Abdul Qadeer Baloch, fondly known as Mama Qadeer, made history last year with his 2,800 kilometer march from Quetta to Islamabad, which sought to draw attention to the disturbingly higher number of Baloch missing persons. The surge in the number of missing persons in Pakistan’s largest and least developed province has been linked to the military establishment, which is believed to be trying to silence “anti-state” activities and dissent.
After being disappointed by the federal government and judiciary, Mama Qadeer decided to rely on global organizations like the UN. He wanted to appeal in the International Court of Justice. As part of his efforts to create international awareness about the violations in Balochistan, Qadeer was invited to participate in a human rights conference in New York earlier this month.
However, moments before his plane was to take off for the U.S., authorities imposed a travel ban on him, adding his name to the Exit Control List (ECL).
Qadeer recounted the episode to The Diplomat: “When the official gives us the boarding passes they do a thorough background check of the passenger. And none of the officials mentioned that our name was on the ECL as we were about to board the flight to New York.
“Our luggage, tickets, everything was checked and we were asked to wait in the passengers’ lounge. When we were about to go on board, we passed an FIA counter where our passports were checked and we were told that our name was in the ECL.
“We told the officials that there hadn’t been any mention of our names being on the ECL when we were purchasing the tickets or receiving the boarding passes. I don’t know how this coincidence came about,” he added.
So who was behind this “coincidence,” as Qadeer sarcastically dubs it?
“Someone from Islamabad has added our name, but we can’t be sure as to who did it. But normally it’s the interior ministry that takes care of the ECL,” he explained.
Officials from the government and the military establishment have regularly snubbed Qadeer’s request for talks, and ignored his long march last year. Now, with his name on the ECL, someone in the state machinery is clearly apprehensive about Qadeer voicing his discontent to an international audience.
“We are appealing the decision and discussing the matter with various lawyers,” Qadeer said, adding that, “we are yet to decide if we would be appealing in the Sindh High Court or if we’d be going straight to the Supreme Court.”
Given the power of social media and the fact that both the local and international media is covering Qadeer’s long march and protests, surely the government will have to come to the negotiating table?
“There is no visible change,” Qadeer said. “No one is willing to sit down and discuss the matter with us. They should see that there’s one man striving so hard and staging sit-ins on roadsides. They should give us due consideration. Instead, we have been given our fair share of threats.”
“We aren’t terrorists. Never were; never will be. All we want is justice and for the missing persons to be presented to us,” Qadeer asserted.
The activist who instigated the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) movement emphasizes that he is looking for justice for the missing persons and is not necessarily asking for them to be released.
“We are not asking the missing persons to be released. We want to request the establishment to bring them to the court, and even punish them if they are criminals. We have no qualms about that. But we are yet to see any action. Neither the establishment is taking any positive step, nor is it letting the courts do their job. All we get are hollow promises and dates,” he said.
But with more people becoming aware of what is going on in Balochistan has there been a halt in establishment’s alleged activities?
“The operations are being conducted every day. They continue to lift people on a daily basis. We are witnessing dead bodies and missing persons daily,” Qadeer said.
“We stand in front of press clubs and chant ‘release our missing persons’ or ‘shut down the operation’ – that’s basically what our protest involves.”
Qadeer claims that more than 21,000 people are missing from various parts of Balochistan, with more than 6,000 confirmed dead in the military’s operation in Balochistan.
“When we conducted the long march towards Islamabad, we had a list of 18,000 individuals which we presented to the UN and EU. Since then there have been 3,000 other persons who have been missing from the province. Overall there are 21,000 missing persons and 6,000 dead bodies have been found from various parts of Balochistan,” he claimed.
Qadeer met UN and EU officials, after being snubbed by the federal government, when his long march culminated in Islamabad last year. Did they make any promises?
“The UN and EU officials said that all they can do is to tell the Pakistani government that they are violating human rights and that they can be held accountable according to the UN charter of rights. But they added that Pakistan is an independent state with its own constitution, and that they could only raise questions with regards to the human rights violations,” he said.
While the Mama Qadeer-led long march was regularly threatened, with the movement mustering popularity among activists and commentators, has there been any form of direct coercion from the military establishment to quell the movement?
“Not yet. They just keep an eye on us – like they do with everyone who has any protests to register – and monitor our activities. They see that we sit on the footpath from early morning till the evening, without food or water,” Qadeer said.
“We are law-abiding and peaceful citizens, who have been peacefully protesting for the past six years. We are just showcasing our protest in front of the world, trying to tell everyone what is going on in Balochistan,” he added.
“We are neither terrorists, nor anti-state. I don’t think anyone has conducted such a long peaceful march like we conducted last year.”
Even though Qadeer’s long march was historic, in more ways than one, there were actually two other marches last year that diverted public and state attention. Mama Qadeer highlights the disparity between the reception those two marches got compared to the long march for missing persons in Balochistan.
“There were two other long marches orchestrated last year by [Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf Chairman] Imran Khan and [Pakistan Awami Tehrik Chief] Tahirul Qadri, which resulted in billions of rupees’ worth of losses for the national exchequer. While our 3,000-km march, in which thousands participated, did not close down any roads, halt daily life and business in the country, or cost the federal government the loss of even a single rupee,” Qadeer points out.
“We were labeled terrorists and anti-state while those who brought the country to a standstill won popular support.”
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist covering human rights, security, militancy, diplomacy, energy and finance. He is web editor for The Nation and reporter/columnist for The Friday Times.