In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi embarked on his famous Salt March, travelling 380 km, while producing salt and refusing to pay Britain’s tax, in defiance of colonial rule. In 2013, 70-year-old Mama Qadeer Baloch and a handful of comrades covered greater than five times that distance, marching more than 2,000 km across Pakistan to demand an end to human rights abuses in the province of Balochistan and the return of missing persons.
Mama Qadeer Baloch is a founder of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, formed five years ago to bring attention to atrocities committed by the Pakistani armed forces in Balochistan. The tale of the Missing Persons of Balochistan is one of the most underreported in the world. In the past decade, the Pakistani state has kidnapped almost 20,000 people from Balochistan, as part of its dirty war to crush the nationalist insurgency and freedom movements. The policy of abducting Baloch youth, leaders, and intellectuals, torturing them and dumping their mutilated dead bodies in remote parts of the province is known as “kill and dump.”
In this exclusive interview, Jahanzeb Hussain talks to Mama Qadeer Baloch about his ongoing journey.
How did you come to form the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons?
Under the Musharraf regime, cases of abduction and extrajudicial killings started occurring in Balochistan. Ali Asghar Bangalzai was abducted on October 18, 2001, and he has not yet been recovered. Such cases have occurred regularly since then. When in 2007-2008 the abductions started to increase, and when the issue of the disappeared persons started being exploited by some political parties to further their electoral purposes, the parents of the disappeared persons realized that these politicians wanted to use their disappeared near and dear ones as a ladder to get to power. This would have been a great injustice to the political views and the ideology of these disappeared persons.
It should be noted that the majority of the disappeared persons belonged to the parties that demand independence of Balochistan from Pakistan. Those disappeared persons who do not belong to a party fighting for independence were abducted because of their sympathies with such parties. The relatives of the abducted persons could not allow that the names of the disappeared persons be used against their ideals.
On February 13, 2009, my son Jaleel Riki was abducted. He was the central information secretary of the Baloch Republican Party. He was abducted in the presence of all his family members. As his father, I know very well that his only sin was that he was an office-bearer of a party fighting for freedom. This strengthened my belief that all those persons who had been abducted and their dead bodies dumped were also innocent political leaders and workers like my son.
After this, like relatives of other disappeared person, I started going to courts. I, who used to sympathize with the relatives of the disappeared persons, found myself in the same situation as them. With the increase in the number of abductions and in the face of the machinations of different Pakistani political parties, we, the relatives of disappeared persons, formed the Voice for the Baloch Missing Persons on October 27, 2009.
How do you carry on the struggle of the Voice for the Baloch Missing Persons when the secret agencies and their spies are everywhere and fear prevails in the society?
No doubt that in these conditions, when people are abducted almost every day and their mutilated dead bodies dumped, it is difficult to do something. We cannot control this situation, but we can raise our voices against this, as is the duty of every politically conscious person.
The Voice for the Baloch Missing Persons is facing great challenges. Ever since its establishment and throughout our struggle, the lives of all active members have been in danger. We have been threatened many times, we have frequently been attacked, our hunger strike camps have been vandalized and set afire, but we have never been deterred by any obstacle.
One of our female workers was killed in such an attack. My arm was fractured. Two of our coordinators – Fakir Ajiz from Mastung and Yaseen Mohammed Shibbi Baluch from Kallat – were martyred. They were working actively for the recovery of their brothers. I was threatened that if I did not close the hunger strike camp for missing persons, my son would be killed.
But I was not fighting for my son alone; I was raising my voice against a national tragedy and the genocide of a nation. Chairman Naseerullah Baloch, General Secretary Farzana Majeed, and many other members have been directly threatened several times, but we have never conceded any ground. The secret agencies also try to tempt our members with offers.
Our struggle is for human rights. The present situation has been created by the state in order to counter the Baloch freedom movement. The state has adopted undemocratic and unethical policies to suppress the voice of the people. Our children, brothers, and elders have been thrown into torture chambers because they were struggling for the freedom of their homeland. To take their great mission to completion, we will not be deterred by any threats nor will we be tempted by any offers. We will continue our peaceful struggle.
How did the relatives of the disappeared persons react to your struggle in the beginning?
Their reaction was positive. Our pain is common, so we did not have any difficulty in understanding each other. Our unanimous demand was that our near and dear ones should be recovered, their names should not be used by political opportunists, and their mission and struggle should not be hijacked by anyone. This spirit helped us in working together, and every one of us endeavoured to be ahead of the other. Because of this we were able to face the excesses and the repression of the state and remain determined and steady in our mission.
How did the political class of Balochistan react to your struggle?
Two different points of view prevail in Balochistan. On the one hand, there are those who conceive the progress and prosperity of Balochistan only in the framework of Pakistani parliamentary politics. On the other hand, there are those who are struggling for the freedom of Balochistan.
The political classes of Pakistan have felt threatened by our organized struggle. They are greatly worried about the movement of the relatives of disappeared persons, but those who want freedom are happy that a force capable of projecting the real issue of repression and the violation of human rights by the state has finally emerged. This is the reason for which the state has resorted to repressive measures against us.
How did you decide to make the long march from Quetta to Karachi and then to Islamabad?
Our protest camp has completed 1,635 days, and this has been the longest protest camp anywhere in the world. It has been going on for the past five years and four months.
During this period, we have set up camps in Karachi, Islamabad and different cities of Balochistan. Our first aim was to create awareness in our own nation and civil society, as well as inform international public opinion about the trampling of human rights in Balochistan. We wanted to put pressure on the Pakistani state to stop it from its terrorism.
