The Tragedy of Enforced Disappearances

By Zeeshan Ali 

Located in the western region of Pakistan, Balochistan shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Covering over 44% of Pakistan’s total land area, it holds significant reserves of gold, coal, gas, oil, copper, chromite, barites, sulphur, marble, iron, quartzite, and limestone. Despite its wealth of natural resources, Balochistan has the smallest population, accounting for only 5.94% of Pakistan’s total populace. However, the region faces significant challenges, remaining the country’s poorest. According to the 2017 census, Balochistan exhibited a staggering poverty rate of 47%, the highest among all regions in Pakistan.

The issue of enforced disappearances in Balochistan came to light during General Musharraf’s tenure as Pakistan’s military ruler in the early 2000s, an issue that persists today. Over the years, numerous Baloch individuals have gone missing without any trace of their whereabouts, leading to deep concerns within the region. Sadly, those targeted include a wide spectrum of individuals—political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and students. Individuals even loosely affiliated with separatist groups find themselves at grave risk of being subjected to enforced disappearances. Balochistan remains a challenging area for media coverage and political activism, often resulting in underreporting of cases.

The Government of Pakistan has demonstrated a lack of serious attention towards the issue.  Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, the current caretaker prime minister known for his closeness to the military, recently downplayed the severity of the problem in an interview with the BBC. Kakar stated, ‘The U.N.’s working group reports only 50 cases of enforced disappearances in Balochistan.’ However, this assertion contradicts figures presented by advocacy groups like the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), which claim there are over 7,000 missing persons from Balochistan. Sarfaraz Bugti, the former caretaker interior minister, similarly minimized the issue by referring to it as ‘small.’

A few days ago, Baloch protesters led by Dr. Mahrang Baloch arrived in Islamabad after a lengthy march from Turbat District. They were demonstrating against the alleged killing of a 24-year-old man named Balaach Mola Bakhsh, an issue that had been ongoing for the past month. However, when dozens of Baloch nationalists attempted to enter Islamabad to protest against ‘enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings’ in Balochistan by state authorities, they were met with baton charges, arrests, and blockades. According to Balaach’s sister, he was taken from his home by personnel from the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) while he was sleeping on October 29. It wasn’t until November 20, 22 days later, that an FIR was filed against him by the CTD, accusing him of possessing explosives. Bakhsh was presented in court and granted an additional 10 days of remand. His bail plea was scheduled for November 24.

On November 23, the CTD reported that four alleged terrorists from a ‘proscribed group’ were killed in an encounter in Turbat, Balochistan. Among the deceased was Bakhsh. His family immediately challenged the official version, alleging that the encounter was staged. The same fate befell Dr. Mahrang Baloch’s father. On December 12, 2009, he was forcibly abducted by Pakistan security forces while enroute to the hospital in Karachi. In July 2011, her father’s brutalized dead body was discovered.

In 2013, the esteemed Baloch activist Mama Qadeer, aged 70 at the time, accompanied by a small group primarily comprised of women from families affected by missing persons’ cases, undertook a remarkable journey. They marched approximately 2,000 kilometers on foot from Quetta to Islamabad via Karachi. Their purpose was to advocate for the release of missing persons. Despite their incredible feat, this unprecedented long march did not receive the necessary media coverage. Despite enduring swollen feet and immense hardships, they reached Islamabad. Unfortunately, their voices went unheard, and their plea for a meeting with the government officials remained unmet. One of the rare journalists who shed light on this issue was Hamid Mir, who invited Mama Qadeer and the marchers to his talk-show. However, Mir later survived an assault by four gunmen in Karachi, carrying two bullets from the attack to this day. In a tragic turn of events, in 2015, Sabeen Mahmud, a progressive human rights activist who had invited Qadeer to speak at a panel discussion at her cafe and bookstore in Karachi, fell victim to an attack as armed motorcyclists ambushed her car and fatally shot her on her way home.

In 2012, the former chief justice of Pakistan openly accused paramilitary forces of leading enforced disappearances in Balochistan. Hamid Shakeel, the Deputy Inspector-General Operations of Balochistan Police, presented CCTV footage from a private hotel revealing the Frontier Corps (FC), a paramilitary force responsible for maintaining law and order in Balochistan, picking up three individuals who later went missing. However, FC denied any involvement in the incident. Tragically, Shakeel fell victim to a suicide bombing in 2017.

The tales are countless, each with its unique narrative, yet all woven with shared threads. A soul, often a man, slips into the abyss of disappearance, or is abducted. At times, he returns, bearing the marks of state custody; at others, his lifeless form is the sorrowful discovery. Yet, in many cases, the vanished individual leaves no further trace behind.

The contributor can be reached at xhanibaltee@gmail.com

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