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IMAGES FROM BALOCHISTAN: A Tale of Promise, Prejudice & Potential

Bushra Zulfiqar

BALOCHISTAN is the most breathtakingly beautiful but equally bitter Province of Pakistan. Bleeding at the hands of a ruthless separatist struggle, ethnically targeted killings and with thousands of people gone missing, life in Balochistan is that of fear, violence and a blatant abuse of human rights. The Province which is larger than Germany and covers more than 44% of Pakistan, has huge deposits of gold, copper, coal, lead and other natural resources. It offers the most spectacular landscape of a tall, hazy brown mountain range, against gray skies with a peculiar chill. The social repression is further compounded by the stark levels of poverty, economic suffering and a consistent lack of opportunities to secure livelihoods. Contrary to the enriched mineral and natural resources that Balochistan has, its population seems completely denied of that wealth, doomed to go further down the drain. The Province has the highest prevalence of rural poverty in Pakistan (at 70%) and according to UN’s human development index, 10 out of the 20 lowest ranking Districts in Pakistan are from Balochistan. These are the places where 91% of the population lives. To add further to this depressing list of statistics, let me quote the World Food Programme, which has declared that 13 most under fed Districts of Pakistan are that of Balochistan. So ugly is the reality, which is a result of decades of political exploitation and injustices for the control of resources, economic deprivation and lack of a people centered approach to development. 
In the last one year, I made more than fifty visits to this conflict stricken, Province. Yes fifty but before the intelligence agencies fix their binoculars on me, let me elaborate that I am an educationist by profession. The plight of education in Balochistan is even worse than what one can imagine or is encountering in other parts of the country. Extremely beautiful and innocent young children, are seen everywhere except in schools as more than 59% children of school going population do not have any access to schooling. Firstly there are no schools, not enough for everyone. Where there are schools, cows and sheep and all sorts of herds of cattle have comfortably made themselves at home. The terrain is extremely scattered and there are no adequate transportation networks but, travelling within Balochistan is a fantasy. Female literacy is only as low as 14% yet women are fairly active in public life in the Provincial capital of Quetta, but as one moves to the scattered interior of Balochistan, mind boggling state of women becomes disturbingly obvious. The girl child has been completed missed out and practically denied everything starting with adequate food to school and to being given a medical care, even in times of dire need. The local police are another terror. Dressed as local Levis, the cover their faces with somewhat awkwardly colored shawls, hang fully loaded riffles and are always patrolling in their open jeeps. The cold stare from a distance always made me sad. They are culturally very sensitive in dealing with women but it almost seemed like been in a war zone, when a gun fire could erupt any time and from anywhere. Yet there is still a lot more to Balochistan, a Province that is being ripped apart by social unrest, a painful legacy of political prejudice and a close to war like military presence, there is hope and optimism. I am not from Balochistan, I come from a purely Punjabi background but Balochistan to me is the most promising place in Pakistan. It is a place full of surprises, amidst all the harsh sufferings of an on-going insurgency with no end in sight, the people of this Province are brave and continue to live life on their own terms.
Having worked in Balochistan for over a year now, I feel amazingly mesmerized by this place.  Balochistan is such an inspirational home to have and I am lucky that I can now call it one. I remember visiting Chaman border in Qilla Abdullah which is the de-facto Pak-Afghan border. It almost felt like being on a dessert safari as the jeep made through the bumpy single road, surrounded by sharply peaked camel colored mountains. There were a number of military check points on the higher surveillance angles. NATO supply trucks were taking us over from left and right and as I approached the border, my international roaming cell number started receiving text messages from mobile networks welcoming me to Afghanistan. I swung past the ‘Dosti (friendship) Gate’ and Kandhar was right across. It was one of the most splendid sights, I had ever seen. There was life all around, in all its colours and shades. There were small groups of dozens of people, men and women, young and old crossing over from either side of the border and I was told by the locals that it was pretty much the routine. Women were dressed in their multi-colored ankle long frocks and rusting silver jewellery, each item of which would sell for thousands of dollars in an antique shop. There were singers and cultural performers from Afghanistan who would come into Balochistan, some just to meet their Pushtun brethren and others to carry out their jobs. In one of the schools I visited, some of the Afghan students would cross the border everyday to come to schools in Balochistan, to make friends and play with them.
Why did we ever think that these people would be different from the rest of the world? These are the children who have a painful history, a legacy of prejudice and are reaping the poisonous fruits of a bitter war. They are brave survivors today but are bound to become unforgiving fighters tomorrow, if they are not engaged in a peaceful process of mainstreaming, through the provision of equal educational, social and economic opportunities. Their world view has to be opened up and expanded over a horizon which reflects the ideals of peace, social justice, equality and above all integrity. The time to act is now because the unrest of the people of Balochistan has escalated to a level of no return. They are fuelled with hatred, anger and frustration towards the federation, other Provinces particularly Punjab and towards Pakistan itself.
The grievances of Baloch population, particularly Sardars and tribal elders are not unjustified. They are valid and most of it is owed to the selfishness of ruling elite in Balochistan which supported tyranny, anti-people policies and approved of military’s power brokering role in the Province. There have been years rather decades of political exploitation over natural resources, covert intelligence operations, extra judicial killings and abductions which to date are unaccounted for. The ISI’s approach to divide and rule the Baloch has completely alienated this population from the state and society of Pakistan. Islamabad’s policy has always been to subtract the Baloch from Balochistan and this approach has been extremely dangerous and detrimental to the cause of development. Also, the missing persons issue is highly critical and needs to be resolved. One hopes from the incumbent Chief Justice of Pakistan who was re-instated as a result of peoples backed street movement to take firm action. The hesitation probably is due to the involvement of intelligence agencies in virtually selling and disappearing these people, but then that is an open secret in Pakistan. There have been a series of heart breaking protest rallies in Quetta by relatives of people gone missing, which make one question the existence and integrity of the legal system which fails to comes to the comfort and legal aid of these grieving families.
Pakistan’s current Government and among the very few things it is struggling to get right is to resolve the long standing issues of Balochistan. Whether it was the revised formula for distribution of the National Finance Commission award, or the Balochistan package followed by the constitutional reforms which provide much demanded independence and autonomy to the Provinces, the process for resolving the conflicts and tensions dominating Balochistan has started. The strategy adopted by Government and its indented outcomes are quite debatable, because Balochistan package has not practically yielded anything concrete as yet,  but there is some hope and optimism for a less painful future. In 2008, the People’s Party leadership had offered a public apology against the ‘atrocities and injustices’ committed against the people of Balochistan. Even if the political will was there, there has been not much follow-up. Amidst all fiscal, militancy and security challenges that Pakistan is dealing with, Balochistan should not be allowed to disappear from our radar. The issues here were not created overnight and cannot be resolved in the short term. That said, a sustained focus is needed because there is immense potential and Balochistan can offer such a promising future for the rest of the country

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