Balochistan, Asia's blackest hole
Culture against all odds
It was hanging on the wall of one of the many hairdressers in West London
On a yellowed piece of paper in a frame, The New York Times reported that Kalat – the old kingdom which corresponds roughly to Pakistan’s Balochistan modern province – was an ‘independent sovereign state’ as of 12 August 1947.
‘We had a state of our own for eight months until Pakistan annexed our territory by force eight months later, on 27 March 1948,’ the barber said while he finished the job with his razor. I could not help thinking of the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, producing the Palestinian pound note that he would always carry with him as a proof of the previous political existence of the country under British rule.
I had, of course, heard of the Baloch but that slight man in his fifties was the first I had ever met. That encounter sparked my curiosity and a few months later I set foot on Baloch soil for the first time. It was June 2009 then.
In retrospect, I have to admit that during that trip to Balochistan I was barely familiar with the Bugtis, the Marris, the Mengals, and the rest of the clans that make up the Baloch tribal fabric, nor the history behind them. However, I was well aware that the Baloch story was likely to be the most difficult one to cover due to the media blackout enforced by the government. Foreign journalists need special permission to visit the area and permission is hardly ever granted. If journalists risk visiting without permission they’ll face deportation in the best case scenario.
But why is this such a sensitive area?
Other than being Pakistan’s biggest – yet least populated – province as well as the most neglected one, the Baloch in Pakistan share borders with their kin in both Iran and Afghanistan. The area also boasts enormous reserves of gold, gas and copper, as well as untapped sources of oil and uranium. In addition, it has an enormous strategic importance as a hub for future oil and gas pipelines and for its 620 miles of coast at the gates of the Gulf. Since the occupation of their land, ethnic Baloch insurgents have launched a series of armed uprisings against the central Pakistani government.
Islamabad’s response has come through constant military operations in areas where civilians are displaced, the funnelling of fundamentalist groups into Balochistan, or the so called ‘kill and dump’ policies directed against dissidents, which sometimes include school teachers and intellectuals, as denounced by Amnesty International in its 2015/2016 Pakistan report.
It was only thanks to the help of local activists that I got to meet victims of torture and abuses by the Pakistani security services and the relatives of the myriad of missing Baloch – around 20,000 according to local sources. The situation is so desperate that many are seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, the UNHCR in Pakistan still doesn’t include the Baloch among its ‘people of concern’ list. I did ask the head of the mission in Kabul about this. He said I was the first journalist to ever raise the question and he labelled it as ‘a pending issue.’
Culture against all odds
The Pakistani Baloch refugees add to the Afghan Baloch which are scattered all across the country, but who still make the majority in Nimroz, the only province in Afghanistan which shares borders with both Iran and Pakistan. Zaranj, the provincial capital located 559 miles southwest of Kabul, lies within walking distance of the official border with Iran, across the Helmand River. For centuries, the local Baloch have lived on the banks of one of the country’s main water sources, but the droughts of the past 10 years have forced many families to leave their native land.
Life is doubtless hard in this remote province but, unlike those in Pakistan or Iran, the Baloch in Afghanistan don’t face persecution for their ethnicity, at least not from the government. This has led to a surprising cultural revival ran by volunteers with very little resources. Today, Balochi – their language – is taught not only at schools in Nimroz; there’s even a Balochi department in the University of Kandahar and Zaranj’s National Radio and Television continues to work unbothered on their daily program in Balochi.
Mir Mohamad Baloch, a Baloch from Zaranj who described himself as a ‘political and cultural activist’ told me that the main threat to their existence comes not from Kabul, but from Tehran.
‘The Iranian government is constantly trying to quell any Baloch initiative here as they consider us a potential threat to their security,’ he lamented.
Their neighbour’s presence was most visible in the Afghan Baloch villages that once found themselves lining up only too close to the Iranian border. Tehran started building a wall in 2007, which is preventing local farmers from attending their crops or meeting their relatives on the other side of the border, just a few hundred metres away. Surviving in this long forgotten part of the world gets even harder; people cannot make ends meet and villages become emptied one after the other.
‘Enemies of god’
A group of US geologists who visited the Iranian side of the border in the early 1970’s determined that the landscape was ‘the closest thing to Mars.’ Today, however, most roads are paved and schools and hospitals don’t look as derelict as those in Afghanistan, but the piece of land inhabited by the Baloch in Iran – Sistan and Balochistan province – is also the most neglected one in the country. Taj Mohammad Breseeg, a Baloch historian and university teacher whom I had-had the chance to interview in Quetta –Pakistani Balochistan’s provincial capital – told me that the region had been annexed to Iran in 1928. Repression by the central government, he added, resulted in a ‘mass exodus of the local population and saw virtually every Baloch place name changed to a Persian one.’
The evolution of the name used for the province is illustrative. Seventy years ago this province was called ‘Baluchistan’, which would later turn into ‘Baluchistan and Sistan’ before, and today is ‘Sistan and Baluchistan’. If we stick to the logic of past trends, in the future it may be called just ‘Sistan.’
The Iranian Baloch face a double handicap: they’re Sunni and non-Persian in a country which is ruled by the Persian-Shiite elite.
‘The Islamic Shiite missionaries sent by Tehran told us that we’d have no jobs, no schools and no opportunities unless we converted,’ Faiz Baloch, a London based journalist told me. He is just one among thousands of Baloch refugees who were forced to leave their homeland.
Amnesty International ranked Iran as the world’s second most executioner of people after China. Tehran’s most favoured argument to repress the Baloch is their alleged involvement in drug trafficking. More than half of the 1,000 executed in 2015 were accused of drug related crimes. A majority of them were also charged with being ‘enemies of god.’ Only last February, officials revealed that all adult men in one village had been executed for ‘drug offences’.
Despite the brutal policies inflicted on the Baloch by those who control their land, the world still knows very little about these people. Travelling to their remote areas can be not only exhausting, but also very dangerous. However, their diaspora is big and one can easily run into them within the world’s popular capital cities. Some may produce that same piece of news I saw at that barber shop. Even if it’s not the original copy, it does the job.
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