QUETTA, 14 September 2012 (IRIN) – Ethnic and religious minorities in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan have faced increasing intimidation and violence since 2009, according to a recent fact-finding mission by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
“Settlers” i.e. people who have settled in the province and are not of Baloch ethnicity (a term used by Balochi nationalists even for people whose ancestors came to the region before the Pakistani state was created in 1947) are being targeted.
Heavy locks on two empty houses in a residential suburb of Quetta, the provincial capital, stand as a testimony to what is happening – in this case the occupants chose to vacate their properties quietly in the dead of night.
“These persons were `settlers’ in Balochistan, from the Punjab. They were good people; we had known them for years, but they had to leave because it is no longer safe for people from other provinces to live in Balochistan,” a neighbour who asked not to be named, told IRIN.
With violence increasing in 2010, the central government informed the country’s Senate that 100,000 people had fled Balochistan. According to HRCP, thousands more have fled since then. At least 2,000 “settler” children have been taken out of school by their parents since 2011, the HRCP report says.
About half of Balochistan’s 7.8 million people are non-Baloch; they live mainly in Quetta and Pakhtoon-dominated areas.
“My family has lived in Quetta since the 1930s. It is the only home I know. But things are getting too dangerous for anyone who is non-Baloch,” said Khawar Jhandro, an ethnic Sindhi.
The teacher, 40, said he had already moved his family to Karachi, as “I was terrified about the safety of my children who were asked their ethnicity even at school.”
The problem, according to Tahir Hussain Khan, a Quetta-based lawyer and human rights activist, is tied to the nationalist struggle by Baloch groups, which began in the 1950s but intensified after the 2006 killing of a key Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.
Baloch Baloch, a spokesman for the nationalist Baloch Republican Army, an armed militia fighting for autonomy of the region, told IRIN over the telephone: “We believe Balochistan should be mainly for the Baloch people and not be taken over by those who have moved in from outside and settled here… Balochistan’s resources have been taken away by the Punjab, aided by the central government.”
HRCP says underdevelopment is one of the factors driving the grievances. According to official statistics, the province is the country’s poorest with the lowest literacy rate (30 percent).
According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal which bases its data on media reports and is run by the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, 711 persons, including civilians, nationalist militants and personnel from security forces were killed in Balochistan in 2011, and 347 the previous year. HRCP reported the discovery of 57 bodies of people who had gone missing from various parts of the province in 2012 alone.
Sectarian violence has also started to target the Hazara, a Shiite minority. Sardar Saadat Ali, chief of the Hazara community in Balochistan, told IRIN: “Our protests are ignored. The extremists targeting us on a sectarian basis just escape, scot-free.”
Balochs also targeted
Even the Balochi nationalists themselves have become a target and many have gone missing. “There are at least 500 or more missing persons in the province,” Baloch Baloch told IRIN. According to the HRCP report, the disappearance of 198 people has been officially recorded since 2000.
A 2010 report by Human Rights Watch said the Frontier Corps (FC), a paramilitary organization commanded by Pakistan’s military, was behind many of the disappearances.
The central government is concerned that it is losing control of the region. The country’s top court, hearing a case regarding law and order in Balochistan brought before it by NGOs and families of the missing, has repeatedly ordered the provincial government to take action. So has the prime minister. But these interventions, backed by the military muscle of the FC are seen by some as interfering in local affairs.
“Basically, the FC has seized all control, follows its own plans and does not allow us to function,” a senior police officer in Quetta, who asked not to be named, told IRIN.
“The military has intervened too often in the affairs of Balochistan, handicapping civilian rule,” said I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the HRCP. Balochistan has a long history of military intervention against those fighting for more autonomy, dating back to the 1950s.
The result of this administrative disarray is fear. Tens of thousands across Balochistan are affected.
“It is unsafe to go out of the house after 4 or 5pm. I, in fact, try not to let my college-going sons leave the house at any time, except for their studies, because I am afraid they may be `picked up’ as nationalists or get caught up in some terrorist incident,” said Shaista Bibi, a mother of three – and an ethnic Baloch.
An ethnic Pakhtoon mother was just as fearful. “We will have to leave here soon. It is no longer safe for my four young children,” said Ameera Gul, 30, who had moved to Balochistan from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa Province 10 years ago. The family is now planning to leave as soon as it can.