COMMENT: Balochistan’s unattended IDP crisis —Malik Siraj Akbar



Sunday, January 31, 2010
The government of Pervez Musharraf not only created an IDP (internally displaced persons) crisis in Balochistan, it also very dexterously kept the whole country in oblivion about it. Limited and restricted information was leaked about the fate of around 100,000 Baloch IDPs who were driven out of their homes during the military operation carried out in Marri and Bugti tribal areas. The dictator-sponsored humanitarian catastrophe was deplorable but officially denying accesses to national and international humanitarian groups to grapple with the IDP crisis in Balochistan was criminal.

The first batch of IDPs from Dera Bugti reached the neighbouring districts of Naseerabad and Jaffarabad soon after the attack by paramilitary forces on the fort of Nawab Mohammad Akbar Khan Bugti on March 17, 2005. An incident billed by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as “extra judicial killing of non-combatants”, the March 17 assault killed 43 people, including 19 men and three women from the minority Hindu community. More people abandoned their homes as the military operation escalated in the Marri and Bugti tribal areas until it reached its culmination with the killing of Nawab Bugti on August 26, 2006.

The government refuted media statements about the launching of a military operation in the oil-and-gas-rich region. It also brushed aside the impression that a humanitarian disaster was in the offing after the displacement of hundreds of families. Lies about the grave situation of Baloch IDPs were debunked only after an internal assessment report prepared by the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) was leaked in July-August 2006 to the media. According to this report, the displaced persons, mostly women (26,000) and children (33,000) were living in makeshift camps without adequate shelter in Jaffarabad, Naseerabad, Quetta, Sibi and Bolan districts. The UNICEF report said that 28 percent of five-year-old children were acutely malnourished, and more than 6.0 percent were in a state of “severe acute malnourishment”, with their survival dependent on receiving immediate medical attention. Over 80 percent of deaths among those surveyed were among children under five.

The UNICEF report came as an indictment to the Musharraf regime and gave currency to Baloch nationalists’ repeated stance that the military operation had caused a dire IDP crisis in the province that needed to be urgently tackled. On the other hand, the military junta was so incensed that not only did it ask the UNICEF chief to leave the country but also put pressure on UN officials to back out from the report they had prepared about Baloch IDPs.

For instance, investigative journalist Ziad Zafar, while writing in Newsline in June 2007, quoted a senior official of the UN Human Rights Council saying that they had already made a “big mistake” by talking to the press earlier. “We will never know how many lives were lost because of it. We cannot make that mistake again.” The official went further and told the journalist: “Forget that you are a journalist. If, as a human being, you care at all about those who are suffering, you will not publish this report [about the IDPs]. I implore you: please do not aggravate the situation. It is already very precarious.”

As the UNICEF report disclosed the plight of the IDPs of Balochistan, the government in Islamabad as well as in Quetta insisted that no such thing existed in the province. Instead, the government termed the UNICEF report as exaggerated. Most of the displaced citizens, claimed the government, had returned to their homes as peace had supposedly returned to the area after the killing of Nawab Bugti and the dismantling of the fugitive camps.

After intense pressure from various NGOs, the government agreed to allow access to the UN agencies to operate in the area to help the displaced people. Nonetheless, this was an unconditional permission. The UN agencies were asked to help the people under official surveillance and without letting the media know about such relief operations.

The UN, finally on December 21, 2006, managed to initiate its million dollar aid package for the Baloch IDPs, which included setting up 57 feeding centres. But this aid project was soon disbanded after a UN official told the media that the IDPs should have been approached with help much earlier. This was seen as a violation of the so-called terms and conditions brokered between the government and the UN that no details of the operations would be provided to the media. Thus the UN was asked to pull out of Balochistan as a ‘punishment’ for telling the media that more assistance for the IDPs was required. Similar treatment was meted out to the Edhi Foundation of Pakistan which, after the completion of the first phase of its operations, made the same blunder and informed the press that it was about to begin the second phase of relief operations for the Baloch IDPs. The government also ordered the Edhi Foundation never to return to the ‘sensitive region’ without providing any convincing reasons.

There are obvious reasons for the country’s security establishment to create obstacles for aid workers. The grave violations of human rights during the military operation in Balochistan are likely to be exposed to the international community once they are granted access to Balochistan’s conflict zones.

Three years down the line, nothing has changed for the Baloch IDPs. The military and the elected governments have both made every possible effort to prevent aid workers to assist the Baloch IDPs. While extraordinary assistance was provided to the victims of the earthquake in Kashmir and the recent IDP crisis in Pakhtunkhwa province, the federal government has still not officially acknowledged the Baloch IDP crisis. Currently, there is not a single officially recognised IDP camp in the province while the displaced people are spread in Balochistan’s Naseerabad, Jaffarabad, Sibi and Bolan districts. In Sindh, they have gone to Jacobabad, Sukkur, Dadu and Karachi, while many others are languishing in Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur districts of Punjab.

For the first time, the government announced Rs 1 billion for the rehabilitation of Bugti IDPs in the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan Package. It was too little too late. Before the government could begin work on the rehabilitation of the IDPs, a new deadly conflict broke out between the supporters of two grandsons of late Nawab Akbar Bugti — Mir Aali and Shahzain Bugti — as was anticipated by political gurus. Instigated a week ago, the armed clash between the Bugti cousins being fought for the control of 2,000 acre land has killed around 20 people so far. With the previously displaced people still unsettled, the fresh conflict is forcing hundreds of neutral people, mainly from the Khosa tribe, to leave their homes and take shelter in safer places.

The IDP situation in Balochistan was initiated by antagonistic polices of the previous government, while this time the issue is being perpetuated by those who want to divide and rule in the resource rich Balochistan province. At the end of the day, it is the poor masses who suffer. Instead of manipulating the unfolding conflict between the Bugti cousins, the government should immediately play a mediatory role in order to make sure that official plans to rehabilitate the Bugti IDPs are not derailed.

The writer is a staff member and can be reached at maliksiraj@dailytimes.com.pk

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