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Mangled facts

By Saher Baloch

For full story, photos and links please see Dawn: Mangled facts

Muhammed Zabad was watching the evening news on a Balochi-language television channel on January 17, 2014, in his ancestral home in Awaran district’s Peer Andar town. Suddenly, a news report flashed across the screen: Mass graves had been discovered in the Tootak area of Khuzdar district. Soon, other channels began airing the same report. Zabad flipped the channels and moved on to watching something else.

Two weeks later, the news report came back to haunt him — this time in the form of a personal tragedy. On January 31, he received a phone call from an official of the Balochistan government who told him that his brother Naseer Ahmed could be among the 13 people whose bodies had been found in the mass graves. “I was asked to come to a government hospital in Khuzdar to identify my brother,” Zabad tells the Herald, on the phone from his hometown. With a clenched stomach, he looked at the mutilated faces and decomposed bodies one by one. The clothes on most of the bodies were in tatters and the faces disfigured beyond recognition, he recalls. “I walked past my brother’s body three times before I recognised him.”

Ahmed had gone missing, along with his brother Mohammad Umar, on the evening of October 4, 2013. They were visiting a bazaar in Awaran when “a few unidentified men” whisked them away in a pick-up truck, according to eyewitnesses who later informed Zabad of the incident. “I was hoping that my brothers would one day walk back home,” he says.

According to Nasrullah Baloch, who heads the Voice of Missing Baloch Persons, an organisation that campaigns for the recovery of Baloch nationalist activists gone missing, both Ahmed and Umar were political workers in their home district, but Zabad strongly rejects this assertion. “Both of my brothers were working towards getting a visa for Dubai to work there as labourers. They had no political affiliation with anyone.” Zabad informed his mother of Ahmed’s body a few minutes before it was being taken for burial. “We are still in shock. I don’t understand why my brothers were picked up,” he quietly adds. Zabad still has the disconcerting consolation of having recognised and buried his brother. Most of the other bodies found in the graves at Tootak remain unidentified.

The most unusual thing about the Tootak graves is the official attention they have grabbed: It was the government that first told the media about them and, in an act of unprecedented speed, the authorities in Quetta appointed a high court judge on February 1, 2014, to conduct a judicial inquiry and find out what had happened to the people found in the graves. Usually, the discovery of bodies in Balochistan is a private affair and never before has the provincial government set up a high-powered judicial tribunal over killings, no matter how gruesome the circumstances.

Some of the reasons for this curiously quick response may be found in Tootak. An undulating rural area consisting mainly of brown hills and rocky plains, with patches of arable land, it is situated 55 kilometres to the north of Khuzdar town, in central Balochistan. Most of the people living in the area belong to the Qalandrani tribe and, until a few years ago, were living a quiet life, rather unconcerned about politics.

Syed Abdul Waheed Shah, the deputy commissioner of Khuzdar district, says he received information through a local shepherd about the presence of the graves in Tootak. At least one official source, however, says the graves were discovered after a former chairman of the District Council Khuzdar informed officials of the “presence of a militant group” in the area. When government officials visited the site where the group was suspected to be hiding, they found the graves and eventually came across the bodies.

Justice Muhammad Noor Meskanzai of the Balochistan High Court, who heads the one-man tribunal to inquire into the mass graves, visited Tootak on February 13, 2014, along with security officials, representatives of the civilian administration, select mediapersons and some lawyers. Close to a month had passed since the discovery of the graves but the air in the area still seemed heavy with danger and foreboding. The vast and thinly populated landscape looked bleak even in the bright afternoon sunlight. The graves suddenly appeared on a rolling hillside, as if by magic. Each one looked different in size and shape but all had traces of limestone which, said one official present on the site, “quickly disfigures or decomposes a body”.

Next to the graves was a half-razed mud compound. The roofs had caved in and some of their walls had collapsed on to the floor where cushions, bedspreads and other items of domestic use could still be found. Many bullseyes were marked on the nearby hill; officials showed cardboard cut-outs pierced with bullets and carrying anti-Shia slogans. The place looked like an abandoned militant camp — in all likelihood, run by a sectarian organisation.

The camp, according to a high court lawyer accompanying the tribunal, was once run by the Balochistan Liberation Army, a separatist group. In 2011, the Frontier Corps raided it, forcing the separatists to flee. But during the raid, 14 people went missing without a trace and have so far not been found, in spite of the fact that their disappearance has been repeatedly brought up by the Supreme Court, says the lawyer. Do the discovered bodies belong to some of the men who disappeared in the raid? Who killed them and why? Nobody seems to know.

