian Human Rights Commission has linked them to Balochi separatists.
Echoing Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the young activist sees female education as key to promoting the nationalist cause.
For its part, the government accuses Karima’s outfit of supporting violent retaliations against Pakistanis. She says she doesn’t condone or support the use of violence. The BSO-Azad was founded in 2002 as a secular political organization by Allah Nazar Baloch, a renowned separatist fighter who now commands the Baloch Liberation Front.
According to Malik Siraj Akbar, a Pakistani journalist exiled in the U.S. after being a newspaper editor in Balochistan, “BSO-Azad is the most popular organization among the Baloch youth, and it clearly backs the armed resistance against Pakistan.”
The U.S. doesn’t label the Balochistan insurgency as terrorists, but these groups have been accused of myriad human rights violations, such as targeting Pashtun “settlers” — with Pashtun doctors sometimes refusing to go to Baloch areas out of fear — and intimidating and even killing journalists.
Without a husband or children, Karima has chosen to dedicate her life to the Baloch cause. The image of a young woman leading a large-scale demonstration in Pakistan has become more common in the region. “Ten years ago, the situation was completely different. When we [women] first came out into the streets for demonstrations, it looked odd to many, but now every family is proud of their females who are active in the nationalist movement,” says Karima.
And in echoes of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the young activist sees female education as key to promoting the nationalist cause. BSO-Azad organizes learning groups and prints a number of magazines. Education is important given Balochistan’s 37 percent literacy rate — compared to the national average of 53 percent.
Meanwhile, Karima and BSO-Azad face yet another enemy: Islamic fundamentalism. The presence of Islamic State group-backed movements in the region has been growing. They began by targeting members of the Shiite minority and have now started threatening women who choose to get an education — even attacking them with acid. “I think growing religious fundamentalism is one of the biggest political and social challenges for us, particularly for women,” says Karima who thinks the Islamists are sponsored by the state to counter nationalistic sentiment and intimidate women.
Whether she’s a paranoid terrorist supporter or a passionate freedom fighter, one thing is clear: Karima is becoming a female political leader against all odds.