The first part of our journey is a two-hour, night time drive in a pick-up truck with tinted windows. The driver and his escort cover their faces with turbans, while my fixer, Said, and I travel blindfolded. ‘For security reasons,’ we are told. But even blindfolded, we can tell the moment the vehicle leaves the main track and heads into the open desert.
The car shakes to the rhythm of the ‘Paadha, Baloch’, which blares out from the truck’s speakers: ‘Stand up, Baloch, we are at war!’ sings Savzal Bugti, a man whose music is as popular in Balochistan as it is proscribed in Pakistan. The words are like a hymn for a people whose land was annexed against their wishes in 1948 — seven months after the creation of Pakistan.
At about 1 a.m. the truck comes to a halt and we are handed over, in the middle of nowhere, to another guerrilla. Our blindfolds are removed for the second part of the journey: a tough hike across the rugged granite landscape. This is no easy task at night. ‘Watch your step,’ our guide warns. ‘The Red Crescent won’t be coming out here to rescue you.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
We embark on a challenging, moonless trek, during which we are told we can’t light a torch. Five hours later, the figure of a guerrilla in prayer, silhouetted on a ridge against the dawn sky, comes into view. We’re finally here.
Two masked guerrillas emerge from the black granite landscape and greet us in Baloch. ‘Salaam, heriat, teek-tak,’ they say, before filling a canteen in the river and mixing the water with lemon and sugar. The guerrillas’ camp is austere. There appears to be no building or hut, not even a single cave in which they could take refuge from the cold winter nights or an air strike. Were the men to break camp right now, the only evidence that they had ever been here would be the fire-charred stones where they are now slowly cooking lamb. ‘Let’s take a rest here. We can have breakfast and then you can get on with your job,’ says our host, pointing at a rug laid out on a flat rock.But although I feel like I need a nap, curiosity disrupts my attempts at sleep. I hear children’s voices — a nomad family. The shepherd, wearing a kulla (the Baloch red cap), walks slowly by with his two camels. The first camel carries the family’s belongings: a black cloth tent and a handful of metal cooking utensils. The shepherd’s wife is riding on the second camel with a baby in her arms. Their four other children are shouting to each other as they take their sheep to the banks of the river to drink. The mother and her daughters are wearing the colourful pashk, the Baloch traditional dress adorned with metal studs and tribal motifs.’Please don’t take pictures of the nomads,’ one of the guerrillas says. It is not merely a matter of security – taking photos of a Baloch woman is a longstanding taboo.
It’s impossible to tell where we are right now. And working out exactly who our hosts are is not much easier. It turns out that the Baloch armed resistance is fragmented, and made up of a plethora of armed groups: there is the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army), the BRA (Baloch Republican Army), the BLF (Baloch Liberation Front) and Lashkar-e-Balochistan (Balochistan Army). This divided insurgency reflects the distinctly tribal makeup of the society.
‘We are Lashkar-e-Balochistan,’ I am told by the group’s commander, who claims to be around 40, although he hides his face and won’t reveal his name. We are told we can call him Mir, the word for ‘leader’ in the Baloch language.
‘There are various armed groups in East Balochistan (which is under Pakistan´s control) but there’s no rivalry between us. In fact, we’re all perfectly coordinated,’ he explains over a generous breakfast of freshly roasted lamb. ‘We all pursue the same goal: the liberation of Balochistan,’ adds Mir, who leads this outfit of 20 guerrillas.
The insurgents in East Balochistan may share a common goal, but there is no harmony between them and their compatriots in West Balochistan (which is under Iran´s control). The Baloch are mostly Sunnis, not an issue at all in Pakistan, but a real problem in neighbouring Iran, where the Shiite Farsi elite hold sway. And whereas the Pakistani Baloch armed movements are secular, those fighting Iranian control exhibit a strong Wahabi influence.
‘We also make politics, but with weapons. In Pakistan there is no other way,’ says Mir quoting Khair Bakhsh Marri. Marri is a historic leader of the resistance and tribal chief of the Marri clan, the biggest tribal group in East Balochistan.
‘Our operations consist mainly of sabotaging communications towers and other army infrastructure. We place roadside bombs against the army or the Frontier Corps (military police) convoys, or shoot them with our RPG (Russian-made bazooka),’ Mir says explaining their tactics, which are similar to those employed by the other armed groups.
Since the death in 2007 of Balach Marri, Khair Bakhsh Marri´s son, the face of the Baloch insurgency has been Brahamdagh Bugti, leader of the BRA. The 28-year-old Brahamdagh is the grandson of Akbar Bugti, tribal chief of the Bugtis, who was killed three years after Pakistani forces bombed the cave where he had taken refuge.
Rumours are rife about Brahamdagh´s activities and whereabouts. Some say he has his headquarters in Kabul, others in Spin Boldak, a strategic Afghan location halfway between Kandahar and Quetta (the capital of East Balochistan). Some have even suggested that Brahamdagh and his troops are being trained by Coalition forces in Afghanistan and ‘used’ to control the Taliban traffic across the Af-Pak border.
‘Such rumours are spread by Islamabad to fuel the theory that India and the USA are helping us,’ Mir says as he slings his Kalashnikov over his shoulder and invites us to meet his guerrillas. ‘But the truth is that we’re still waiting for any kind of outside help and recognition.’
