The Debate

The Baloch Protest: Why We March

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion

The Baloch Protest: Why We March

“Upon arriving in Islamabad with 300 families, we realized that the state was neither ready to listen nor interested in addressing the issue of missing persons.” 

The Baloch Protest: Why We March

Protesters hold photos of missing loved ones as part of the sit-in against enforced disappearances in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Credit: Baloch Yakjehti Committee

Since November 23, the restive southwestern Balochistan province in Pakistan has been protesting the custodial killing of 24-year-old Balaach Mula Bakhsh, who was forcibly disappeared from his home on October 29. The counterterrorism police presented him in court on November 21 in Turbat, his hometown, and he was killed between the nights of November 22 and 23. 

Concerned that failure to protest now would result in the sequential killing of all missing persons, the public took to the streets. However, instead of ensuring justice and holding the officials involved accountable, the government is cracking down on protesters and those supporting the families of missing persons. 

When we arrived in Islamabad on December 20, we were baton-charged, police used water cannons, and 290 protesters were arrested. Later, the authorities attempted to deport them to Balochistan. This has been the state’s reaction to our peaceful protest.

Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, in a press conference on January 1, suggested that those morally or financially supporting Baloch protesters in Islamabad should join the Baloch militants, labeling families of missing persons as terrorist sympathizers. 

For years, a particular mindset in Pakistan has sought to label missing persons as foreign-sponsored or deny the genuineness of the issue. The current caretaker prime minister is no different and has consistently downplayed enforced disappearances. He even misquoted the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on November 29 during a BBC interview, falsely stating that, according to a U.N. subcommittee, the number of missing persons in Balochistan is fewer than 50.

The most recent report on the issue examines cases between May 13, 2022, and May 12, 2023, revealing that the U.N. body transmitted 1,635 complaints of enforced disappearances to the government of Pakistan during that period alone. Instead of addressing the issue, Kakar undermines it through media talks and lobs accusations at the protesters in Islamabad, indicating a lack of commitment from the state to resolve the issue of enforced disappearances.

We marched over 1,600 kilometers from Turbat, near the Iran border, to Islamabad and staged a sit-in, hoping the issue might be resolved. However, upon arriving in Islamabad with 300 families, we realized that the state was neither ready to listen nor interested in addressing the issue of missing persons. Instead, it is well-prepared to confront, charge, and, if necessary, jail us for peacefully protesting. 

Since December 20, in the cold, we have been in Islamabad with aged and ailing parents, young children, and infants. We haven’t harmed a flower from Turbat to Quetta and then to Islamabad. Yet, every other day, we are labeled with a different title.

A sophisticated media campaign involving a number of Pakistani journalists and YouTubers has been bombarding elderly mothers, some from the poorest and remotest areas of Balochistan, unable to speak Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, with questions. Many of these women have never left their village; they lack education and access to modern technology. Some are hearing the words “Islamabad” and “Punjabi” for the first time. Still, some journalists show up at our camp and ask these people to condemn the killings of Punjabi laborers in Balochistan.

We are not public officeholders or influential politicians but victims ourselves. We haven’t come to Islamabad to condemn or support any groups. Our only purpose is to secure the safe return of our missing loved ones and to demand accountability for those behind the enforced disappearances, extrajudicial murders, and torture of our relatives. We want these practices to stop. 

We have repeatedly said that if any of our loved ones have committed a crime, they should be presented before a court. However, Kakar himself expressed distrust in the courts on January 1, stating that despite 90,000 people being killed, not even nine culprits have been tried under the law. To the prime minister, this indicates that enforced disappearances are the only solution to Pakistan’s security challenges.

Pakistan has anti-terrorism laws, including the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, and constitutionally guaranteed rights to a fair trial. Despite this, thousands have been forcibly disappeared in Balochistan. When we inquire about their whereabouts, Kakar loses his cool. He explains the failure of the courts and the justice system while the media demands that we condemn armed nationalist groups in Balochistan. 

The same counterterrorism police sprayed a car with bullets near Sahiwal in Punjab province in January 2019, killing four people, including a couple, their teenage daughter, and their driver. All of Pakistan stood against it – from the media to politicians. However, in Balochistan’s case, the attitude remains different. Massacring hundreds of people at once and burying them in mass graves has been a norm in Balochistan. An example is the discovery of a mass grave in Khuzdar in 2014, where more than a hundred bodies were recovered but never identified. Was there any condemnation in Islamabad or a call for an inquiry?

From the remote village of Jahoo in Balochistan’s militancy-ridden Awaran to drought-hit Dera Bugti and Kohlu, thousands have been internally displaced due to the ongoing conflict, but nobody in mainstream media or Pakistan cares much about them. I cannot fund find any journalists or known political figures condemning it.

In the last 20 years, thousands have disappeared and been killed in Balochistan, and their loved ones do not know what happened to them. The graveyard overseen by the Edhi Foundation in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, chosen to bury the unidentifiable bodies of those who had been extrajudicially killed, stands as a testament to this. As the years passed, a large number of unidentifiable dead bodies transformed it into a conventional graveyard. But nobody in Islamabad ever raised a voice to ask who these people actually are.

In 1998, nuclear weapon tests were conducted near the civilian populace in the mountains of Chagai, Balochistan. Over the past 25 years, hundreds of children have been born with physical disabilities, and many have been born with various noninfectious diseases, including rare forms of cancer. Yet, no journalists ever dared to visit Chagai and see the implications of the nuclear test on civilians. And we never demanded condemnation from Islamabad.

After spending nearly two weeks in Islamabad, no one has noticed our ongoing sit-in, including the government, judiciary, or other stakeholders. They have failed to curb the practice of enforced disappearances in Balochistan; even during our protests the practice continues. Dozens of fake police cases have been registered against protesters, and around four dozen government employees were fired for peacefully protesting. The Islamabad police have halted our food supply and the provision of warm blankets in freezing temperatures. Ailing mothers are falling unconscious and getting sick, all for wishing to be joined by their missing children. 

Such pain is beyond imagination; we, the Baloch, experience it daily. Instead of healing this inflicted pain, more is added by labeling us terrorists, foreign-sponsored, and fake. The government has miserably failed to address our demands. We now look to the international community, especially the United Nations, to intervene and halt the practice of enforced disappearances. Therefore, we have decided to shift our sit-in from the National Press Club to outside the U.N. office in Islamabad.