The deaths of at least 1,000 people since March 2008 in the ongoing nationalist insurgency in the volatile Pakistani province of Balochistan have often been overshadowed by the country’s other troubles. Yet as the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan discovered, the suffering there is every bit as acute.
Getting to the vast Baloch tribal settlement of New Kahan is not easy. It is tightly guarded by a ring of checkpoints.
We slip quietly past through a gravel path with help from a local guide.
New Kahan is home to thousands of tribal Baloch people. The Baloch rebel anthem plays as children gather for assembly.
Habibullah, an 11-year-old recites passionate and tragic lyrics: “We are the sons of the Baloch… we are the sons of lions… we are the protectors of the orphans and the destitute… our blood is our nation’s salvation.”
The children are eager to learn but provisions here are poor.
Habibullah and his friends take their classes sitting on the floor. Most of the parents are labourers and the school building is a two-room structure of baked clay.
There is desperate poverty here. Locals blame the government for the lack of facilities.
It is a situation reflected across Balochistan.
Nationalists say that despite the province’s vast mineral wealth, it remains the most under-developed area of the country.
The government has responded to the insurgency by suppressing all dissent – and locking up any young men suspected of harbouring nationalist sentiments.
They have become part of the missing – people who have been arrested without charge by the state.
Gul Baloch is an angry young woman who has experienced the consequences of this policy and her tone is edged with bitterness.
Her brother Iqbal, along with his friends, was taken away by security forces two years ago.
The friends were released after a year – Gul says they were tortured during this time.
Ms Baloch says she knows that even if her brother comes back, he will never be the same again.
When her friends were taken away, they were blindfolded. When they came back, they could not stand sunlight for two to four months.
“There are marks on their bodies,” Ms Baloch says.
“If one of them sits down and tries to get back up, it’s difficult and very painful.
“That’s how it is with them…. and when they are asleep, they wake up in panic, as they feel the torture is happening again – sometimes they even start screaming.”
‘All our enemies’
Such treatment has left Balochistan’s young men with few choices. Maqbool is one of them – a fiery young Baloch nationalist.
He spoke to me in New Kahan about how they view the Pakistani state, and especially its dominant Punjab province.
“The Baloch youth… know quite well that, for the last 63 years, the Pakistani state has been deceiving and inciting them using various methods,” he said.
“But now the Baloch youth have become enlightened.
“They know this very well – that the Punjabi army, the Punjabi judiciary, the Punjabi parliament as well as the Punjabi media – they are all our enemies.”
People here are frustrated that Balochistan is so poor, even though it has vast reserves of oil, gas and gold which remain largely untapped.
But the province is also this crisis-ridden nation’s biggest human rights disaster.
The anthem reverberating around New Kahan evokes the strong sense of injustice felt here.
‘Baseless and unfounded’
But Akram Hussain Durrani – Balochistan’s home secretary and top civilian security official – denies allegations that the security forces have been involved in extra-judicial killings.
“This type of allegation… is baseless and unfounded,” he said.
“Most of these people are killed in their own tribal feuds and their families later put the blame on the federal government.”
As far as eyewitness accounts of security forces being involved in kidnappings are concerned, he says there is a set procedure under the criminal code to register such cases.
“But the families don’t co-operate in the collection of evidence and therefore we can’t get to the bottom of the killings.”
The protestations of the provincial government do not cut much ice among the Baloch, however.
Maqbool says the resistance is no longer about a few unruly tribes and not confined to just one place.
“If today someone is killed in one region of Balochistan, you can see political protests across [the rest of] Balochistan… you see the response of the resistance everywhere,” he says.
The Baloch say they are being treated like slaves, rather than citizens. Many feel it is time to break away and win outright independence.
Meanwhile, Gul is still waiting for her brother to return.
But there will be no homecoming for the hundreds who are found in shallow graves across Balochistan every week.
Their mounting numbers have swelled support for the insurgents and prompted the judiciary to order an investigation into abuses committed during the country’s longest-running insurgency.
Increasingly there is only one demand on Baloch lips – freedom or death
Courtesy: BBC English