Festering and forgotten, Pakistan's other war burns on

The separatist insurgency in Balochistan Province is overshadowed by the Pakistan Taliban. Reporters often avoid the region, where the Pakistan Army allegedly targets political opponents.

Naseer Ahmed/Reuters
Security officials collect evidence at the site of a bomb attack in Quetta May 8, 2014. Police said two people were killed and seven injured in a blast in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, local media reported.

In Turbat's main square, dozens of troops from the Frontier Corps spend their day nervously scanning traffic. One soldier, his machine gun resting on the bulge in his flak jacket, visits the square's shopkeepers one by one, checking in with them. 

More than 55,000 troops are deployed in Balochistan, but this is a war most Pakistanis have no idea is occurring. An eight-year old insurgency – the fifth one in the province since Pakistan’s founding in 1947 ­– shows no signs of diminishing. Indeed, the insurgency appears to be growing as abuse by security forces goes unchecked. But the remote location and threats on journalists that report here mean very little information gets out. 

In the evening, the soldiers jump into pickup trucks and olive-drab armored personnel carriers to race down the main road in a daily show of force.  

The front of nearly every shop they pass is covered in graffiti. One popular motif – “March 28th, 1948: Balochistan's bloody day” – laments the day that federal troops were sent in to curb the first separatist uprising here. Another reads, “We won't accept Pakistan's occupation of Balochistan.”  

Last month, bombings by Baloch separatists killed 16 passengers on a train in Quetta, the provincial capital. Since 2006, 406 soldiers have been killed by the insurgents in roadside bombings and brazen daytime ambushes, many in or near Turbat. Last year, attacks by any of six different separatist groups killed 375 people, mostly civilians.

Arrests and dumped bodies 

Insurgents are fighting for an independent Balochistan – nearly half of Pakistan by area – that controls its own natural resources. Despite vast fossil fuel and mineral deposits, the province lags behind the country in nearly every measure of development, from education to poverty reduction. 

To confront the insurgents, Baloch activists say, Pakistani authorities support their own militias that locals refer to as “death squads.” In January, armed men riding motorcycles snatched ten-year-old Chakar Baloch as he was walking through Turbat's bustling bazaar. A week later, his family got a call saying his bullet-riddled body had been found.  

According to the provincial government, nearly 600 bodies have been dumped in Balochistan in the last three years, almost all are whom were political activists or their relatives. Many were last seen in government custody. 

In and around Turbat, more than a hundred people picked up by security forces have later turned up dead, according to Ghani Parvaz, a local researcher with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.  “There is not a single village here that has not lost a member,” he says. Security officials have denied involvement in the killings.  

Journalists, who have been targeted by insurgents and the government alike, now rarely report from cities like Turbat. In the last three years, four senior reporters have been killed there. Even bookstores that carry Balochi-language history books calling for independence and biographies of Mahatma Ghandi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Che Guevara are liable to be raided by soldiers. 

The only Pakistani flags here are on the lapels of soldiers, or at the sprawling Frontier Corps base on the edge of town. News of crackdowns in other parts of the province trigger regular strikes, turning the city into a ghost town at least once a week.

In a district where dozens of elected officials have been kidnapped in the last year, nearly a hundred elite counterterrorism police, in black uniforms and body armor, guard the home of Balochistan's Chief Minister, Abdul Malik Baloch. A Turbat native, he makes short, unannounced visits from the provincial capital 380 miles away. “Really, our writ doesn’t extend outside the city" of Turbat, his party's spokesman says. Like most elected officials, Mr. Baloch ran unopposed and won with a fraction of the registered votes after insurgents called a boycott that few dared to defy. 

Painful memories 

In a mud-walled home 15 miles outside Turbat, Khair Bibi adjusts the dark shawl around her shoulders as she rummages through a box of family photos. Reminded of her grief, she begins to tremble and sits on the floor to wipe tears streaming down her face. She says her two teenage sons, husband, and two brother-in-laws were all tortured and killed by Pakistani security forces.

In 2001, Ms. Bibi's brother-in-law, Muhammad Bux, left home to look for work and never returned. One afternoon in 2007, Pakistani troops showed up, guns cocked, demanding to know where he was. Mr. Bux had become a commander in a militant group fighting the Pakistani state and the troops wanted to question his three brothers. 

It was first of many such visits. Then late one night in May, 2011, dozens of trucks carrying troops surrounded Bibi's home. Scrambling over the walls, they made their way towards her sleeping husband and his two brothers.
 
“The kids and I held the officer's feet, begged him not to take them,” says Gul Nissa, Bibi's sister-in-law. “He said 'Don't worry, we are going to ask [your husband] some questions then return him.' Well, they returned him. They returned his body.”
 
Over the next few months, the bodies of the three brothers turned up one by one. They showed signs of torture and were barely recognizable. Bibi's teenage sons, Shehak and Bibakr, were both picked up by security forces, then killed and dumped. Their older brother, Mazoor, says he was held for 11 months and endured daily beatings. Muhamad Bux, the brother who joined the insurgency, remains on the run. 

“It's not just us,” says Mazoor. “Every home here has someone picked up because their father, or their brother, or some relative became a fighter. Picked up and killed.”

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