Unfortunately, our struggle could not be so successful as to compel the Pakistani secret agencies to give up their barbarism. Their excesses started increasing instead of decreasing. Then, we sat together and decided to attract the attention of the public toward our suffering. We thus decided to march from Quetta to Karachi so that the local and international public could learn about our sufferings and force the Pakistani state to fulfill its international commitments and change its policies. But on reaching Karachi we noticed that not much impact was made, so we decided to march from Karachi to Islamabad.
How did you find the people in Sindh and Punjab during your long march?
First in Balochistan and then in Sindh, nationalists and ordinary people gave us a hearty welcome. Sometimes people in thousands joined in our march. As we approached Karachi, hundreds of thousands of people would come to welcome us. The media, after its initial blackout, came into motion. The Baloch were already with us but the affection and the moral support that we received from the people of Sindh raised our spirits.
We stayed eight to ten days in Karachi, holding press conferences and demonstrations, as well as to receive medical treatment. Our feet were swollen and blistered. In Karachi, our Baloch and Sindhi brothers and sisters joined us in our demonstrations. This was proof of their love and affection. If they had not encouraged us in this way, our spirits would not be so high.
Our difficulties started in Punjab. As soon as we entered there, we started receiving threatening calls and vehicles of secret agencies started following and scaring us. In the Baloch areas of Punjab – Dera Ghazi Khan, Taunsa Shareef, Kohe Sulaiman and so on – the intervention of the secret agencies was limited to threats and intimidation. The Baloch people in these areas welcomed us. As was the case in Balochistan and Sindh, they would accompany us from one place to another. They offered us hospitality and gave us every moral help.
But when we came out of the Baloch areas and entered the heartland of Punjab, the police and the secret agencies came directly to us. They asked us to go back and put an end to the march. They threatened to kill us and our families. When we refused to be intimidated or tempted, threats started to materialize. At one place, a truck was driven into our procession, injuring three of our comrades, among whom were one female worker and two young persons. The woman suffered grievous injuries and had to be sent to Karachi for treatment. The two other persons received medical assistance locally and continued marching.
Would you like to tell us about the physical and climatic conditions that you faced during your long march?
When we were marching through Balochistan, blisters developed on our feet. Myself, I am 70 years old. We had two small children with us. Personally, this march was very difficult for me due to my age, but for the small children it was still more difficult. We had 11-year-old Ali Haider with us and my grandson Heo Rukh, who is the son of my abducted son, Jalil Riki.
The weather is very different in Balochistan. Some areas were very hot while some were very cold. It was hot during the days and cold in the night. Due to variations of weather, many of our comrades caught cold and fever. But they continued their march, taking only tablets or, at best, injections. The Pakistani state did not provide us with any medical facilities; only an ambulance with a doctor from the private Edhi Foundation accompanied us. The doctor would bandage our injured feet and provide us with basic medical assistance.
To be brief, our journey was very difficult and dangerous but the grief of our disappeared relatives pushed us along. We kept marching without looking back.
Do you see light at the end of tunnel?
We are very heartbroken by the attitude of the human rights organizations and civil society in Pakistan, but we have not lost hope as far as world public opinion is concerned. Before the march, our voice was not so much heard inside or outside Pakistan as it is now. This means that there has been some progress. It is still very slow but we are moving in the right direction and in the right manner. We hope that one day the world will listen to us, that it will come forward to alleviate our sufferings, and that it will hold the Pakistani state accountable for the excesses perpetrated on the Baloch people.
You met the representative of European Union and United Nations in Islamabad after your long march. What was their attitude, and were you satisfied by it?
After reaching Islamabad, many government representatives sent their messengers to us asking us to meet them. Among these people there was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as well. But we did not meet him. We think that if these people had a solution for our problem then we would not have been compelled to march 3,000 km. We do not have hope from Pakistani politicians.
Therefore, we went straight to meet the representatives of United Nations and the European Union. We informed them in detail about state terrorism in Balochistan and the trampling of human rights there. They listened to us very attentively. We apprised them of the state repression, gave them the list of missing and killed persons and told them about the torture these people were subjected to before being killed, and how after being killed their different body organs were removed through surgery. They were shocked that such things can happen in the 21st century without the world knowing.
They assured us of every possible moral help. We told them that we do not have any expectations for the Pakistani state. We came to meet them because Pakistan seeks help from their countries and these countries provide aid for development and welfare projects – the same aid used to kill innocent people and carry out military operation in Balochistan.
Hundreds and thousands of people affected by this operation in Balochistan have migrated to Sindh, Punjab and Afghanistan. But the Pakistani secret agencies do not leave them in peace even there. Abducting people inside Pakistan is an ordinary thing for them but even in Afghanistan they have engineered suicide attacks on Baloch refugee camps. We have requested that these countries stop all aid to Pakistan, send their observers to get information on the spot and use their influence to stop Pakistan from these acts. Not only the international law but even the Pakistani laws do not allow this.
What is your next step?
The Pakistani authorities are not serious about solving our problem despite our protest camp of more than five years and our long march. None of the missing persons have been returned alive so far. People are abducted almost daily, and dumped dead bodies found regularly. The governments change but no change takes place regarding the missing Baloch persons. World opinion is also unsuccessful in putting pressure on Pakistan. Given this situation, we have decided to march to Geneva. On reaching there, we will stage a sit-in until our near and dear ones are recovered, international aid to Pakistan is stopped and the United Nations intervenes to stop the violation of human rights.