While millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan over the past four decades, now, Pakistanis are flocking to Afghanistan. There are not only those who flee Pakistani military operations in Waziristan, though, but also Pakistani Balochs who say that they flee from repression by the Pakistani government, linked to latest Baloch insurgency activities. In Afghanistan, they live in precarious conditions. The Afghan authorities seem to exert a hand-off approach, and the UN sees them as a marginal issue. Our guest author Mònica Bernabé, a Spanish newspaper correspondent who has lived in Afghanistan for the past seven years, reports from Kabul and Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province in southwest Afghanistan (with contributions from Thomas Ruttig).Pakistani Balochs in southern Afghanistan. Photo: Karlos Zurutuza
Abdul Waheed’s mutilated corpse was found on 1 December 2010, 20 kilometers from the town of Kalat, in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province, the largest, but least populated of the country. “He was my relative. He worked as a school teacher,” Jahangir Khan says. All that remains from him in Khan’s possession is the photo of a corpse with the face disfigured by acid on a newspaper clipping. “He was identified because he had a piece of paper with his name written in one of his pockets,” Khan’s newspaper article says.
“Abdul Waheed was arrested in May 2007, accused of having blown up an electricity pylon in Kalat,” Jahangir Khan says. He produces some documents issued by the judge of the special anti terrorism court in the Khudzar district of Balochistan. They conclude that Abdul Waheed was innocent due to a lack of evidence and even questioned whether the alleged terrorist act ever took place. “The Pakistani authorities opened false cases against many Baloch, but as the courts didn’t find them guilty and released them, they used another tactic: enforced disappearances and killings,” Jahangir Khan recalls. “That is what happened to Abdul Waheed,” he adds.
In 2007, Khan himself, too, was accused of being involved in terrorist attacks in Balochistan. He lost his job as an attorney in Quetta, the province’s capital. He also was proven innocent by the court.
The killing of his relative Abdul Waheed was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made Jahangir Khan gather his belongings to flee with his family across the border to Afghanistan in November 2012. Once in Kabul, he had to reinvent himself as a seller of phone cards in the streets until he managed to find work in a shop. Paradoxically, these Pakistani Balochs found themselves seeking shelter in a country which, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ranked third in the world regarding asylum seekers in 2013.
Oil, gas and insurgencies
The Balochs – still mostly nomads – are spread over three countries, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, in a territory the size of France. Balochistan is strategically important because of its natural resources wealth, including gas, copper and gold, untapped reserves of oil and uranium, as a transit area for oil and gas pipeline projects linking Iran and South Asia and because of its long coastline at the gates of the Persian Gulf. But it mainly consists of desert and allows for a living only migratory animal husbandry (and some smuggling).
Many Balochs possess passports of all three countries, making it easy for them to cross borders. But most live in Pakistan; unofficial estimates put their number at around six million. Despite a mass influx of Pashtuns into Balochistan province, that started at least with the Soviet occupation of neighbouring Afghanistan in 1979, the Balochs still form the majority here. The Pashtuns settled mainly in and around Quetta. In Afghanistan, according to unofficial estimates, there are around 600,000 Balochs. Nimroz, in southwest Afghanistan, is a Baloch-dominated province, but there are also Baloch settlements in Helmand and Farah. (1) Two and a half million Baloch live in Iran.
Balochistan’s history within Pakistan has been troubled from the beginning. Ceded by Afghanistan in the Treaty of Gandamak and occupied by the British Empire in 1887, a part of its territory – the Khanate of Kalat – remained a Princely State in British-India with some degree of autonomy. While the Khan of Kalat, against assurances that a far reaching autonomy was respected, accepted to join Pakistan (amendment 3 January 2015: in a pre-independence agreement, “Pakistan recognizes Kalat as an independent sovereign state with a status different from that of the Indian [princely] States; the Khan agreed to negotiations about how defence, external relations and communications would be handled), Baloch nationalists declared independence on 15 August 1947, (2) one day after India and Pakistan emerged as independent states. Nine months later, the Pakistani army marched into Balochistan and annexed their territory. The fighting turned into the first of the insurgencies in the province.
