When I was a child I would sit at a large table, surrounded by cousins, uncles and grandparents. They used to share jokes and tell stories about their ancestral lands and their fellow tribespeople in Kohlu agency [now district] of Balochistan. I listened quietly.
Over the years the table grew smaller. There were fewer people sitting around it, and fewer jokes and stories about life back in Kohlu were passed around amid meals. Soon, even that trickle of a conversation stopped as we all isolated ourselves in our private lives, barely talking to each other.
Some of the older occupants of the family table passed away, leaving little to no written records of the days and nights they had spent in Kohlu. The place now looked distant to me, both in time and space. It became an ever enticing mystery for me.
This spring I finally embarked on a journey to resolve that mystery. I wanted to discover the sources of all those jokes and stories that I had heard as a child. I wanted to track down my own roots within the land and the people of Kohlu.
I got up early to prepare for the long drive from Quetta to Kohlu. Driving through parts of Quetta that were empty 20 years ago, I was amazed to see them now overflowing with people who shifted here from neighbouring rural areas.
Previously you had to drive through Ziarat, pass just below Loralai and touch Duki before reaching Kohlu. Recently, the provincial government built a road on an old but abandoned route to connect Quetta with Kohlu via Sibi. This has cut down travelling time by half, from 12 hours to six and a half.
Not knowing what to expect in Kohlu – a small town with a few hundred people, or a large bustling city – I drove along. The landscape captivated me: mountain peaks in different colours, ranging from rust brown to purple and every shade in between; cliffs that changed shapes as one drove by them.
The road grew narrower as it arrived in Kohlu town and the human presence suddenly expanded. From barely seeing a soul for miles, other than fellow travellers on the road, I found myself in a flurry of human activity — people going about all kinds of routine activities.
Kohlu is a small town with a lone commercial street passing through it. A large number of shops and houses are stretched along the length of the street. Single-storey buildings jostle for space, jutting into each other, sometimes even protruding onto the road. Strange for a place surrounded by vast expanses of almost uninhabited space!
This does not mean that the town is a cramped place. It is spread over a large area with relatively long distances to travel between its neighbourhoods. A lot of construction is going on in Kohlu. Homes are being expanded and new shops are being built.
There is also a very active commercial life here. Local residents travel around the rest of Balochistan, and to southern Punjab, frequently for shopping trips — mostly bringing back construction materials and fast food. “Anything you need, we can get it for you within a few hours,” as my guide put it when asked about road networks in the area.
There isn’t much to do in Kohlu other than hiking and meeting people. There is also barely any cell phone coverage in certain parts. The air is clear of pollution and the atmosphere refreshing. (I am told that it tends to get very dusty and hot during the summer months.)
Kohlu’s population is anybody’s guess. The population of the whole of Kohlu district, which is many times bigger than the town, is said to be somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000. According to the 1998 census, however, the population is about 100,000. No one seems to agree on a specific figure. The ongoing national census may resolve that problem.
Kohlu district is a harsh landscape with bursts of beauty hidden deep inside it — beauty that needs patience but invites exploration and promises the joy of discovery.
The landscape also defies a simplistic description. It is not all naked brown mountains; it is not just valleys where crops and fruit trees grow as tall and thick as anywhere else in Balochistan; it is not limited to gorges and canyons where water streams out from mysterious sources.
It is all of that and then some – its people are toughened by their geographical isolation and made wary of outsiders due to their not-so-pleasant experiences of interacting with them.
Suppressed from the outside and exploited from within, they are gradually coming to grips with the social and economic realities of what is considered the modern way.
They want what everyone among us wants — a roof above their heads, food on the table and a prosperous, peaceful life. They appear willing to work with anyone who can guarantee those few things.
But when their culture is threatened, something that has been part of their lives for centuries, when their very existence is seen as a threat, what would they do? Of course, they would stand up and defend their tradition and territory. Who wouldn’t?
In Kohlu, I met a man named Rab Nawaz. He took it upon himself to be my guide, arranging trips in and outside Kohlu town. Some evenings we sat around a fire, exchanging our stories and experiences in the traditional Marri way — something, he pointed out, people do not seem to be doing any more.
I also heard many interesting stories from his very diverse life. Working though different professions, he has now become vice chairman of the Kohlu district council. He and his family have suffered a lot at the hands of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group, for reasons he never clarified.
He lost many relatives to explosions and gunfire. One of his younger relatives, a keen photographer, lost an eye in a car bomb.
Nawaz is working to bridge the historic divide between the Marri tribe and the state of Pakistan. The divide goes as far back as the 1950s, when oil and gas reserves were first discovered in Kohlu. It intensified into an open war in 1973 after a provincial government, headed by Baloch nationalist leader Ataullah Mengal, was dismissed by the federal authorities. Thousands of Pakistan Army soldiers, aided with helicopters, raided Kohlu’s mountains and valleys to smoke out the Marri rebels bunkered there.
A natural mediator with extensive knowledge of tribal dynamics as well as of provincial politics, Nawaz has been helping both sides to forge better mutual understanding.
Being part of a generation that has seen the relationship between the Marris and the government change from hostility to cautious interaction, he has suffered as a result of injustices perpetrated by both sides. He seems well-suited to take the relationship to a new phase of coexistence and cooperation.
Most of us living in cities do not care about people like Nawaz. We see them as strangers if and when – and that is very rare – they are around us. We see them sticking to their archaic ways of life and see those ways as a danger to our social order that has a set of rules of its own.
People on the receiving end of this treatment are justified if they see us as brown heirs to the British Raj, comfortably sitting back in our drawing rooms, drinking Scotch and puffing at cigars in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Quetta.
As long as our glasses are full and cigar cases well-stocked, and as long as coal and gas keep flowing from such distant lands as Kohlu, do we really care about them?
This was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a graduate of Oxford Brookes University where he studied film, photography and architecture.