One name that frequently appears in official conversations about the camp and the graves is Shafiq Mengal. He was first mentioned by one of the seven eyewitnesses who testified before Justice Meskanzai in Khuzdar on February 13, 2014. The witness said he had evidence that his brother, whose body was among those recovered from the Tootak graves, was abducted by Shafiq Mengal.

The son of Naseer Mengal, a former federal minister, Shafiq Mengal set up a pro-government tribal militia known as the Baloch Musallah Difaee Tanzeem, in the latter half of 2008. The original mission of the militia was to defend the local population in the Mengal-dominated Khuzdar, Wadh and Awaran areas of central Balochistan against attacks from Baloch separatist militants. But it soon degenerated into a death squad, killing people for political as well as non-political and tribal reasons. The high court lawyer, who accompanied Justice Meskanzai on his visit to Tootak, tells the Herald that Shafiq Mengal is considered a “pawn set up by the intelligence agencies to counter Baloch militants in the province”.

Shafiq Mengal first appeared in Tootak in November, 2009, when he lured a few activists of the separatist Baloch Student Organisation to the area with the promise that he would organise the broadcast of nationalist songs there to create awareness about separatism among the local people. To gain the confidence of the local population, in 2011 he renamed his organisation the Haq Na Tawar — which means the Voice of the Truth in the Brahvi language, the mother language of most people in and around Tootak. All this was a decoy to spot, abduct and kill separatist activists, say government officials.

By then, Shafiq Mengal had also shifted his base to Tootak. It was around this time that pro-separation graffiti first appeared in the area, say local sources. “Until then, it was a place where people had no idea of, or interest in, the ongoing separatist movement,” says the lawyer.

Shafiq Mengal, whose mother is the first cousin of Sardar Ali Ahmed, the head of the Qalandrani tribe in Tootak, and owns land in the area, soon fell afoul of his mother’s tribesmen who were unhappy with his activities. The Qalandrani chieftain first accused Shafiq Mengal of the abduction of his three sons — aged 31, 22, and 16 — in 2011. By the end of that year, 17 of Qalandrani’s relatives had gone missing. The last of them – a 22-year-old – was abducted from Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Maymar area.

Shafiq Mengal, who comes from an influential and educated family, dropped out from Aitchison College in Lahore, and later attended a Deobandi madrasa. A high court lawyer based in Khuzdar claims that Shafiq Mengal has been involved in providing protection to many Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in Balochistan and that he has worked closely with the avowedly anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. “He works as their subcontractor,” he said.

Shafiq Mengal’s long-time tribal and political opponent, the former chief minister Akhtar Mengal, who heads the Balochistan National Party–Mengal (BNPM), also accuses him of killing several of BNPM workers in Wadh and Khuzdar. The Musallah Difaee Tanzeem, indeed, openly claimed responsibility for many of these murders. A BNPM official based in Khuzdar says that Shafiq Mengal and his men have adopted a two-pronged strategy in the area. “They are either killing people for their political or ideological affiliation or they are kidnapping people to demand a heavy ransom,” he says. But their brutal control is absolute. A station house officer in Khuzdar was brazenly killed when he tried to register a case against Shafiq Mengal for the September 2013 kidnapping of Manaf Tareen, a senior Quetta-based doctor, says the BNPM official. All this bloodshed has put immense pressure on the government to put an end to Shafiq Mengal’s activities, and the sudden interest officials are showing in the Tootak graves is a means to contain him, says the Khuzdar-based lawyer. Otherwise, he says, the discovery of mass graves is not an unusual incident in the area. “Qalandrani tribesmen have been reported in a Quetta-based newspaper as saying, again and again, that there are mass graves in other areas as well,” he says. But nobody has taken note of those graves. Deputy Commissioner Shah is highly circumspect. He does not reject or confirm any theory about the mass graves. “What I know is that we are trying very hard to bring transparency in the way we work. Considering the environment around us, that is a huge feat in itself,” he says.

Jan Mohammad Bulaidi, the spokesperson for the Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, says the provincial government is playing an active role in investigating the Tootak mass graves because it “wants to bring out the facts before the public.” He says the judicial tribunal has been set up because the whole episode is shrouded in mystery. “Things that happen openly don’t need tribunals,” Bulaidi says, when asked why the government has not set up any judicial tribunals to investigate the killing of Hazaras in the province.

He refuses to comment on Shafiq Mengal’s role in the mass graves, but adds that some political parties are “trying to politicise the matter of the graves”. By pointing out that there has been a steep decline in the killing and dumping of nationalist activists over the last few months, Bulaidi seems to suggest that the provincial government has been able to rein in intelligence agencies and death squads run by people like Shafiq Mengal. “You should notice that for the fourth month in a row, not a single political activist's body has been found in the province."