Since then, ethnic Baloch separatists have launched four more armed uprisings against the central Pakistani government. Initially, they demanded more autonomy for the province and a just sharing of income from its natural resources. Baloch nationalists argue that the province provides more to Pakistan’s budget than it gets back. It provides “40 per cent of Pakistan’s energy needs through its gas and coal reserves and [is] accounting for 36 per cent of its total gas production [but] 46.6 per cent of households [there] have no electricity.” When they felt their requests were not responded to by the central government, Balochs instead turned to demanding full independence. (3) Three uprisings, in 1958-59, 1963-69 and 1973-77 which were supported by Afghan governments, were harshly repressed. (4) Already then, Baloch refugees crossed the Afghan border. In the 1980s, the political leadership of the Baloch rebels was hosted more or less openly in Kabul; their fighters guarding the compound could be seen near today’s ISAF headquarters and the Italian embassy.
The latest insurgent movement, which began in 2004, continues today. It gained strength after the killing of one of the few remaining traditional nationalist leaders, Nawab Akbar Bugti, by the Pakistani military in 2006. Its main protagonist is the secular-nationalist Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), but this IPS report, referring to BLA fighters, speaks of seven different armed pro-independence groups. As an ICG report points out, “no Baloch nationalist political party or tribal group publicly admits knowledge of or links to the militant group“, though.
Recruiting ground for Islamists
While the first four uprisings were nationalist and largely secular (at times even leftist) in outlook, Islamist groups have now emerged as well. Frédéric Grare, of Carnegie Foundation, who has published repeatedly about the conflict, wrote in 2013 that a “strong Taliban presence in Balochistan developed under Musharraf … The province is also increasingly becoming a nexus of sectarian outfits. Afghan and Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Balochistan), al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Janghvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Imamia Student Organization, and Sipah-e-Muhammad are said to have established presences in the province” and are now “recruiting in the Baloch population.” At the same time, the leadership of the nationalist mainstream is experiencing a fundamental shift, according to Pakistani writer Mahvish Ahmad, away from the “sardars, or tribal leaders [to] a non-tribal cohort of middle-class Baloch.” A BLA commander interviewed for this media report accused Pakistan of sending “all sorts of fundamentalist groups, many of them linked to the Taliban, into Balochistan, to quell the Baloch liberation movement.”
Baloch activists, regional human rights advocates and media reports speak of a Pakistani government campaign of assassinating suspected members of the Baloch movement and other opposition figures (see for example here) and of leading a “hidden war”. Last August, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch urged Pakistan’s government “to stop the deplorable practice of state agencies abducting hundreds of people throughout the country without providing information about their fate or whereabouts.” They also stated: “Balochistan is of particular concern because of a pattern of enforced disappearances targeting political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers. Disappeared people are often found dead, their bodies bearing bullet wounds and marks of torture” (the full statement can be found here; one earlier report here). The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) expressed “shock and deep concern” over the discovery of three mass graves in Balochistan on 25 January 2014. More than 100 bodies were recovered in the Tootak area in Khuzdar district, 265 kilometers south of Quetta. These graves were suspected to be of Baloch missing persons who were arrested and subsequently extra judicially killed (see more details here).
No ‘people of concern’
As a result of the war in Balochistan, the trend of refugee movements in the area has changed again. While millions of Afghans have been fleeing to Pakistan over the last four decades, now Pakistani Balochs are flocking to Afghanistan. Many of them cross the border into Nimroz province where Balochs make the largest ethnic group.
“There are at least 1000 of us in Nimroz, and those are just the ones we know about,” says one of about a dozen Balochs gathering inside a humble adobe house in Haji Abdurrahman, a tiny village in the outskirts of Zaranj, Nimroz’s provincial capital, 1000 kilometers southwest of Kabul.
Many of the Baloch refugees in Nimroz are struggling to survive. Sukiah Bugti, a 35-year-old social activist, says he arrived in 2010 from Nasirabad district after his brother disappeared; he has been missing ever since. Jawan Bugti, in his 50s, fled his village, Dasht-e Goran, in 2007 after it was bombed. And Wash Bugti, a 21 year-old student, arrived from Sui as a child in 2006. His father has been missing since 2005. These are just a few cases on an endless list. Most live on occasional construction jobs or farming.
Also the Balochs’ Pakistani origin makes it difficult for them to find a job. Relations between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan remain tense. There have been Pakistani accusations of Afghan-Indian arms supplies to the Baloch rebels and about training camps on Afghan territory. The local administration in Nimroz, in which Balochs (and Pashtuns) are underrepresented, does not trust Pakistani citizen in Nimroz.
“My brother was gunned down in Balochistan,” says Nabi Bakhsh, one of the Baloch who arrived in Nimroz seeking asylum and who, like the others, has not yet managed to make his status in Afghanistan ‘official.’ He fears he could be deported at any time, although no reports on attempts of deportation have surfaced so far. Officially, the local authorities even deny there is a Baloch refugee population. Nimroz’ governor Amir Mohammad Akhadzade told AAN he was not aware of the existence of such a community, saying, “I am pretty sure that they are local Balochs trying to get something out of international NGOs.
