Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A meeting with Lashkar-e-Balochistan

Story and photos by Karlos Zurutuza

November 17, 2009

The Baluch homeland is divided, straddling the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. This is a conflict in one of the "hottest" spots of the world, yet it is a conflict in the shadows. The world may have forgotten about the Baloch people, yet predatory folk outside Balochistan have certainly not forgotten about the rich land upon which the sandal-clad Baluchs walk every day. Lashkar-e-Balochistan is one of the groups that comprises the ever growing Baloch insurgency.

The first stage of our journey is a two-hour night drive in a pick-up truck with tinted windows. The driver and his escort cover their faces with turbans. Both my fixer, Said, and I travel blindfolded. “Security reasons,” they said. But even with a blindfold, you know the moment when the vehicle leaves the main track and heads for the open desert. The car shakes to the rhythm of the ‘Paadha, Baloch’ that rings out from the truck’s speakers: ‘Wake up, Baloch, we are at war!’, sings Savzal Bugti, a man whose music is as popular in Balochistan as it is proscribed in Pakistan. It is almost like a hymn for a people whose land was annexed against their wishes in 1948, seven months after the creation of Pakistan. Besides, the Baloch homeland also includes parts of Iran and Afghanistan.

At one in the morning the car stops and we are handed to a fellow guerrilla in the middle of nowhere. Blindfolds off for the second part of this unusual journey: a challenging hike through a rugged granite landscape. Not easy in the middle of the night. "Watch your step,” warns our guide. "The Red Crescent will not be coming out here to rescue you."

It´s a five hour moonless hike, during which it is forbidden to light your torch or twist your ankle. Finally, the silhouette of a guerrilla praying on a ridge shapes against the dawn. We have arrived.

“Salaam, heriat, teek-tak”, the Baloch language greeting from two masked guerrillas as they emerge from a black granite wilderness. Next, they fill a canteen in the river and mix the water with lemon and sugar. Four water bottles later, the sun rises, a great sphere in the Baloch sky.

The guerrillas´ camp is extremely austere. There is no building, no hut, not even a single cave in which they might take refuge during from either the cold winter nights or a possible air strike. Were these men now to break camp, the only evidence that they had ever been here would be the fire-blackened stones where now lamb is slowly cooking.

"Let’s take a rest here. We can have breakfast afterwards and then you can get on with your job," says our host, pointing at a Baloch rug laid on a flat stone.

But the well deserved nap is disrupted by curiosity. Children’s voices. It is a nomad family. The shepherd walks slowly wearing a kulla (the Baloch red cap), and his two camels follow him in line. The first camel carries the family goods, just a black cloth tent and a handful of metal cooking utensils. The man’s wife travels on the second camel with a baby in her arms. Four kids yell at each other whilst they take the sheep to the banks of the river to drink. The mother and the daughters wear the colourful pashk, the Baloch traditional dress adorned with metal studs and tribal motifs.

"Please do not take pictures of the nomads," says one of the guerrillas. It is not merely the obvious security issue. Taking photos of a Baloch woman still breaches a generations long taboo.

Pakistan-style politics
It is impossible to know where we are, but trying to guess who our hosts are is also far from easy. It turns out that the Baloch armed resistance is fragmented with a plethora of armed groups: there is the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army), but also the BRA (Baloch Republican Army), the BLF (Baluch Liberation Front) and Lashkar-e-Baluchistan (Baluchistan Army). The apparently divided Baloch insurgency is just the clear reflection of a distinctly tribal society.

"We are Lashkar-e-Baluchistan,” answers the commander, who claims to be around 40, but hides both his face and name. We can call him Mir, the word for ‘leader’ in the Baloch language.

"There are various armed groups in East Balochistan (under Pakistan´s control) but there is no rivalry between us. In fact, we are all perfectly coordinated", explains Mir over a generous breakfast of freshly roasted lamb. "The enemy tries to portray us as terrorists, but the Baloch have only been defending themselves from the illegal occupiers since day one. Today we all pursue the same goal: the liberation of Balochistan”, remarks the leader of this battalion of 20 guerrillas.

The insurgents in East Balochistan may all share a common agenda, but there is no harmony between them and their compatriots in West Balochistan (an area under Tehran´s control). The Baloch are mostly Sunnis, not an issue at all in Pakistan, but a real bone of contention in neighbouring Iran, where power is held by the Shiite Farsi elite. Whereas the Pakistani Baloch armed movements are secular, those fighting against Tehran show a strong Wahabi infuence. Nonetheless, political resistance is equally rejected on both sides of the border.

"We also make politics, but with weapons. In Pakistan there is no other way," says Mir quoting Khair Bakhsh Marri´s words, a historic leader of the resistance as well as the sardar (tribal chief) of the Marri clan, one of the biggest tribal groups in East Balochistan.

"Our operations consist mainly of sabotage of communications towers and other army infrastructure. We conduct mortar attacks against military garrisons, place roadside bombs against the army or the Frontier Corps (military police) convoys, or shoot them with our RPG (Russian-made bazooka)”, explains the commander about their modus operandi, which is also common to the rest of the armed groups.

Since the death in 2007 of Balach Marri, Khair Bakhsh Marri´s son, the visible head of the Baloch insurgency today is Brahamdagh Bugti, leader of the BRA. This young 28 year old man is the grandson of Akbar Bugti, the sardar of the Bugtis, who died three years ago at 79, after forces from Islamabad bombed the cave in which he was taking refuge. There is no end of rumours about Brahamdagh´s activities and whereabouts. Some say he has his headquarters in Kabul; other, in Spin Boldak, an Afghan strategic location halfway between Kandahar and Quetta (the capital of East Baluchistan). Some even suggest that he and his troopers are being trained by the 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 USA are helping us, but the truth is that we are still waiting for any kind of outside help and recognition," says Mir as he hangs his Kalashnikov over his shoulder and invites us to meet the guerrillas he leads.

