The Forgotten Refugees of Balochistan
While the US “war on terror” in Afghanistan and areas in bordering Pakistan occupies the imagination of millions in the West, the simmering conflict in the Pakistani province of Balochistan (Baluchistan) an its disastrous effects on the civilian population evade the radar of popular media. In 2005, when Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, threatened Baloch insurgents with such violence that “you won’t even know what hit you,” hardly anyone outside Pakistan noticed. Soon, the Pakistani military launched a “shock and awe” campaign, involving helicopter gunships, fighter jets, heavy artillery and machine guns, against Baloch nationalists demanding greater political autonomy from the federal government. In the first instance of the general’s strategy, the ancestral home of nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, octogenarian chief of the Bugti tribe, was attacked with missiles and artillery. As many as 70 people, most of them Hindu women and children from the Bugti tribe attending a prayer service in the Devi Mata temple inside the chief ’s compound, were killed. This attack and the subsequent full-scale military operation launched in the regions of Kohlu and Dera Bugti in December 2005 set off an exodus that drained these districts of about one third of their population. These refugees have lived in appalling conditions in different parts of Balochistan and Sindh provinces ever since.
A History of State Repression
Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan, comprising 44 percent of the country’s land mass, although it contains around 5 percent of the country’s 153 million people. Its extensive hydrocarbon and copper-gold resources, miles of Arabian Sea coastline and lengthy borders with Afghanistanand Iran make it an economically and militarily vital region for Pakistan, and one of strategic interest to the US, China and Iran, as well. Balochistan was forcibly annexed by the newly independent state of Pakistan in February 1948 against the wishes of the Baloch people. Relations betweenthe Pakistani government and the Baloch nationalist leadership have been acrimonious ever since, giving rise to four full-blown insurgencies in the last 60 years. The present insurgency also derives its strength from Baloch grievances regarding the exploitation of the province’s mineral wealth and strategic coastline. The federal government wants to step up natural gas and copper-gold exploration through concessions to multinational corporations such as Premier- Shell and BHP of Australia, as well as develop a deep-sea port at Gwadar.
In its haste to ease the entry of multinationals into Balochistan, the federal government refused to negotiate with tribal elders and Baloch nationalist leaders over the local population’s share of jobs and income in the proposed economic projects. Cognizant of the alliance between the state and multinational capital, nationalist cadres, especially tribesmen from Marri and Bugti tribes, have engaged in low-intensity warfare that seems aimed not so much at driving out government forces as at creating enough instability to thwart the federal government’s plans for exploiting the mineral wealth of Balochistan. The army’s failure to score a decisive victory against the rebels has made the state increasingly desperate, and government forces have resorted to collective punishment of recalcitrant tribes and nationalist political parties, through mass arrests, forced “disappearances” and widespread torture.
The Marri and Bugti tribes have borne the brunt of the state’s assault, as their respective chiefs were at the forefront of the struggle for Baloch rights. According to UN estimates, there were 84,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Balochistan, of whom 26,000 were women and 33,000 children, as of December 2006. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan believes that 50,000 people fromthe Dera Bugti district alone had fled their villages and settlements by the preceding July. A fact-finding committee headed by the opposition leader in the provincial legislature, however, put the total number of IDPs at 250,000, as the UN figures covered only three districts. According to on-the-ground reports, 8,000 to 10,000 people died of malnutrition and disease during their exodus, due to the total military and paramilitary blockade of the areas inhabited by the Marri and Bugti tribes. The majority of the survivors have taken refuge in the neighboring districts of Jaffarabad, Nasirabad and Jacobabad. Others have migrated as far as the provincial capital of Quetta in the north and some have moved to Karachi in the south.
