I was in Quetta for two days in June 2011, with a friend, to write a detailed report on the different dynamics of the Baloch insurgency, when we met government officials, political party leaders, Hazara activists, journalists — and Qadeer Baloch.
Qadeer had a strange charisma about him. He came to see us with fellow activists from the ‘Voice for Balochistan’s Missing Persons’ at a five-star hotel we were staying at. Here, he told us of his son, Jalil Reki, abducted two years back. Jalil was a member of the Balochistan Republican Party, a separatist, but committed to political channels.
Qadeer invited us to the hunger strike camp they had set up outside the Quetta Press Club. The camp had been there for over two years, moving between Quetta, Karachi, and Islamabad. Here, Qadeer showed us document after document, court order after court order, documenting the strange game that the intelligence agencies had been playing with him over the abduction of his son. He had even been allowed to speak to his son once.
I have no need to repeat the details. The tragedy has been captured well by Mohammad Hanif in his series, The Baloch who is not missing.
On return home, I wrote a detailed feature for the newspaper I worked for, and life went on as usual till November 24 that year — when I was given a story to edit titled, ‘Baloch-missing’.
The poorly written first draft reported that two killed-and-dumped bodies had been found in the Shehraz Koh mountains, about 1,250 kilometres South-West of Balochistan. One of them was Jalil Reki.
I cried, gathered courage to call Qadeer, who accepted my condolence and said that while he was sad that he had lost his son, he would continue his struggle to recover all the others that were missing.
My admiration of the man, on hunger strike with a number of other relatives of the abducted, continued to grow. His image was filed every day by photographers of various news agencies since his son was discovered killed-and-dumped by the security agencies. We would carry the image on lean days. Sometimes, I would force it onto the inner pages.
Qadeer Baloch remained true to his principles. On October 27 last year, he and 21 others embarked on a long march by foot to Islamabad. They have been walking for over 100 days. Only a few times did people rally to greet them. Mainstream media was never interested and they were blacked out on TV. There was more happening in Pakistan — the government was pleading with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with whom the state has been embroiled in a brutal, decade-long insurgency, to become our friends, at any cost — including perhaps abandoning the (albeit defunct) constitution and imposing Sharia in the country.
The Baloch nationalist insurgency is not a priority. The national-security establishment learnt to mend its ways after the Bangladesh debacle. Never again would the Pakistani establishment let a nationalist party come into power through elections, so the 2013 elections in Balochistan were manufactured, with the accompanying military operation before it.
The abductions and kill-and-dump acts have continued since the installation of the puppet Balochistan government. With the discovery of the mass graves in Khuzdar, the men in khaki have earned another badge. Two of those found dead were identified as those abducted by state agencies from earthquake-hit, Awaran.The ‘Shia Kafir’ cardboard and suspected Lashkar-e-Jhangvi training camp besides the graves, confirm a graver suspicion that many had been harbouring after Shia killings in Quetta skyrocketed in the last four years. This was strong evidence that the state’s intelligence agencies and sectarian killers were colluding. But, of course, no one will raise this question.
As the long march continues, mainstream political parties maintain their silence while Leftist parties have shown some support. However, tiring debates within progressive parties continue. We are against the military operation, the kill-and-dump, but against the separation of Balochistan, some have argued.
Sure, but this old man walking from Quetta to Islamabad, through Karachi, and the two dozen people with him, were not coming to take Balochistan. Were they?
What led Qadeer Baloch, or Mama Qadeer as he became affectionately known, to decide to lead the current long march I do not know. It takes a strange conviction to walk over 2,000 kilometres to go to those that abducted and killed your dear ones, to ask for those still alive, to be returned. Which man offers such respect to those who murdered his son? Which girl offers such respect to those who abducted her brother?
Over 350 mutilated bodies have been found. Mama Qadeer reports over 18,000 missing. The Voice of Baloch Missing Persons website, banned in Pakistan, catalogues at least 3,600 of them.
While they continue to march, amidst a number of reported life threats, including one in which two comrades from the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party were injured, there appears little hope that they will get to see their relatives again.
Only last month did reports emerge that the government was planning another bill to give legitimacy to the state to hold persons in detention for over 90 days without pressing a charge. The long march had been going on for over 60 days at that point, without making a dent in the discussion around Balochistan, the abducted persons and the military’s role in abductions and murder in the province.
But it must be said without a shadow of doubt, as we experienced when we hosted affectees of the 2006 Mirani Dam for a hunger strike last year, that all eyes in Balochistan are, and will remain fixed at how the Pakistani establishment responds to Mama Qadeer’s simple demand to return their loved ones.
The signs are ominous. I do not expect that their abducted relatives will be returned to them. I do not expect a seizure of the military operation in Balochistan. I do not expect the military to stop supporting sectarian outfits in the province. I do not expect that the Pakistani establishment will renegotiate their relationship with the Baloch people and their resources.
Maybe, the man who walked 2,000 kilometers on foot to those who murdered his son has another card up his sleeve. But if nothing happens, I see no need for us to be ambiguous in saying, “Mama Qadeer, you must take Balochistan with you!”
Read also: Baloch Discontent by Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur