The Baloch have been living in a state of siege ever since 1948, when their territory was incorporated into the nation of Pakistan. Under the thumb of Islamabad, their rights and autonomy have been deliberately ignored by the international community, which has its own agenda for the region. Balochistan declared its independence on August 11, 1947, three days before Pakistan.
The sound of the explosion hardly raises an eyebrow among the restaurant patrons. This is the dining room of the bus station in Khuzdar, a Baloch town halfway between Quetta and Karachi. After a couple of minutes, Abdulhamid, a local journalist, gets a call. Only now does the busy lunchtime crowd pause.
Abdulhamid breaks the dining room’s silence. “It was a communications tower. No injured or dead,” he announces. It’s good news for Sattar, who’s sitting nearby. The guerrillas’ actions won’t keep him from opening his shop in the bazaar this afternoon.
“Whenever the BLA (Baluch Liberation Army) kills somebody there’s always payback in the bazaar. The army drives down Jinnah Road (the main street) and shoots at the people from their jeeps,” says the Merchant, as he uses his fingers to wrap pita bread around a morsel of beef. He explains that four people died that way last June 4th, and a dozen more were wounded. In addition, seven local students have “disappeared.” This was the army’s response after the BLA killed a Punjabi officer a few months ago.
Khuzdar is like lots of other Baloch towns in Pakistan-controlled Baluchistan. Viral graffiti with the initials of the BLA and BRA (Baluch Republican Army), accompanied by the slogan “Down With Pakistan” spreads across the walls of almost every building. On the other side of all these discomfiting acronyms in Khuzdar stands the Pakistani army, the Pakistani Police, the Frontier Corps (border police), the Rangers and other paramilitary detachments, simply called “scouts.”
“Whether the Baloch attack or not, the army fires their bombs and weapons in order to scare us. Their training camps are right next to our houses,” complains Sattar. “Have you seen the barracks they’re building now? Some say it will be the largest military complex in all of Pakistan,” says the trader before leaving for work.
Indeed, the new military site appears large enough to accommodate all 600,000 troops in the Pakistani army. It’s so massive, it has already ‘swallowed’ two mud-brick villages. The villagers, mostly shepherds, continue grazing their livestock inside the huge barrack walls that lead from the road into the mountains. They won’t be evacuated until the wall has completely encircled the area. But it’s just a matter of time before yet another settlement of displaced persons sprouts up in Khuzdar’s outskirts. Just like in Quetta–head to the settlements around there and ask people how and why they came to live in the suburbs of a city, which is itself already a huge slum.
“Punjab (Pakistan) treats us like animals,” explains Sirbaz, a trucker who has stopped here on his way to Karachi. This man, around forty, is originally from Dalbandin, a town which lies very close to the place where Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons in 1998. They were five explosions in the Chagai hills–explosions the local people will never forget.
“My sister has skin cancer, and so do two of my brothers. There are also plenty of people with eye cancer, and malformations are not uncommon among newborns,” says the trucker. Islamabad has used every means at its disposal to prevent any investigation into the impact of the nuclear tests on the local population. But today, everyone understands that the radiation, at some stage, reached the underground aquifiers–the only water resource in this arid region.
“If you pass by Dalbandin and the surrounding area, stay away from the water.” Shirbaz warns. “Do not even use it to wash your face.” After lunch, tea with milk is served–yet another British colonial legacy of the region. No one among the elders doubts that life here was much better in Balochistan under British rule than under Punjab’s. “What do people in Europe think about what is happening in Balochistan?” asks Atik, another passenger on the road to Quetta. As he waits for my response, he gazes at me steadily with the eye they didn’t burn out with a cigarette while he was in prison.