Sights and sounds along CPEC’s Balochistan route

Updated Jun 05, 2017 10:17pm
A man obtains water from a hand pump on the outskirts of Dera Ismail Khan | Photographs by Ghulam Dastageer
A man obtains water from a hand pump on the outskirts of Dera Ismail Khan | Photographs by Ghulam Dastageer

Balochistan is all about expanse — vast, inaccessible, inhospitable expanse. That partly explains why the rest of Pakistan sees it as a dangerous, even hostile, territory. Distance and remoteness have the ability to turn the usual into the unusual and the unfamiliar into the mysterious.

The case of Balochistan’s northern districts is even more curious. Cut off from most parts of the country by virtue of their high hilly terrain and almost no communication links, they have experienced less strife in recent times (compared to Pakhtun areas north of them and Baloch areas south of them). Yet, mentioning them does not evoke anything but a sense of ignorance and foreboding among Pakistanis living elsewhere.

Now that many of these districts find themselves dispersed along the western route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), their inhabitants may expect meeting more outsiders than they did in the past. And the outsiders travelling along that route may find out that the people living here have the same concerns as everyone else in Pakistan — food, water, shelter, education, healthcare.

Local residents also have the same expectations from CPEC as people in other parts of the country have — that it will bring with it a turnaround in their fortunes. Imagine a cat’s cradle of roads running from Gwadar to Sukkur, Multan and Lahore as part of the eastern route of CPEC and from Gwadar to Quetta, Zhob and Dera Ismail Khan comprising its western alignment and what you have is the glittering image of an El Dorado in the making.

“Special economic zones along [these roads] can bring about a change for the better in our lives,” said Nizamuddin Kakar, a resident of Killa Saifullah district.

A family of nomads in Dara Zinda, Frontier Region Dera Ismail Khan
A family of nomads in Dara Zinda, Frontier Region Dera Ismail Khan

Last month, I took the N-50, a highway that forms part of CPEC’s western route and connects Dera Ismail Khan in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with Kuchlak in northwestern Balochistan. Large parts of it are still under construction.

Heavy yellow excavators burrow through the hilly terrain like machines from a futuristic movie invading an ancient biblical land. Apart from being a future trade route between Pakistan and China, the highway provides the long-demanded direct road link between the Pakhtun areas of the two provinces.

Dera Ismail Khan, where my journey started, was sizzling under the April sun. Long hours of power outages had only exacerbated the scorching weather. Roadside petrol stations were not operating due to electricity breakdowns but their operators had devised a smart solution: they would pump out fuel whenever they got electricity and stored it in jerry cans to sell it later.

Widening of N-50 Highway in progress in Dara Zinda
Widening of N-50 Highway in progress in Dara Zinda

Local modes of transportation were antique, if not entirely rudimentary. Four-wheel mini trucks dating back to 1970s, or perhaps earlier than that, were plying the roads, carrying human beings and cattle in their upper and lower compartments, respectively.

As I travelled westwards, the landscape did not change much for many kilometres. Yet, ethnic and cultural differences were too obvious to miss. Women covering their heads with light dupattas were as visible as bareheaded men in Dera Ismail Khan city and its adjoining Seraiki-speaking villages.

That started changing as I entered Dara Zinda town, home to a Pakhtun tribe called Sherani. Women’s presence in the public space not just became thinner here, they were also covering their heads and faces with more yards of cloth. With their eyes peering through narrow slits in their heavy chadors, they were carrying loads of fodder skilfully balanced on their heads.

Dara Zinda, part of a frontier region — an administrative buffer zone between South Waziristan Agency and Dera Ismail Khan district – is a gateway to Balochistan’s Sherani district. Everyone entering the district is required to register themselves at a security post manned by Frontier Corps personnel. Next, the visitors are welcomed by barren mountains jutting out of spacious plains.

