Refugee arrives in T.O., takes off niqab: ‘I knew I was safe’

Karima Baloch

During her year on the run, Karima was elected as the first female president of the Balochistan Students Organization, which has a vast network of activists across Balochistan.

By , Toronto Sun

She could have ended up as the Joan of Arc of Balochistan, a territory larger than Poland that sits at the mouth of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, leading to the Persian Gulf.

It’s people say they’re occupied by Pakistan.

But as fate would have it, Karima Baloch, 32, said she escaped a Pakistani military attack on the town of Tump in Balochistan, getting away in the darkness of night as mortar shells rained on her home.

Karima evaded arrest and stayed underground for nearly a year before landing in Toronto on Nov. 27, where she’s applied for refugee status.

For years, I had seen videos of her leading large processions and speaking at protests, but never her face.

To evade arrest, “Banuk Karima” — as her supporters call her — would wear a niqab, the Islamic face mask, to get lost in the crowd as police would wade in to try to arrest her.

The day Karima landed in Toronto, the first thing she did was rip the niqab off her face.

“I knew I was safe and that I did not have to hide from anyone in Canada,” she told me in an interview.

“Wearing the niqab is oppressive,” she said. “The niqab that is nowadays being forced onto Muslim women has no basis in Baloch culture or history. Every time I had to wear it to hide myself, I felt I was less of a human, more of a farm animal, a piece of property owned by someone else.”

Being a female activist in a largely male-dominated political movement allowed her and many of her colleagues to stay below the radar of Pakistan’s feared security agencies, who’ve been accused of abductions and extra-judicial killings of political activists in Balochistan.

But Karima’s situation changed dramatically on March 18, 2014.

“It was around 4:30 p.m. and the four of us, our chairman, Zahid Baloch, myself and two other girls from the Baloch Students Organization, were walking towards the Balochistan University in the city of Quetta, when we were surrounded by a number of SUVs with no military markings, but vehicles used by the Pakistan Army.

“We women were asked to stand aside as armed plainclothes men took Zahid Baloch and forced him to squat on the road with his face towards the ground. As they kept hitting him on the head, we yelled for help, but were told to go home.”

Karima says that was the last she saw of him as he was driven away blindfolded and in handcuffs.

Karima and her colleagues feared the student leader would be tortured and killed, so the next day family and colleagues of Zahid Baloch went to the police to register a complaint.

But police officials, she said, refused to take on the case.

For 10 days, they kept going back to the police station.

Karima says when she and the two other female students said they were eyewitnesses to the abduction, they became instant targets of the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence branch.

All three had to go underground, Karima said, to escape government-backed jihadi death squads assigned to kill them.

Asked about Karima’s allegations, Pakistan’s High Commission responded: “Regarding so-called ‘abduction’ of one Banuk Karima Baloch, you will, no doubt, agree that apprehending miscreants, who are involved in killing of innocent civilians, kidnapping for ransom and blowing up of gas pipelines is (a) duty of the State.

“By painting a totally misleading picture, certain individuals attempt to abuse liberal asylum laws of Canada for personal gains.”

The commission suggested the Toronto Sun do an investigation of her claims before printing them.

When asked to comment on the Pakistan High Commission’s allegation against her, Karima angrily denied ever being involved in blowing up pipelines or any terrorist activity.

“There is an apt Urdu proverb that applies to the Pakistani official,” she said. “Ulta chor kotwal ko dantey (the burglar blames the police when caught in the act).”

During her year on the run, Karima was elected as the first female president of the Balochistan Students Organization, which has a vast network of activists across Balochistan.

She said one of her colleagues, Lateef Jauhar, who went on a hunger strike for 45 days to demand the release of Zahid Baloch, was also targeted and had to flee his protest camp in the middle of the night.

In April 2014, a call for help was sent to me from mutual acquaintances, asking me to assist Karima and her friends to escape certain death in Pakistan.

Today, because of the compassion and commitment of former immigration minister Chris Alexander and some dedicated government officials, Karima is in Toronto, free of her niqab and able to fight for the freedom of Balochistan.

I expect she and her friends, who wish to remain anonymous, will be accepted as refugees and, in a few years, as Canadian citizens thanks to our country’s decency.

So welcome to Canada, my Baloch friends.

One day, the Balochistan you fled will, like Canada, be “strong and free.”

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