But as the Baloch refugees fear they might become a bargaining chip between Kabul and Islamamad, they also avoid the contact with Afghan officials. Instead, they prefer to deal with the UN, at the same time accusing the UN of not caring about them. “I went to the UNHCR office three times in Kandahar and once in Nimroz, but they did not do anything for us. They simply ignore us,” says Hasnan Baloch, 38, who traveled with his family from Quetta to Afghanistan in 2012, after the Pakistani army conducted a military operation in Mastung, his hometown. He lost four of his relatives in the attack.
“For the time being we don’t have any specific program at all for these people in Nimroz. There was some support through the UNHCR office in Kandahar in 2009. Some of them received blankets and so on, but it was a one time assistance,” Bo Schack, UNHCR country director in Afghanistan, told this author. The high official says he is aware of the existence of a Pakistani Baloch community in Nimroz province, but he also clarifies that the UNHCR office in Zaranj was set up with another goal: “to deal with the Afghan returnees and their repatriation from Iran,” and not with the Baloch refugees from Pakistan.
UNHCR shut down its office in Zaranj at the end of August. “If the Balochs want to apply for the refugee status, they need to come to Kabul for an interview,” Schack notes. “However, these people have been living in the area for many years, so what difference does it make for them? They can stay in the area, they have been there for a long time.” Schack says the UNHCR is “in contact” with 20 or 30 Baloch families in Kabul and Kandahar” and that their cases are now under consideration.
Jahangir Khan’s family is among them. He shows a document handed to him by the UNHCR that certifies that he applied for refugee status. “As an asylum seeker, the bearer of this certificate should be protected from forcible return to a country where he claims to face threats to his life of freedom, pending a final decision on his refugee status,” the document states.
“When are they going to reach a final decision? How long do they want me to continue waiting?” laments Jahangir Khan. Bo Schack says, “I know that some cases have taken too long, even several weeks, because we want to make sure we are dealing with civilians and not fighters.” However, Jahangir Khan has not been waiting for several weeks, but for a couple of years. Schack states: “It is a very small issue within the context that we are currently involved in: we still have to cope with a hundred thousand Pakistanis refugees in east Afghanistan, and we have between 600,000 and 700,000 internally displaced. There is no difference in the degree of protection with the paper they have right now and the one which carries the term ‘refugee.’ We are offering the minimal degree of assistance to make sure they are protected from harassment and deportation.”
For the time being the UNHCR has not yet included the Pakistani Balochs in their list of “people of concern.” According to the UNHCR highest official in Afghanistan the case of the Baloch in the country is “a pending issue.”
(1) In his interesting chapter “Ethnic Minorities in Search of Political Consolidation”, in Bashir and Crews (eds) book Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands (Harvard, 2012), Lutz Rzehak writes that Balochs live in at least 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces (p 140). According to him, those in Zabul, Wardak, Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan have “forgotten” their tribal affiliation (the Balochs, like the Pashtuns, are subdivided into tribes) and even their language, speaking Pashto or Persian instead.
(2) There are different dates given in different sources. We refer to Inside Balochistan: Political autobiography of Mir Ahmed Yar Khan, Khan of Kalat. Royal Book Company. Karachi 1975. (Amendment 3 January 2015: The agreement mentioned in the text was reported by AP on 11 August 1947 and published in the New York Times one day later. )
(3) It needs to be mentioned that some autonomy was granted by Pakistani central governments, and there was a series of Baloch Chief Ministers for Balochistan province which hailed from different Baloch nationalist parties. The Balochs’ political and tribal landscape is very fragmented. But, as Ahmed Rashid wrote in 2005, the “nationalist parties had shared power with the centre in the 1990s during Pakistan’s decade of failed democracy” (our emphasis).
(4) Background papers about the Baloch insurgency and its causes include: Frédéric Grare: Pakistan: The Resurgence of Baluch nationalism (2006, here); International Crisis Goup (ICG), Pakistan: The Worsening Conflict in Balochistan (2006, here); Foreign Policy Centre, Balochis of Pakistan: On the margins of history (2006, here); ICG, Pakistan: The Forgotten Conflict in Balochistan (2007, here); F. Grare, Balochistan: The State Versus the Nation (2013, here). The following book also is considered a standard work: Taj Mohammad Breseeg, Baloch Nationalism: Its Origins and Development, Karachi 2004.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020