On May 28 each year, Pakistan proudly celebrates “Youm-e-Takbir,” which translates as the “Day of Greatness,” to commemorate the country’s first successful detonation of nuclear devices. But the locals in Balochistan’s Chagai district, and citizens all across Balochistan, see May 28 as a “black day.”
The locals still suffer as a result of the nuclear explosions the Pakistani government set off in the Ras Koh mountains 19 years ago. The new generation of Baloch inhabitants in the region is plagued with serious diseases stemming from those blasts. And all in Balochistan are constantly reminded of the promises made at the time by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (then serving his second of what would be three terms, spread out over 17 years) to invest in health, education, roads, and infrastructure in the province — promises that have yet to be fulfilled.
And yet it seems more important to Pakistan that on May 28 it became a member of the club of nuclear powers when it conducted five nuclear tests (followed by a sixth on May 30) in response to India’s five tests two weeks earlier. “We have settled the score,” Sharif said in 1998 in a nationally televised address defending the explosions. “I am thankful to God.”
But how many remember the plane hijacking just a few days before by three Balochs protesting those planned nuclear tests? On May 24, 1998, PIA Flight 554 took off from Turbat, destined for Karachi. Dawn explained their motives in a report on May 25, 1998: “They [the hijackers] were opposed to any nuclear test in their native Balochistan province following the recent Indian blasts, official sources said.”
The hijackers (Sabir, Shaswar, and Shabir) planned to take the plane to India, but did not succeed. Instead, the pilot landed at Hyderabad airport in Pakistan, as the hijackers were tricked into believing that they had actually landed at the Bhuj airfield in India. To deceive the hijackers, all mosques in the city were asked not to use loudspeakers. Some also say that an Indian flag was hoisted at Hyderabad airport. At night, Pakistani commandos overpowered the hijackers and the 30 passengers and five crew members on board were freed, unharmed.
Some are of the opinion that India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Intelligence Wing (RAW), was behind the plot because India knew that Pakistan – an undeclared nuclear power – would undoubtedly test its nuclear weapons after India’s own nuclear tests conducted earlier that month.
On May 28, 2015, hijackers Shaswar and Sabir were executed in the Central Jail in Hyderabad, and Shabir was hanged in the Karachi Central Jail. With their deaths, the hijacking case came to a close, but the grave consequences of nuclear tests on the residents of Chagai and nearby towns still remain.
Some Historical Background
Pakistan began building nuclear weapons in the early 1970s, when India became the sole nuclear power in South Asia. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in power in Pakistan at the time, famously said”Ham ghaas kahe ge, mager bomb banahe ge” — “We will eat grass later, but we will make a bomb.”
Shortly before the 1998 tests, the Pakistani government announced that it had chosen a deserted area in Chagai district to conduct them. But in his 2014 Master’s thesis, titled “Impacts of Nuclear Tests on Chagai,”Abdul Raziq reveals that the area was actually a village and was not deserted. He writes that the blasts took place on one mountain in the Ras Koh mountain range (Koh-E-Kamran), in the village of Chehtar in Chagai district. While the government claimed that there were “only ten households near to the site, who were shifted to a safer place,” Raziq reports that there were many households near the site, and that even if the tests were conducted one kilometer from the ten households the government says were moved, it would not have kept them safe. “Four thousand people were affected from the blasts,” he writes. “Even the government did not facilitate the people who were displaced and dislocated.”
In retrospect, Balochistan was divided at the time about the nuclear tests conducted in the province. For instance, Senator Sardar Sana Ullah Zehri of the then-ruling Balochistan National Party applauded them. On the other side, Senator Javed Mengal of the same party criticized the government for conducting the nuclear tests. The Baloch Student Organization (BSO) strongly condemned the explosions.
Soon after the tests, on May 21, 1998, The News reported that Sardar Akthar Mengal, chief minister of Balochistan at that time, had held talks with Sharif “for accelerating [the] process of development in the province. Mengal apprised the prime minister on financial problems and lack of funds for development in Balochistan.” Mengal requested that Balochistan be loaned 2.5 billion rupees for more development projects. According to reports, the chief Minister of Balochistan neither criticized nor applauded the nuclear tests. He later accompanied the prime minister on his visit to Chagai District on June 18-19.
Impact of the Nuclear Explosions on Locals
In his thesis, Raziq writes about the impacts of the residual radiation resulting from the blasts, which has lingered over Chagai – cases of lung, liver, and blood cancer, skin diseases, typhoid, and infectious hepatitis, as well as serious effects on the nervous system, blood pressure, eyes, and throats, and on newborn babies. The tests also impacted the environment.
