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Between the Earthquakes and the War

By Mahvish Ahmad

The sound of silence is scarier than the sounds of bombs and bullets.

Sumera sat hidden under the rickety top of her makeshift date palm hut, unsure if she should stick her head out to see what was happening, or continue to live under the illusion that she was safe as long as she could not see the sky. The sounds of her usual morning routine–clay dirt crunching under her sandals, twigs crackling in the fire under a pan, her knuckles beating a lump of dough–had been replaced by the rotors on an army helicopter flying above her, and the gunshots she could not place. The 30 minutes of silence that followed was a confusing medley of men strapped with guns atop motorbikes, racing into the mountains to escape those in uniform; her mother and sisters muttering prayers on their rosaries, hoping to ward off a raid; and the rising intonations at the end of every sentence spoken–people asking questions, but getting no answers.

The explosion that followed made her heart sink, but now she knew a little more than she did before. It was probably a mortar shell, she later told me, thrown either by the Pakistan Army or the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), the separatist militants who had a hold on the area. And, since the bomb seemed to come from the direction of the medical camp that was being run by two separatist political groups–the Balochistan National Movement (BNM) and the Balochistan Student Organisation-Azad (BSO-Azad)–the militants and the military were most likely battling each other out for control of relief distribution in her rubble of a home in Awaran district’s Mashkay village.

Battles between the security forces and the militants had been going on since the earthquakes hit at the end of September. But this was not going to be one of those short exchanges. This time, said Sumera, it sounded like the army was hell-bent on winning and sticking around.

***

It is difficult to shake the feeling that areas like Mashkay and Gajjar are part of some other country. The market that runs through the middle of Mashkay is plastered with wall-chalking announcing the death of Pakistan, and the establishment of an independent Balochistan. One drawing showcases a hand grenade, with “Pakistan Murdabad” etched across the bottom. Another one lists the names of militant groups fighting for the separation of Balochistan. Spend an evening with a relatively well-off Baloch family that has a television set, and it is difficult to see Hamid Mir as anything other than a disconnected commentator regurgitating the same high political names in a far off place called Islamabad. The Ufone commercials that intersperse his show seem doubly distanced, as they sell dreams of laissez-faire burger existences, where young boys want nothing more than a new smartphone.

At the end of September, Mashkay was part of a large number of settlements in Balochistan’s southern Awaran and Kech districts, hit by a series of earthquakes. The federal government says that 386 people died in the disaster. In an independent report based on field research by 11 non-government organizations (NGOs) in 296 villages, and issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), Awaran and Kech districts are classified as being in “crisis or highly food insecure” areas. According to measurement standards used by the UN agency, the affected areas are now in an “emergency” situation, and need immediate humanitarian assistance. The UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have been requesting the Pakistan government to allow them access to the earthquake-hit areas, after Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik, and local separatists, had asked them to come assist with relief and rehabilitation. But the federal agency tasked with coordinating relief, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), insists that it has the capacity to deal with the situation itself and needs no help from international aid agencies. Instead, the NDMA has involved the army in delivering and distributing aid – a decision that the BLF will fight tooth and nail.

***

About a 30 minute walk from Sumera’s home, Mukhtar Ahmed, a Karachi-based ambulance driver for Edhi Foundation, woke up confused and dazed to the sound of gunshots. He had barely gotten up when 25 army soldiers stormed the medical camp that he was sleeping at in central Mashkay. The armed Baloch next to him (“most likely a BLF fighter,” Ahmed later told me) immediately jumped out, to make an escape, but Ahmed was too scared to follow him. Being an Urdu-speaker from Karachi, he had no friends or family who would hide him in this far-flung Baloch village. “Better to stay put,” he thought–a decision he quickly came to regret.

The soldiers he thought would be safer to stay with grabbed him and started to beat him. One kicked him on his feet and the other on his back, before they started yelling at him and asking him who he was. Trembling, he explained that he was a poor, working man, doing his job for Edhi Foundation. When they asked him why the other man had run away, he felt it was best not to tell them that the man was armed–it might just get him into trouble. “Let me go,” he begged instead, more afraid than he had ever been before. At that very moment, he thought of his daughter, who had asked him to quit his job when she heard that his employer was sending him to Balochistan. “It’s not safe,” she had said, “and not worth the 8000 rupees you earn every month.” He told her that he liked the flexibility and the freedom of his job, but suddenly found himself regretting his decision. “I thought I was going to die there. I have never been so convinced that I was facing the end of my life,” he told me later. “Not even in Karachi, when Edhi sent me to bring patients home from those horrible gun fights between city gangs.”

