The Missing Balochis
( This investigative piece of mine was published in Frontline, a leading Indian current affairs magazine two weeks back)
The Missing Balochis
By Malik Siraj Akbar
“IT was like a nightmare when 15 to 20 men stormed into our flat at midnight on March 25, 2005,” recalls Imadad Baloch, 25, former chairman of the Baloch Students’ Organisation (BSO). “They started beating us blindly and one of them shouted: `Kick these b*******’.” The men blindfolded Baloch and six other BSO activists and bundled them into waiting vehicles in Karachi’s Gulsatan-e-Johar area. They were taken to an undisclosed location and, according to Baloch, subjected to torture for several months.
Baloch claimed that the men belonged to intelligence agencies. “We were kept in separate, dark lock-ups for months, hung upside down, and beaten cruelly with clubs,” recounts Baloch. He alleged that they were not permitted to sleep or use the toilet for many days. “It was inhuman. They asked who ran the BLA [Balochistan Liberation Army] and what Nawab Bugti’s sources of income were,” he said. “They inquired if I, a medical student, had ever travelled to Afghanistan and India and how many bomb blasts I had carried out.” He said they discovered later that they had been kept in the Qulli camp, described as Pakistan’s Abu Ghraib.
Their detention came within days of a protest rally by BSO activists, all students below 25 years, in front of the Karachi Press Club against the killing of 77 civilians, most of them Hindu women and children, by the Army in Dera Bugti district on March 17, 2005. While Baloch and his colleagues were in detention, their families remained clueless about their whereabouts. They moved the courts but got no answers. Baloch and his BSO friends were missing for about seven long months until they ultimately surfaced, accused in a case of theft in Punjab province.
The medical student and his fellow activists are lucky to have returned, say human rights activists in Balochistan, the tension-ridden southwestern province of Pakistan. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), scores of civilians in Balochistan disappear mysteriously, never to return home, apparently whisked away by intelligence agencies.
An HRCP report published in January 2006 expressed deep concern at the increasing number of disappearances and instances of torture by security and intelligence agencies. The report noted that the Interior Minister was quoted in the press as acknowledging 4,000 arrests in connection with the Balochistan situation. “The charges against a number of these persons have not been disclosed to their families. In some cases it is not known where they are being detained, and furthermore the government has also not disclosed the identities of persons arrested during these operations. Other government members have given contradictory accounts of the number of persons arrested in Balochistan,” it said.
“No one knows why they were picked up and from where to bring them back,” said Malik Zahoor Shahwani, president of the Balochistan chapter of the HRCP. “Several households in Balochistan have sob stories of their beloved ones who have gone missing for many years,” he added.
Lack of protest
In a recent report Amnesty International said the phenomenon of “enforced disappearance”, rare in Pakistan before 2001, had become common even outside the context of the “war on terror”. People from different backgrounds, including Baloch nationalists and Sindhi leaders, were being subjected to enforced disappearance, the report noted and expressed concern at the “very limited” protest in Pakistan against these disappearances and other violations in the “war on terror”. Civil society, political parties and the media had, by and large, ignored the issue, Amnesty said.
The families of the missing persons have resorted to all types of protest demanding that they be freed but to no avail. For instance, eight children, all under 20 years of age, of a missing tailor master, Ali Asghar Bungulzai, observed a hunger strike in Quetta, the Baloch capital, for 371 days after the disappearance of their father. They marched to the Governor’s House and the Chief Minister’s House but received no justice.
Bungulzai’s is a tale that suggests how freely intelligence agencies operate in Balochistan. His elder brother, Dad Mohammad, told Frontline that Bungulzai, 38, was first whisked away on June 1, 2000, on Quetta’s Saraib Road. He was released after 22 days, only to be picked up again on October 18, 2001. Said Nasrullah, Bungulzai’s nephew: “Men, clad in plain clothes, came in three vehicles whose windows were covered with dark curtains and identified themselves as personnel from the Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI]. They said they had some work to do with him and pushed him into one of the vehicles.”
Bungulzai’s family contacted the then Quetta Corps Commander, Abdul Qadir Baloch, for help. On May 15, 2002, said Dad Mohammad, two intelligence officials informed the family that Bungulzai was safe and sound in their custody and would be released soon. On December 27 the family members, accompanied by Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a leading politician, met Brigadier Siddiq of the ISI. “We had about 10 meetings with the Brigadier, who kept on assuring us that my brother would be released soon,” Dad Mohammad said. He claimed the family received Rs.25,000 from the agency, apparently to keep quiet.
Now ISI officials deny Bungulzai is in their custody. His family feels betrayed. “If he was not in their custody, they should not have given assurances to us,” said Ghulam Farroq, Bungulzai’s 20-year-old son.
Among those missing are people of different age groups and varied professions. Haji Jan Mohmmad Marri, 80, a Marri tribal elder whose family said he was in poor health, has been missing since July 6, 2005. His family petitioned the Balochistan High Court, but to no effect so far.
Munir Mengal, managing director of a to-be-launched Balochi channel, Baloch Voice, was whisked away from Karachi airport on April 4 on his return to Pakistan from Bahrain. Zakia Karim, Mengal’s sister, said her brother’s perceived fault was to establish a channel to promote Balochi culture. Mengal continues to be missing and is apparently in the custody of the intelligence agencies. His family receives constant warnings to remain tight-lipped or “pay a heavy price for their protest”.
In its report, the HRCP noted that among the most disturbing accounts of disappearances was that of 18 labour leaders of Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) on December 9, 2005, from Karachi. They had been invited by the PPL management for talks on the union’s demands. On December 6, they reached Karachi and were put up in Regent Plaza Hotel by the management. On December 7 and 8 they held talks with the management. They were asleep in their rooms when they were rounded up by security forces, accompanied by plainclothes persons, around 2 a.m. on December 9.
The HRCP demanded an inquiry into the disappearances in Balochistan to bring the perpetrators to book. It also demanded that the government close down all places of irregular detention and rein in intelligence agencies.
Linked to insurgency
The disappearances, human rights activists believe, are linked to the ongoing insurgency in the province. Family members of the top Baloch leadership, too, have not been spared. Murtaza Bugti, younger brother of Agha Shahid Bugti, general secretary of the Jamori Watan Party (JWP), his cousin Bilal Bugti, and Samiullah Baloch, younger brother of Sana Baloch, information secretary of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), are all missing. “The government wants to blackmail us and undermine our struggle for the attainment of Baloch rights,” says Sana Baloch.
The disappearances have continued after the killing of the tribal leader and JWP chief Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti on August 26. Leader of the Opposition in the Balochistan Assembly Kachkol Ali Baloch said such “cowardly moves” by the government were unlikely to ease tensions in Balochistan. He added: “The disappearance of thousands of Balochs is certain to further poison the young Baloch mind against Pakistan.
Malik Siraj Akbar is the Quetta staff correspondent of Daily Times, Pakistan.