In order to hide the military operation and the resulting humanitarian crisis in Balochistan from the Pakistani public and the international community, the government has been denying the presence of IDPs. International and local relief organizations who offered their help were turned away by the government. UNICEF Pakistan’s country chief, Ronald Van Djik, told the Christian Science Monitor: “I even know of aid groups who tried to deliver relief without permits, but they got turned back on the road.” Similarly, Rustam Marri, a local political activist, claimed that government agencies had stopped Karachi-based philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi from providing relief and had threatened other NGOs with dire consequences if they tried to help the displaced people. Individuals who tried to intervene risked being apprehended by the notorious secret agencies run by the Pakistani military, which operate beyond the ambit of the law. It was only in December 2006, after the leak of a UNICEF report on malnutrition and child mortality in Nasirabad and Jaffarabad districts, that the local and international media took notice of the emergency. The government had to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and grudgingly agreed to relief provision by the UN and local NGOs. Even then, severe restrictions were placed upon the aid organization’s modus operandi. Aid delivery was supposed to be carried out through district health offices, and NGOs had to obtain “no objection certificates” from local administration and paramilitary forces to help the displaced tribespeople. Relief workers who visited the area complained that military personnel would round up displaced in trucks and try to hide them ahead of the aid worker’s arrival.
These refugees have been living in makeshift camps without access to potable water, food and other basic necessities. According to BBC correspondent Wusatullah Khan, who visited some of the refugee settlements, people were drinking water from stagnant ponds and agricultural drainage channels, and kidney problems were common among adults. UNICEF assessed that 28 percent of the displaced children under five were suffering from acute malnutrition. Out of these, 6 percent were facing “severely acute malnutrition” and were expected to die without immediate medical attention. Eighty percent of the deaths among IDPs were children under five. Their problems have been complicated by the intense hot season, during which temperatures soar to 123 degrees Fahrenheit, and massive floods in Balochistan that have affected many of the areas where the refugees had set up camp. Heavy rains and flooding have washed away the rickety tents that the IDPs had erected for shelter against the elements. Another BBC report detailed that several hundred Bugti tribespeople were living on the periphery of the cities of Karachi, Hyderabad and Nasirabad in Sindh province. One such group, comprising 200 Bugti men, women and children, is living in makeshift dwellings along the superhighway outside of Karachi. Men collect rotten vegetables from garbage dumps outside the main vegetable market, whereas women and children beg on the streets.
Beyond access to potable water, food and medicine, the main problem faced by the refugees is unemployment. The majority of the Marri and Bugti people are highland pastoralists who, before their forcible relocation, moved from pasture to pasture with their livestock herds. They speak only Balochi and some Sindhi. Their skills and comportment automatically disqualify them for most jobs available in urban centers and agricultural plains. Besides, local businessmen are reluctant to hire the IDPs, both because they distrust outsiders and because they fear the wrath of security agencies.
Return of the Natives
Despite living as refugees for over two years and facing all manner of deprivation, the displaced Baloch are unwilling to return home. Official claims to the contrary, the military operation in Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts continues and its scope has now been widened to other parts of Balochistan. While refugees long to return to their native areas, they are unwilling to relive the traumatic experience of 2005. Some who did try to go back gave up after facing harassment from the local administration and paramilitary personnel. One Bugti tribesman complained that government agents would ask the returnees to furnish proof that they were not loyal to the slain Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. He stated that the government even tried to ban the wearing of traditional Bugti turbans, which are considered a mark of a tribesman’s honor. Similarly, Marri tribesmen complained that drivers of public transportation would refuse them service because paramilitary forces would not allow any Marri tribesman to enter his native area without extensive interrogation. The refugees are left living in inhumane conditions, without the option of returning home.
Given the high-handedness of provincial and federal governments toward the IDPs and the overwhelming force of the Pakistani military, it is imperative that the UN and Western governments that support the Musharraf regime demand of the Pakistani government that it respect the basic rights of displaced Baloch people and fulfill its responsibilities towards their well-being. In particular, UN agencies should aggressively pursue a program of relief provision and income generation for IDPs without regard to the spurious objections of Pakistani authorities. They should keep their pledge to enforce the UN conventions on human rights, particularly of displaced people, and hold it above the politically expedient approach of not annoying the Pakistani government. National and international human rights groups need to run a concerted campaign to bring the plight of Baloch refugees before domestic and foreign publics so that the pressure on Pakistani government to act remains in place. On a broader level, Pakistan’s political leadership and Western diplomats should support the Baloch struggle for greater autonomy and send an unequivocal message to the regime of Musharraf that a military solution to political-economic problems in Balochistan is unacceptable and counterproductive.