Ahmed had come to work for the victims of the earthquake and had run into an army operation. In a twist of fate, he had a momentary taste of Sumera’s life, or the everyday life of a village existing between earthquakes and a war: Constantly afraid of quakes from below and bombs from above.

Luckily for him, the soldiers realized that the man they were hitting looked suspiciously non-Baloch, speaking fluent Urdu with no hint of the local Balochi accent. They set Ahmed free and a soldier sat next to him to calm him down. “He was a nice man, and he told me that the Frontier Corps (FC) boys were far more jumpy than the army. He apologized and gave me some food. I had to eat, he said. That was very nice of him.”

In the hours that followed, Ahmed witnessed more than he could have ever imagined. The army rounded up 400-500 men and marched them into the medical camp. There, an army representative, “most likely a colonel”, held a short speech, announcing that the army had entered Mashkay and had “plans to stay for the next five years”. The residents, he announced, “had nothing to fear.” The army would save them from the militants, especially if they could help the security forces by pointing out the members of militant groups. Ahmed noticed that everyone stayed quiet. They seemed as scared as him, of reprisal attacks from the militants who would accuse them of snitching. And a deeply unpopular army, that had beat him up, and was known for harassing locals everyday–sometimes, even kidnapping and killing them.

As the speech ended, the army representative told everyone that they had brought aid. “No one was allowed to leave without a package,” said Ahmed. “And then the army put up a sign, renaming the camp: Army Relief Camp.”

The BLF did not take kindly to the sudden appearance of security forces. It had been defending the medical camp from earlier army offensives to ensure that relief remained under the control of the BNM and the BSO-Azad. While the hauled up men were still in the camp, the BLF launched a counter-attack. Ahmed and the rest of the men were told to jump to the ground, and to lie flat, so that the exchange of bullets did not hit them.

Nobody got hurt, but Ahmed was getting desperate; he wanted to go home. He called out a soldier and insisted that he needed to leave. There was a lady doctor waiting for him, he explained, and he had promised to take her back to Karachi. A Baloch sitting next to him overheard. When the soldiers were out of earshot, he leaned over and whispered, “Do you mean the lady journalist making the rounds?” Ahmed quietly nodded. “Yes, it is better that you tell them that she is a doctor. They might not like that she is here, seeing all of this.”

***

A few days after reports of the army forcing its way into Mashkay-Gajjar broke, Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa, director general of the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR), sent out a press release denying that any such action had taken place. “[S]ecurity forces are in Awaran and Mushke, only for relief operation, [d]ispelling a misperception which has been created by some media reports,” said a press release issued by his office. “There is no Military Operation in Awaran and Mushke as being propagated by miscreants.” He also appealed to the general public to “beware of miscreant’s propaganda.”

Major General Muhammad Saeed Aleem, the middle-aged chairman of the NDMA, agrees. “I cannot speak on behalf of the ISPR, but let me first ask you: When the army is attacked, what is it supposed to do except for retaliate?” When I ask him what the army is doing there in the first place, he explains: “The army is distributing relief because it is the only institution in our country that has the capacity to do so. We have not asked international organizations to enter earthquake-hit areas because we have the capacity to handle this work ourselves.”

The only problem, it seems, is that many people do not want to take aid from the army.

***

Five-year-old Bakhtiar did not know how to speak Urdu but when he saw me standing outside of his aunt Sumera’s hut trying to capture some photos and sounds of the helicopters and explosions, he knew what to do. “Baji,” said the little boy. He stretched out his arm to grab hold of my hand and I let him lead me into the hut. Then he let go and muttered words he knew I would understand: “Jahaaz. FC. Firing.”

Mashkay subdivision is surrounded by 12 FC checkpoints that control the entry and exit on every main road connected to the villages within. Most locals, including Bakhtiar and his family, have figured out a way to avoid the soldiers, by cutting through surrounding forests on their motorbikes or by foot. They would do anything, they told me, to avoid getting stuck with an FC soldier, asking them to bring a glass of water or fruit from a nearby market. If villagers help soldiers, they are seen as traitors to the Baloch cause and local militants have been known to confront traitors with questions, and punishments. Sometimes the confrontation is nothing more than a heated verbal exchange. Other times, the militants might find creative ways to punish helpers. One man had his car blown up.

