There is a crisis in Balochistan.
By : Antonio Aakeel
A crisis concerning large scale state and military abuse of the people in the region of Balochistan in southwest Pakistan.
As the United Nations opened its 71st General Assembly this week, a group of Balochistan activists protested outside its headquarters in New York against Pakistan’s human right violations in the province.
They claim that since 2000, more than 5,000 activists have been tortured and killed and more than 20,000 were missing, with numbers growing alongside daily reports of kidnap and torture.
Three years ago, I starred in the ‘controversial’ film The Line Of Freedom, based on the true story of Nasir Baloch, a young Baloch student who was tortured and killed for protesting against tyranny and oppression in Pakistan.
I note ‘controversial’, not because the subject matter is widely disputed. Evidence of abuse is widespread and well-documented. Rather, because the professional production was – unsurprisingly – banned in Pakistan upon its release. If this act of censorship wasn’t enough, movie database site IMDB was also blocked across the whole country reportedly on account of this film’s very existence.
Then, the film’s official Facebook page was removed from access in Pakistan (a country which only recently lifted a ban on YouTube which had been in place since 2012) and officials suspiciously halted its world premiere at the Gulf Film Festival.
Clearly, there’s a concerted effort by authorities to quash any attempts at raising awareness of what is going on in Balochistan, and the medium of film can be a very powerful means of disseminating this information.
Funded by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), the David Whitney directed film explored very real themes and experiences, often incredibly raw and disturbing.
For me, the role of student Nasir was a revelation. I’ll admit, my understanding of the situation was limited prior to the start of filming in the deserts of Dubai. For obvious reasons, a tale exploring very real human rights violations by the Pakistani state and military were never going to be given the go-ahead of filming in Pakistan itself. Our director David Whitney had previously been shot at while filming in the country and a member of his crew wounded by gunfire.
One of the main reasons I had very little knowledge of the issues faced by the people of Balochistan on a daily basis was because the violence and abuse is rarely covered by any western media outlets.
During filming of The Line of Freedom, the only way the information came to us was when an Emirati UNPO Ambassador (and Producer of our film) sought out our director to create the project. It was then when we began to delve further into the issue – but there was very little about it online or across mainstream media outlets.
Since appearing in the film, in the lead role, I’ve not only broadened my understanding of the situation for many of the Baloch people, but I am also deeply disturbed that the gross abuse of power continues.
Today, the same issue still persists as thousands of Baloch people continue to go missing, and as the corruption and violence of the Pakistani Army increases.
Enforced disappearances are endemic. Young and old go missing for months or years on end, and in hundreds of cases, their bullet-riddled, tortured and often unrecognisable bodies turn up on roadsides. This practice has been called Pakistan’s ‘kill and dump’ policy and both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have provided documentation of numerous cases. High levels of intimidation, harassment, arrest and torture are carried out against opposition supporters.
Peaceful protestors have been suppressed, political representatives have been detained unlawfully, and freedom of expression and assembly is totally restricted for the Baloch. However, Pro-Taliban Pashtun groups that despise Baloch nationalists have complete freedom to promote their ideology with the tacit support of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.
Yet, even now, news of the Baloch activists protesting at the UN building in New York, and the Indian government finally raising the issue of this abuse at the General Assembly is mostly limited to Indian and other Asian news outlets, with the obvious exception being Pakistan.
I have personally corresponded to and spoken with countless Baloch people – who have told me firsthand the experience of their suffering – and to this day, I still get messages from people who are only just discovering our film. Some say they are elated that information about their plight is being made public, albeit very slowly. Others are inspired, not simply because of our film, but because the film is symbolic of challenging censorship and the silence surrounding such an important issue.
Then there’s been the many death threats and angry messages I’ve received from factions and individuals claiming The Line of Freedom was “propaganda”. These are the voices of those in denial, those attempting to justify the human rights abuses.
Some of the messages I’ve received have been incredibly demeaning, threatening and sinister, yet I’m fully aware that they pale in comparison to the direct and physical abuse often meted out to the citizens of Balochistan for speaking out.
Being a British actor, it’s easy for me to brush away internet trolls and vile hate messages, as I opt not to give such views the oxygen of publicity. But it is a stark and constant reminder that there are still forces out there wishing to conceal, cover-up and suppress the truth and limit basic human rights.
I feel there is a new focus on the issues in Balochistan, especially since they are currently being openly discussed at the UNHRC in Geneva, as opposed to the relative silence three years ago when we released The Line of Freedom. This gradual shift of public opinion is a major step towards justice and I’m confident and hopeful that this mainstream outlook will continue.
Antonio Aakeel is a British film, television and stage actor follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AntonioAakeel
First published in The Huffington Post on Sep 16, 2016