There are significant numbers now suffering from thalassemia and hepatitis. Increased numbers of mental illness cases can be attributed to the hopelessness that the locals feel as they face seemingly unstoppable diseases that have sprung up in the area after that day in 1998. At almost every gathering Raziq attended during his research, young people asked questions about hepatitis and how it can be stopped, what kinds of herbs could be used, and whether there is any relief from the worry. He reports, “Even many people with hepatitis go undiagnosed, because the disease is mistaken for the flu or… [displays] no symptoms.” According to Tariq Rafiq, founder of the Iqra Blood Bank and the Welfare Society of Kharan, nearly half of the Chagai population has hepatitis.
In his paper, Raziq notes that after the blasts, every third death can be attributed to cancer. “Seven members of my family have died due to the cancer,” says Ehsan Mir of Nushki district (Nushki used to be part of Chagai district but it is now separate). A young boy named Shay Mureed Mengal of Nushki District died from blood cancer on May 5 of this year. Raziq’s research revealed that cancer is prevalent in Chagai, Nushki, and Kharan districts – all three are close to the Ras Koh mountains.
Thalassemia, a blood disorder, is one of the most dangerous diseases in the region, according to Tariq Rafiq. “More than half of the patients who had visited the blood blank have had major thalassemia. According to my information, the parents or grandparents of the patients do not have this problem. This is definitely very alarming.”
“Please allow me to share a story with you,” he went on. “Mohammed Ilyas, resident of the Ras Koh Union Council, brought two of his children to the blood bank in 2016. Two-year-old Haleema Bibi and four-year-old Ahmed Mehar had thalassemia. They needed O negative blood. I could not find the required blood to save both because it is a rare blood group. We lost Haleema.”
Rafiq paused, overcome with emotion. “It is not possible to provide blood to every patient and save him/her, but I am trying my best to play my role as a social worker. However, there are many thalassemia patients. They go to Quetta and Karachi for treatment. People who can’t afford to go far come to me.”
Balochistan is the richest of Pakistan’s provinces in terms of natural and mineral resources, and Chagai is one of the richest districts in all of Balochistan. The Reko Diq copper and gold mine there, an untapped resource, is valued at nearly $500 billion. The Sandak Copper-Gold project being run by the Metallurgical Company of China (MCC) is located in Sandak, also in Chagai. And yet, despite the abundance of natural wealth, Balochistan remains the poorest and most backward of the provinces. According to a 2016 UNDP report, 71 percent of the people of Balochistan live in multi-dimensional poverty.
“I promise I will make Chagai a model district in terms of roads, hospitals, and other infrastructure in the country,” Prime Minister Sharif said soon after the test, notes local journalist Muhammed Akbar Notezai. Sharif gave this statement publicly in Dalbandin, one of five tehsils (administrative centers) of Chagai district. But after a decade and a half, the town is still as poor and backward as it was before. To this day, the inhabitants of Chagai yearn for basic amenities: clean drinking water, electricity, hospitals, employment, and academic institutions. On a trip to Chagai, one of Dalbandin’s aging residents told Notazai: “After the nuclear tests in 1998, PM Nawaz Sharif promised that he would bring development to Chagai but, so far, nothing has changed over here.”
The nuclear weapons testing by neighboring arch-rival India, with which Pakistan has fought two wars, may have been justification for Pakistan making a show of testing of its own weapons. After all, India brought these weapons to the subcontinent, which prompted the need for nuclear deterrence in South Asia. But the people of Chagai must bear the consequences in the form of diseases which reportedly did not exist there before the nuclear tests.
It should be noted that more than 56 years after the nuclear bomb test on Kiritimati, then known as Christmas Island, the government of Fiji paid compensation to the victims of the blasts. The British government had refused to pay any compensation, but Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama took the lead by compensating the survivors of 1957-1958 tests. Thousands of British, Australians, and New Zealanders affected by the tests still await compensation and special recognition.
The people of Fiji suffer from the same kinds of diseases as the residents of Chagai, and yet scientific data is lacking on the impacts of the nuclear tests on Chagai and nearby places. It is the time for the state to allow national and international researchers on the ground to report the facts.
Nawaz Sharif is currently serving his third term as prime minister of Pakistan, and his broken promises still echo in the ears of people of Chagai and all of Balochistan. One wonders if he will ever follow the lead of Fiji’s prime minister and make good on his promises.
Shah Meer Baloch is a former Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, a fellow of the Swedish Institute and the Institute for Foreign and Cultural Relations (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen/IFA), and a freelance writer. He graduated from the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Islamabad (Pakistan) in International Relations. His research focus is on Asia-Pacific politics, Balochistan issues, extremism and human rights. He is from Pasni, District Gwadar.