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Missing Answers

Updated 26 Sep, 2016 10:23pm

As evening grows into night on August 9,Quetta for a while looks like a normal city with people driving with their friends and families after breaking their fasts. Then, suddenly, the loud roar of gunshots takes over. Soon the television news channels start flashing reports that a checkpoint of the paramilitary Balochistan Constabulary (BC) has come under fire near Killi Kabir area along the city’s Samungly Road. Life, as if going in reverse, returns to what it had been: caution, safety of the indoors and an unrelenting feeling of apprehension.

Two BC personnel lost their lives in the August 9th attack. And such incidents are quite common. Two days earlier, unknown attackers gunned down the Station House Officer (SHO) ofQuetta’s New Sariab Police Station and his two guards. On July 29, Akmal Raisani, the 14-year-old nephew of Balochistan Chief Minister Aslam Khan Raisani, lost his life to a bomb blast while he was attending the prize distribution ceremony of a football tournament in his hometown of Mastung.

Ironically, these incidents followed a July 4 proclamation by Lieutenant-General Javed Zia, commander of the Pakistan Army’s southern command, that insurgency in Balochistan “is fading out”. He made the announcement while addressing police cadets at the end of an anti-terrorist training course inQuetta. On the contrary, politicians and senior civilian officials in Balochistan that the Herald spoke to during the second week of the last month anticipate the law-and-order situation to worsen. Some of them see the possibility of western support for the separatists in the province materialising in the near future. “The May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden and American announcement to withdraw troops from Afghanistan have disturbed the geopolitical situation. The American policy of maintaining a status quo vis-a-vis Balochistan is now bound to change,” says veteran Baloch politician Manzoor Gichki. He believes the United States could use the situation in Balochistan as a bargaining chip to pressurisePakistan into cutting its ties with certain Taliban elements and conducting military operation in the tribal areas.Pakistan’s refusal to accept these American demands may aggravate violence in Balochistan, he observes. “The earlier the government resolves its problems with separatist elements the better [to avoid the likely American interference],” urges Gichki.

But he also knows that there can be no quick fix solutions. For the situation to improve, he says, there has to be a complete overhaul of the existing relationship between the federation and Balochistan, and the government needs to go beyond simply offering political packages and economic incentives. Gichki says the government should withdraw federal forces from the province as they have done no good to Balochistan and have instead complicated the situation; find all missing persons and release them; resettle the internally displaced people in their native areas; fix responsibility through an impartial commission for extrajudicial killings and dumping of bodies, and punish the culprits. The government also must punish the murderers of Nawab Akbar Bugti, including General (retd)Pervez Musharraf, after a fair trial, he insists. The order can change but taking these steps is a must for bringing separatist elements to the negotiation table, he adds. “And the initiative must come from the civilian side as the army’s tunnel vision cannot be trusted any more to bring about any improvement,” he argues.

But senior journalists in Quetta believe that no civilian initiative will succeed without the military’s involvement. Not allowing their names to be mentioned, they say the confusion, complexities and mess in Balochistan cannot be addressed without the military becoming a part of the solution. They say the Frontier Corps (FC), the army and the intelligence agencies should stop using proxy groups to carry out targeted killings of Punjabi and Sindhi settlers while blaming the armed separatist groups for the murders. They also reject the FC claim that targeted killings of the settlers have decreased after the security agencies killed Majeed Lango, the so-called Quetta commander of the Baloch Liberation Army. “The targeted killings are still going on but now the targets are security personnel and not settlers,” says one senior journalist. The separatists target only those settlers who they suspect of spying for intelligence agencies, he claims.

The incidents of extrajudicial killings of Baloch political activists and students, however, have increased. Data compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) shows that 87 bodies of political activists, students, social workers and other Baloch people – who had gone missing after allegedly being picked up by security agencies – were found during the eight-month period between July 2010 and February 2011. Since then the number of the bodies found has risen sharply. During a five-month period between April 2011 and August 2011, more than 100 bodies of missing people have been found.

Siddique Eido, coordinator of HRCP’s core group in Pasni was one of them. His bullet-riddled body was found dumped along theCoastal Highway near Ormara in April this year. He had gone missing onDecember 21, 2010while returning to Pasni from a court hearing in Gwadar. Eyewitnesses said men in FC uniform had taken him and his companion Yousuf Nazar away from the van they were traveling in despite protests by the policemen present there.

Local observers say the recurring pattern of people going missing in a similar manner and then reappearing as dead after a certain period of time points to the involvement of security agencies in these extrajudicial killings. For instance, the bodies are found within two or three days after security personnel come under some attack and usually the number of the bodies found is double the number of security personnel killed in the attack. “After every attack on an FC check post or its convoys, we, like the families of the missing Baloch, start waiting for the news of some of the missing being found as dead along some highway or in the mountains,” says a Quetta-based journalist.

Fareed Ahmed of the HRCP’s Balochistan chapter suggests the exact number of people going missing and those turning up dead is hard to know. The families of the missing people rarely report the disappearances fearing it might anger their captors into killing and dumping their bodies, he says.

The security agencies deny that the FC, the army and intelligence agencies are involved in these killings. Talking to journalists in Quetta on July 21, 2011, Zia “dispelled a perception that the army, FC or any other agency was involved in such killings,” reported daily Dawn. The newspaper quoted him as saying that “some elements who did not believe in courts and the supremacy of law might be involved in such killings.” Zia is also reported to have said that the “army considers the killing of missing people an abhorrent act” and it realises “that it was a sensitive and serious issue, and would create hatred … particularly among women who received bodies of their sons, brothers and husbands.”

Ahmed complains that there is lack of proper coverage and debate in the national media on the issue of missing people and extrajudicial killings. “Not only are the issues not properly debated but they are also not reported,” he says. An informal analysis of the editorial pages of Quetta-based newspapers suggests that some kind of conspiracy of silence might be going on now regarding the two issues. Until December 2010, there would be hardly any article or column on other national issues and the editorial pages would be full of articles and columns that debated and discussed issues such as disappearances, targeted killings, Baloch grievances and insurgency. Since the beginning of 2011, however, these pages have taken on a new look. Now they carry virtually no article or column on Balochistan-related issues.

“The change is the result of open threats both from the militants as well as the security establishment,” says the editor of a leading newspaper published inQuetta. The websites of some Balochistan-based newspapers are also not accessible. For instance, anyone trying to open the website of Daily Intekhab, a leading newspaper of the region, gets a warning that opening the site may harm computers. Even if this warning is ignored, the site still does not open. Several blog sites which carry news and analysis about Balochistan or highlight the issues of missing persons or extrajudicial killings are also inaccessible.

Where will such suppression lead to? The answer could have been found on August 11 at the New Kahan Camp, the most impoverished slum in Quetta located in the city’s Hazar Gunji area. Barefooted and clothed in rags, people there hoisted a tri-coloured flag to mark the independence of Balochistan from British rule onAugust 11, 1947. The population of the camp comprises mostly Marri tribesmen who returned to Pakistan from Afghanistan with their chieftain Nawab Khair Bukhsh Marri in the 1980s — they went into exile there in wake of the military operation launched in Balochistan’s Marri area in the 1970s. “The Pakistani establishment scarcely has one more year to settle the issue,” warns Gichki. After that, the separatists may refuse to even consider the official proposals for a resolution, he adds.