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Missing persons: Taken, without a trace

QUETTA: On November 19, 2011, Afzal* saw the turmoil in Balochistan up close and personal. He was an international relations student at the University of Balochistan when he was allegedly picked up by the agencies on suspicion that he was, in some capacity, associated with a militant organisation. This young Baloch’s release came 11 long, gruelling months later.

“At an early age, it seems like the world is at our disposal. And yet, what I went through was nothing but immense pain,” he says as he stands next to an abandoned primary school, remembering an anguished past.

“If we could have been allowed to concentrate on education, the scenario would be very different. But now, I’ve lost everything I used to believe in.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other rights bodies have repeatedly raised red flags in reference to alleged human rights violations in the province. And yet, as the separatist insurgency escalated in recent years, so did acts of terrorism, and the death toll of civilians and security forces alike.

A harrowing tale

Aslam’s time in captivity, during which his whereabouts were unknown, affected not just him but all his loved ones.

“My captors would make me listen to my mother’s and sister’s voices from another room, over a tape recorder, to torture me,” he recounts.

His friends, Monis * and Ibrahim* are still visibly shaken by the ordeal.

“Baloch are an indigenous part of Balochistan. This should not mean living in constant fear,” says Jan. “It seems that our natural wealth is our greatest enemy.”

Afzal and Monis had to travel to Quetta to earn a degree. All the while, they helped their families by transporting apples, peaches and cherries to the provincial capital.

According to Ibrahim, on the fateful day, armed men surrounded Afzal and one of them hit him on the head with a rifle butt. Ibrahim tried to help him but a heavily built, moustached man blocked him.

“I recognised three of the men – they were students at our university!” says Ibrahim. “They accused Afzal of assisting ‘traitors’. Then they sped off in a truck.”

“Now Afzal is not more than a zombie,” adds Monis.

Missing forever

Despite the sordid experience that left him with permanent mental scars, Afzal is lucky to have survived the assault. At least he is alive, he says, and not many of those who go missing can say the same for themselves.

According to Nasrullah Baloch, chairman of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, around 70 bodies have been found so far in different places in Balochistan and from Karachi in Sindh during the tenure of the incumbent government.

“We believe in this government’s earnestness as it is taking practical steps against the officers involved in the kidnapping of Baloch political activists,” he added.

More jarring facts are cited by other people. A government officer in Balochistan, who spoke to The Express Tribune on condition of anonymity, said that more than 550 mutilated bodies have been found during the last three years, most of them from Makran, Khuzdar, Kalat and Quetta city. Officially, the government disputes the figures cited by rights activists.

Not-for-profit rights groups have consistently challenged the figures provided by government departments when it comes to missing persons.

In this vein, Afzal knows well that a worse fate could have come to him. “I’m alive, I’m close to my family,” Afzal says. “They have suffered with me. I now understand the value of so many things, especially freedom.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2013.

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