‘Revolution’ and ‘Revenge’
The commander and his fighters wear the shalwar kameez, that characteristic baggy shirt and trousers outfit which rules the men’s fashion scene across Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

“Most of our comrades here have seen hard times in life but there are also those who had a comfortable livelihood and are well educated as doctors, engineers or lawyers”, explains Mir before introducing ourselves to his battalion.

Every fighter hides his face under a turban and his identity under a code name. We first speak with Enqelab (‘Revolution’ in Baluchi). Both his life and that of his brother changed dramatically because of the basic human need for water.

"In my village there is still no running water, no gas or electricity," starts the 25 year old fighter, carefully laying his Russian 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 would loose the nuts with a wrench and collect the water in a five litre plastic drum", explains the young man, illustrating his testimony with his hands the colour of the stone around us.

"One day the police came over and arrested my brother on charges of “sabotaging government installations”. Enqelab’s brother spent six years in prison and today he cannot look after himself due to the lingering effect of the terrible torture he endured.

The gas plant mentioned by Enqelab is the biggest one in Pakistan, as well as one of the triggers for the Baloch armed uprising. “Whatever you may dig out from the Baloch soil, rest assured it will be contaminated with human blood”, said once Attaullah Mengal, the tribal leader of the Mengals. Well, Sui is the very epitome of dispossession with Islamabad controlling Balochistan´s huge natural resources: gas, coal, uranium, gold, even oil. This amounts to an enormous treasure from which the Baloch people secure hardly any revenue. But much more humiliating is the fact that the gas from Sui has been powering the rest of Pakistan for decades, but still has not reached the humble adobe houses in areas close to the plant.

Bair (‘Revenge’) is also a Baloch but he covers his face with a traditional turban from the Sindh region. Alongside the Baloch and the Pashtun, the Sindhi also complain about being marginalized by the Punjabies, the dominant ethnic group that, according to most Baloch, rules Pakistan.

Bair arrived from Quetta three years ago, where he was an active member of the BSO (Baluch Students Organization). His urban activism cost him dear. During a two month detention he was tortured on a daily basis. According to NGOs such as Asian Human Rights Commission or the International Crisis Group, over 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 a few days later in the desert, like the three political activists who were grabbed at gunpoint in their lawyer's office and then thrown out of helicopter last April. There are also those who simply rot in jail, or the lucky few who are released. Their awful stories of torture inspire the next generation of fighters. Bair is one of those who survived the torture. "My cell was a six feet by one, dark damp", explains the man. "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 the exception in a group where the majority of its members come from rural areas which lack the most basic infrastructures. Schools and hospitals are non-existent. Small wonder then that eighty per cent of the Baloch in Pakistan are illiterate. And that would apply too to this guerrilla community in the desolate granite wastes.

‘Lightning’ and ‘Hope’
But despite some of them not being able to read, these Baloch guerrillas are fluent in both Baloch and Urdu, and many of them also number Pashto and Brahui in their linguistic repertoire. One of these polyglots is Girok (‘Lightning’). Unfortunately, his command of four languages has never been of great help. After his village was destroyed by the Pakistani army, he and his family were forced to change the loneliness of the Baloch desert plain for the garbage in the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan´s largest city with a population over 20 million people. Around 80,000 Baloch families have suffered the same fate over the past three years.

"I've spent my life on the run, since I was a small kid", confesses Girok. Eventually, the young fighter moved to Lyari, the predominantly Baloch neighbourhood in Karachi. This is a district whose daily feverish activity only freezes when Brahamdagh Bugti is interviewed by a foreign TV channel, usually from neighbouring India, Pakistan's arch-enemy. Lyari was Girok´s last stop on his way to this inhospitable landscape where he serves now.

“We will struggle until the liberation of Baluchistan and the destruction of the Pakistani army”, can be read on a big, flat stone. Just nearby, Umit (“Hope”) cleans his weapon thoroughly. He´s been released from guard duty to spend some time with us. The other men maintain the vigil, ever scanning the horizon from the peaks of the imposing towers of rock. Every man knows that, with 600,000 troops, the Pakistani army is one of the largest in the world as well as one of the best equipped. It has a great reserve of US weapons. In any case, 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", says this guerrilla fighter, referring to those Cobra helicopter and F16 fighter jets. “In that case, we can only hope that this granite bastion is as hard as it seems”, he adds.

"Islamabad is using against us the weapons Washington gave them to fight the Taliban but, as Nawab Akbar Bugti would say, nations do not die by mere physical death, but by losing their conscience", says Umit, 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. In any case, most of his predecessors did not have to face the Cobra helicopters that fly overhead. Some of the latter came from Tehran before the Islamic revolution in 1978. Apparently, Shah Reza Pahlevi 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? We want to belong to a federation dominated by a single nation," explains Umit, in the middle of a silence broken only by the rattle of the hot desert wind.

This is the cry that has echoed in the ears of the Baloch for the past 60 years. There is no easy answer to the Baloch cry for freedom in their own homeland, a demand born of the most basic desire of every living creature: survival.

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance correspondent and writes in Basque, Spanish and English. He´s been awarded with the Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti Reporting Award 2009 for highlighting the Baloch struggle in diferent newspapers and magazines.


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