The battles between the FC and the Baloch separatists have been going on for several years. The area is a stronghold of this middle-class section of the Baloch uprising, and many BLF and BNM members have been born and raised in Mashkay. Their families and friends support them and hide them, giving them beds to sleep in as they shuttle from one place to another. Dr Allah Nazar, the BLF commander, and Dr Abdul Mannan, the general secretary of the BNM, were both born and raised in Mashkay, and followed each other to Bolan Medical College in Quetta.

Manan admitted that the militants were ready to mete out punishments to those who threatened their existence. “We have a choice between the movement and those who threaten us. We believe in this movement so we choose to punish, or kill, those who threaten the survival of our politics,” he said, before telling me that the BLF had killed two of his cousins. They were part of a death squad, and they would regularly target separatists. “The movement had no choice.” Death, he said, is not the only punishment available. “We have made a man walk barefoot for seven days–that is a pretty effective way of teaching him a lesson,” said the doctor.

The FC knows that the leaders of the Baloch rebellion hide in Mashkay-Gajjar. That is why they launched a major operation in December last year in nearby Mai village, Dr Allah Nazar’s birthplace and family home. His sister, Mahnaz, told me how hundreds of soldiers came on their jeeps and their helicopters, bombing her brother’s empty home, stripping men in her family naked, and masking them before taking them away. Soldiers were not soft on the women, either. When Mahnaz and other women in the village first heard the gunshots and the bombs in the morning, they ran to a nearby mosque to hide. When the soldiers entered the mosque, said Mahnaz, they stripped the women of their veils and snatched the Quran from their hands. “They yelled in our faces and told us we were Hindu spies here to break up the country,” said Mahnaz. “My mother never recovered from the incident. She is not quite right in her head anymore.” The operation cleared the way for the checkpoints that now surround Mashky.

The story of the last year’s Mashky operation seems tame compared to the widespread stories of torture and abuse that circulate among the Baloch. Twenty eight-year old Kamal, a member of the BSO-Azad, told me of the time when he was picked up from Quetta. At the time, he was a sociology student at Balochistan University. “The security forces kept me in custody for two months–and they did not waste a moment to torture me,” he says. He told me how they would shuttle him between two torture rooms, one pitch black–dedicated to “mental torture”, where they would give him blankets smelling of “urine and feces”–and the other decorated with a spiral pattern on the ceiling, walls, and floor–meant for “physical torture”. They wanted to make him dizzy, he said, before hanging him upside down, naked, and electrocuting his stomach. That was not as bad as what they would do at the end. “The unspeakable. The inhumane. Something I cannot tell you, because you are a woman, and that would be inappropriate,” he said. I never found out what happened to him, but a man in Mai gave me a hint when he told me why a friend of his had lost his mind.

“They would smear a pole with oil and spices, before they stuck it up his behind.”

***

Once back in Karachi, Ahmed did not want to go to Balochistan again; he was scared of what might happen to him there. The Edhi Foundation still continues to send its ambulances to the quake-hit areas. “The area is under the control of the army now. They are letting us through,” says Anwar Qazmi, a coordinator for Edhi Foundation in Karachi.

Sumera sent me a text message a few days after the operation, and told me that many have left. “Baji, the army has control of the whole area, and most people have escaped and run into the mountains,” she said in the message. “They are carrying out raids, and harassing us in our homes.” She wanted to tell me earlier, but the phones have been off. “Everything just goes silent here,” she wrote. She still does not know if the Zong Tower had failed, or if the army had jammed the networks.

The quiet between the battles are not as strange as the silence that surrounds Mashkay-Gajjar–in the news media and in the parliament. It is difficult to call the silence anything other than a blackout, and it is a challenge to get to the truth behind it. Everyone has an agenda in Balochistan, a preference for how the facts should be portrayed. Perhaps, the closest thing to the facts is etched in the bones of those who live in Balochistan.

Little Bakhtiar had the clearest answers when I asked him, before I left, who he was afraid of.

“FC!”

Why Bakhti?

“Because they hit us…”

With what?

“With their guns.”

Names have been changed to protect identities.

Mahvish Ahmad is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tanqeed. She is an independent journalist and lecturer living and working in Islamabad. This article was originally published in Herald Magazine.

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