“Yes, we are killing the anti-state elements. And we will continue to go after them. At the end of the day, we decide who’s a patriot and who’s not.” Pakistan Army
By Shahzeb Jillani
Pakistan says it is winning the battle against separatist insurgents in the restive province of Balochistan. But Baloch activists say abductions, torture and killings by the army are deepening hostility for Pakistan.
On a hot sunny day, a group of aspiring young men and women are attending classes at a small university in Turbat. Established two years ago in rented accommodation, it’s the city’s first public university.
“Just look at our campus,” says Hani Abdur Rasheed, an outspoken student doing a Master’s in commerce. “You could hardly call it a university.”
For a region with a strong sense of grievance against the central government, it’s a rudimentary start.
The university, which has about 500 students, is attracting enrolment from remote areas of southern Balochistan.
“Lack of education has been the biggest obstacle for us. And it’s all due to decades of official neglect. The government spends more on soldiers than schools and colleges,” says Ms Rasheed.
The army has fought separatist Baloch militants on and off during much of Pakistan’s existence.
The latest wave of insurgency was triggered after the army bombed and killed an elderly Baloch tribal chief, Nawab Akbar Bugti, in 2006.
Nine years on, the army says the militants – or “the miscreants” as it likes to call them – are either on the run or increasingly laying down their arms.
The government has encouraged that in an offer for a general “amnesty”. The scheme involves financial rewards for fighters who agree to renounce violence against the state.
Pictures and news footage of tribesmen publicly surrendering their weapons before government officials have been running prominently on the Pakistani media.
But Ghani Parwaaz, a respected Baloch poet and writer in the city of Turbat, dismisses the campaign as farcical.
“Everyone knows it’s a part of an official propaganda,” he says. “Hardly any one of those shown surrendering on television news channels is a known fighter. In fact, many of them are reportedly extortionists linked to the army-backed politicians in the government.”
Balochistan is a sparsely populated region, rich in gas and coal reserves, as well as copper and gold. Yet it has remained Pakistan’s most impoverished province. Baloch nationalists have long accused the central government of exploitation and denying the province its due rights.
The region has been under renewed spotlight after Pakistan and China announced plans to build a multi-billion dollar economic corridor, linking Gwadar Port in Balochistan to the city of Kashgar in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Over the years, the army and its subsidiary security force, the Frontier Corps, has captured and killed hundreds of suspected separatists.
To this end, the forces were accused of employing “death squads”, gangs of criminals allowed to unleash a reign of terror against those deemed enemies of the state.
From a military standpoint, the approach may have yielded some results. But in the longer run, it has further tarnished the army’s image as a ruthless force on a killing spree of its own citizens.
Separatist militants say they are fighting for a free Balochistan. The insurgents operate from their bases in remote mountains, but they also enjoy considerable support and sympathy among ordinary Balochs.
Last April, a group of gunmen shot dead 20 labourers at a construction of a bridge over a flood drain in Turbat. Baloch separatist militants were blamed for the massacre as they consider anyone employed by the government or army-sponsored projects fair game.
Most Pakistani politicians see Balochistan as a political problem and favour a peaceful solution through negotiations.
However, successive civilian governments have been too weak to lead such an effort, allowing the military to press on with trying to crush the separatists by force.
As a result, the Baloch insurgency has weakened and, increasingly, appears fragmented.
But it has come at a huge human cost.
Critics accept that security has improved in the provincial capital, Quetta, and some other areas. But they say the situation has worsened in other districts in the east and south of the province.
Rights activists accuse the military of bombing entire villages in its attempt to hunt down alleged Baloch militant leaders.
One such military operation was conducted in Awaran district on 18 July, when much of Pakistan was on Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan. The target for the aerial bombardment was Dr. Allah Nazar, the chief of the Balochistan Liberation Front separatist group. The military believes he was killed in the attack.
“The operation was unannounced and indiscriminate,” points out Bibi Gul, a Baloch human rights activist. “Women and children were killed and thousands left the area. The army cordoned off the entire area.
“For nearly a month, people weren’t allowed to go there to pick up the dead bodies.”
And so, in Balochistan, the Pakistani army still inspires fear and resentment. In Turbat, public hatred of the army is best expressed in graffiti on walls denouncing Pakistan, its security forces and their alleged “kill-and-dump” approach. The only Pakistani flags you see here are on security check posts or on their vehicles.
The head of the provincial government, Dr. Abdul Malik, says Balochistan is a conflict zone and in war, sometimes innocent people die.
“When the army is attacked, it will hit back,” he says. “But the biggest sufferers of this conflict are the Baloch people. They have been left behind by poverty and lack of education. But we are trying to change that. We are trying to improve the security environment.”
These days, the army still faces regular attacks, but it seems clear that the security forces have gained the upper hand in many parts of the province.
Dr Malik says the security forces have been persuaded to exercise restraint and conduct more intelligence-based operations. It has meant curtailing the role of the notorious death squads and avoiding the use of excessive force where possible, he says.
But without a political solution to bring an end to the long running conflict, security will remain a daunting challenge.
Controlling the narrative
Pakistan has a vibrant and thriving news media. But there’s been a virtual blackout of alleged abuses on privately-owned national news channels, say Baloch rights activists.
Journalists say they are under intense pressure to promote a positive image of the army and its chief, General Raheel Sharif – they believe its part of a public relations offensive to present the army as a saviour of the nation, while discrediting the political class.
Foreign reporters are not allowed to travel to Balochistan without the army’s approval. Over the years, scores of local reporters have been shot dead. Those who survive live under constant fear of upsetting one side or the other.
Earlier this month, a journalist colleague reporting on Balochistan was taken to a safe house in Quetta’s military garrison where he was lectured on the virtues of being a patriotic citizen. Army officers questioned him extensively about his sources and his political views. The officials told him they knew about his family, where his kids went to school and how much money he had in his bank.
And then he was informed: “Yes, we are killing the anti-state elements. And we will continue to go after them. At the end of the day, we decide who’s a patriot and who’s not.”