Revolution and Revenge
Mir and his fighters wear the shalwar kameez, the baggy clothes that dominate men’s fashion across Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Every fighter hides his face under a turban and is known by a code name. We first speak with Enqelab (‘Revolution’ in the Baloch language), whose path down the road to insurgency began with a quest for water.
‘In my village there’s still no running water, no gas or electricity,’ says the 25 year old fighter as he lays his bazooka on the ground. ‘My elder brother and I used to go everyday to the joints of the pipes that carry the water for the gas plant in Sui region. We’d loosen the nuts with a wrench and collect the water in a five-litre plastic drum’, he says.
‘One day the police came over and arrested my brother on charges of “sabotaging government installations”’. Enqelab says his brother spent six years in prison and that even today he can’t look after himself after being tortured in detention.
The gas plant Enqelab talks about is the biggest in Pakistan, and one of the triggers for the Baloch armed uprising. The Sui region epitomises the sense of Baloch dispossession, with Islamabad controlling Balochistan´s wealth of natural resources: gas, coal, uranium, gold and oil – with hardly any revenue going to the Baloch people.
But even more humiliating for them is the fact that although the gas from Sui has been powering the rest of Pakistan for decades, it still has not reached the humble adobe houses in areas much closer to the plant.
Bair (‘Revenge’) is also Baloch, but he covers his face with a traditional turban from the Sindh region. Along with the Baloch and the Pashtun, the Sindhi also complain about being marginalized by the Punjabies – the dominant ethnic group that rules Pakistan.
Bair arrived from Quetta three years ago, where he was an active member of the BSO (Baloch Students Organisation). But his urban activism cost him dear and he says he was tortured on a daily basis during his two months of detention.
According to NGOs including the Asian Human Rights Commission and International Crisis Group, more than 7000 political, social and human rights activists have been kidnapped, tortured or murdered by Pakistan’s secret services since March 2005. Some are found dead in the desert a few days after going missing, like the three political activists who were snatched at gunpoint from their lawyer’s office and then thrown from a helicopter last April. Others, meanwhile, are said to be left to rot in jail, with just a lucky few being released.
Such stories of torture inspire the next generation of fighters. ‘My cell was six feet by one – dark and damp’, Bair says. ‘It was like being buried alive. They only took me out to beat me, always upside down and blindfolded. I would often faint, and look for anything that could help me end my life afterwards. I never thought I would survive in there.
‘But, amazingly enough, I was eventually released. I didn´t want to risk being arrested and go through the same thing again, so that´s one of the reasons why I joined Lashkar-e-Balochistan.’
Bair is an exception in a group where most members have come from rural areas lacking even the most basic infrastructure. With schools non-existent, it’s hardly surprising that 80 percent of the Baloch in Pakistan are illiterate.
Lightning and Hope
Despite most of them not being able to read, these Baloch guerrillas are fluent in both Baloch and Urdu, and many of them also count Pashtun and Brahui as part of their linguistic repertoire. One of these polyglots is Girok (Lightning), though his command of four languages has so far proved of little help to him. After his village was destroyed by the Pakistani army, he and his family were forced to exchange the loneliness of the Baloch desert plain for the garbage heaps of the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan´s largest city with a population of over 20 million. Around 80,000 Baloch families have suffered the same fate over the past three years.
‘I’ve spent my life on the run, cursing my bad luck,’ says Girok as he strokes the scar on his right forearm. Ironically, it wasn’t caused by a stray bullet in the heat of battle – it was inflicted by a territorial crow he came across in the dump where he was forced to live. After leaving the dump, Girok moved to Lyari, the predominantly Baloch neighbourhood in Karachi. The only time the feverish activity of day-to-day life stops in this district is when Brahamdagh Bugti is interviewed by a foreign TV channel, usually from neighbouring India. Lyari was Girok´s last stop before he arrived in this inhospitable landscape.
Umit (‘Hope’), another guerrilla, is relieved from guard duty so he can spend some time with us. The others maintain their vigil, constantly scanning the horizon from the peaks of the towering rocks – they are well aware that, with 600,000 troops, the Pakistani army is one of the largest in the world – and now one of the best equipped, with US weapons. But Umit doubts a large-scale ground operation will ever take place in this area.
‘This is very rugged terrain, and there are no roads to transport the troops. The only option here is from the air’, he says, highlighting the threat posed by Cobra helicopters and F16 fighter jets. ‘In this case, we can only hope that this granite bastion is as hard as it seems’.
‘Islamabad is using against us the weapons Washington gave them to fight the Taliban,’ he says, holding the Kalashnikov rifle once wielded by his father. He is the last of a family whose members have participated in the five armed uprisings since Pakistan took over Balochistan in 1948, though most of his predecessors did not have to face the Cobras that fly overhead. Some of these were supplied by Iran before the Islamic revolution in 1978, with Shah Reza Pahlevi being said to have handed the US-made arms to Pakistan to quell a Baloch insurgency that threatened to spread to Iranian controlled Balochistan.
‘Why should we sacrifice our right to freedom in a state dominated by a single nation?’ asks Umit, breaking a silence interrupted only by the sound of the hot desert winds.
It is a familiar question that has echoed in the ears of the Baloch for the past 60 years. And one, apparently, with no easy answer.