An elderly man offers prayers along the Zhob-Quetta Highway in Killa Saifullah district
An elderly man offers prayers along the Zhob-Quetta Highway in Killa Saifullah district

Zhob is the first main town on the Balochistan side. It is the headquarters of an eponymous district that stretches over an area of 20,297 square kilometres (about 27 per cent of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that has a total area of 74,521 square kilometres).

Only 40 per cent of the land mass in Zhob district consists of plains. The rest comprises hills, covered in many parts with forests of pine, olive, cumin seed and heeng (asafoetida). People in the mountainous parts are less inclined towards agriculture. Those living in the plains mostly grow apples and grapes.

In Zhob city, I met Jan Muhammad, a dealer of naswar (snuff), a concoction manufactured locally and used widely for an intense immediate hit of nicotine. He is so popular in the city that the public square next to his shop has been named after him. “I was the first one to start a naswar shop here,” he told me. Zhob is a provincially administered tribal area. That allows people living here to own and drive vehicles brought into the country without the payment of import taxes.

Many local residents told me that import taxes for more than 90 per cent of the vehicles in their district were not paid. Most of them, however, have fake number plates, ostensibly issued from Karachi.

An elderly Afghan selling red-legged partridges in a bazaar of Chaman, a town bordering Afghanistan
An elderly Afghan selling red-legged partridges in a bazaar of Chaman, a town bordering Afghanistan

People living in Killa Saifullah, the next district along N-50, are mostly Kakar Pakhtuns. They have great love for education — particularly for the education of girls. Ten years ago they went to the deputy commissioner and requested him to permit their daughters and sisters to study at the college for boys in the evenings — to be taught by its all-male staff. Permission was granted.

Last year, the girls got a college of their own but even now they use science laboratories at the college for boys because their own institution does not have those facilities yet.

From Killa Saifullah, the road leads to Muslim Bagh and then reaches the town of Kuchlak (made famous by Shahbaz Taseer, slain Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer’s son who was abducted by militants affiliated with the Taliban in 2013; he had made a sudden appearance here in 2016 after his release from captivity).

Kuchlak, a part of Quetta district, is also famous for its fruit markets and dealers of earthenware that is imported from Sindh and Punjab. Its marketplaces were buzzing with activity when I arrived there last month.

Helping out elders in Pishin district starts at a very early age
Helping out elders in Pishin district starts at a very early age

Apple orchards and vineyards adorn long stretches of the 332-kilometre part of the road from Zhob to Quetta. These are irrigated from man-made ponds that store rainwater. These ponds appear along the road at regular intervals.

About 72 kilometres to the south of Killa Saifullah is the town of Loralai. It is the headquarters of Loralai district, one of the greenest areas between Balochistan’s northeastern and northwestern borders.

Ground water level here – at 500-600 feet – is higher than in its neighbouring districts where it is as deep as 1,000-1,200 feet. Local farmers have installed solar-run tube wells (each costing about 1.1 million rupees) to irrigate their lands.

Aroad from Kuchlak goes to Pishin district where snuff, locally known as shna naswar, is ground to a fine powdery form. More difficult to consume than other forms of naswar, it is known across Pakistan for its potency.

En route Zhob to Quetta
En route Zhob to Quetta

The same road then goes to Chaman, headquarters of Killa Abdullah district that once housed hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in the camps of Saranan and Jungle Pir Alizai. Many of them now seem to have assimilated with the local population.

Chaman is a few kilometres to the east of the Pak-Afghan border. The city’s economy is mostly dependent on cross-border trade, both legal and illegal. Its markets are flooded with vehicles imported without the payment of any taxes, automobile spare parts and electronic equipment, among other things, mostly smuggled from Afghanistan and Iran.

Goods alone don’t move across the border here. Over 2,000 Pakistanis daily cross into Afghanistan to work during the day and come back home in the evening. That could well be one reason why it is one of the most difficult-to-man border posts in Pakistan.

This was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a Herald reporter in Peshawar.