Since the start of this forsaken conflict, 11,375 people have died and thousands of others have gone missing.
Google “Pakistan” and you’ll be flooded with images of terrorist attacks, photos of Malala or trailers of the next Homeland episode. Actually, all of the above. But there is one region of this country you can be pretty sure will not show up on the first few dozen result pages: Balochistan.
Roughly the size of Germany, it is Pakistan’s biggest and poorest province. And it’s also home to a long and bloody civil war that has been going on for decades. On one side there’s the central Pakistani government. On the other are the Baloch nationalists who have fought for independence since the year after Pakistan’s 1947 birth. They are organized in insurgent groups with names like the Balochistan Liberation Army and the Balochistan Liberation United Front. And while the government labels the Baloch as “terrorists,” the Baloch accuse the army of ethnic cleansing. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies:
The Baloch are an ethnic minority with their own language, traditions and culture. They are also present in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan but feel strongly deprived and alienated by the government in Islamabad. The intensity of the conflict has been ebbing and flowing for decades. It had slowed down after the imposition of martial law in the country in 1977, but it broke out anew in 2005 after a Baloch doctor was raped, allegedly, by a military officer. That triggered a wave violence and retaliatory attacks on both sides, including two attempted assassinations of then-President Pervez Musharraf during visits to Balochistan.
The Baloch feel no loyalty toward the central government. “Pakistan has already lost Balochistan, but it won’t let it go,” says Burzine Waghmar from the Center for the Study of Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. That’s because despite being the poorest, most scarcely populated region of the country, it is also rich in natural resources like oil, gas and minerals and strategically valuable — with three borders, access to the Arabian Sea coast and a deep-sea port.
Like in all wars, both sides accuse each other of inhumane acts. Human Rights Watch has reported a growing number of kidnappings of Baloch activists. Dead bodies are often dumped on empty lots or alleys — 116 in 2013 — and there have been widespread accusations against the Pakistani military and security agencies of extrajudicial executions, torture, displacement and excessive use of force against protesters. In January 2014, three mass graves were found in Balochistan. The Asian Human Rights Commission claims that the hundreds of bodies found belonged to members of pro-Baloch organizations who had been abducted by Pakistani forces. But a judicial commission absolved the army and intelligence agencies of any responsibility.
To be sure, the armed militant groups (that Islamabad accuses New Delhi of funding) are no strangers to indiscriminate violence either. While the U.S. doesn’t label the Balochistan insurgents as terrorists, they too have been accused of myriad human rights violations, such as killing civilian Pashtun “settlers” — from doctors to construction workers — and intimidating and even murdering journalists. Yet most accusations are hard to corroborate precisely because of how dangerous reporting is in this area.
The Pakistani military does not allow any foreign journalists to Balochistan. Since 2006, several correspondents, including New York Times reporters Declan Walsh and Carlotta Gall, were kicked out of the country for secretly going into Balochistan to report. And local reporters are also too afraid to try: “There is an unwritten understanding that those reporting on Balochistan are going against the greater ‘national interest,’” says Malik Siraj Akbar, a Pakistani journalist exiled in the U.S. after being a newspaper editor in Balochistan.
But whether or not it makes deadlines, the death count continues to grow. As Waghmar points out, a shot at peace would require political will on both sides, and after more than six decades of conflict, no one is rushing to the negotiation table.