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A 29-year old woman leads a secular and pro-independence movement which Pakistan labels as "terrorist".

By Karlos Zurutuza
All photos courtesy BSO Azad

A Baloch woman leads a student movement that defines itself as “secular and pro-independence”. The government of Pakistan labels it as "terrorist”.

Karima Baloch says she was born in Dubai 29 years ago, and that she grew up in Pakistan's Balochistan province, "in a family of deep political convictions." She talked to Vicenews via video conference without covering her face. In her public appearances, however, only her green eyes are visible.

"Karima Baloch is my real name but in demonstrations and other public gatherings I have to cover my face out of sheer survival," the activist explained from Quetta, the capital city of Pakistan´s southernmost region of Balochistan. "I´m under constant and extreme threats but if people recognized me in the street I would become an easy target for anyone who wanted to hurt me," added the activist, who admitted she cannot remember the last time she used public transport.

Baloch also acknowledges she wanted to get a degree in psychology. For the time being, she says, her priorities are focused on her political responsibilities as the leader of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO) Azad, a group set up in 2002 by the Baloch insurgent commander Allah Nazar when he was a medical student.

Divided by the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Baloch inhabit a territory the size of France that hides enormous reserves of gold, gas and uranium. After the British withdrawal from the region in 1947, the Baloch today under the control of Pakistan gained their independence but Islamabad annexed their territory in March 1948, sparking an insurgency that has lasted, intermittently, until today.

The BSO Azad was outlawed by the government in April 2013 alongside the JSMM, a pro-independence movement from the neighbouring Sindh region. However, the young Baloch activist insists that the movement she leads operates through "exclusively" peaceful means:

"Other than defending the rights of the Baloch students, we also organize demonstrations and peaceful marches; we call for strikes and shutter downs and we run campaigns aimed at political awareness on the reality of our people," sums up Karima Baloch. Nonetheless, the activist labels as legitimate any struggle against injustice, “be it peaceful or armed."

The missing

International organizations such as Human Rights Watch have accused the Pakistani government of running a campaign of kidnappings and enforced disappearances. The Voice for the Baloch Missing Persons put the number of Baloch disappeared since 2000 at around 20,000.

Karima Baloch claims that there are also several BSO Azad members among the victims such as Rasool Jan Baloch, whose body was found on April 13 after being kidnapped in January 2014. Karima Baloch now leads the student organization since the abduction of Zahid Baloch, BSO Azad former chairman, in March 2014.

"After the kidnapping of Zahid we started a mass mobilization campaign and knocked on every door but we still know nothing of his whereabouts," laments the activist. Fellow organization members as Lateef Johar went even further and sat on a hunger strike unto death.

Human Rights activist Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, was among those who convinced Johar to cease his strike after fasting for 46 days. Talpur, who has been challenged and attacked repeatedly for writing about such issues also talks about the "systematic neglect" of education in Balochistan at the hands of the Government:

"Book shops have been sealed and state sponsored religious outfits have burnt down schools, threatened teachers and students stopping them from pursuing education," the veteran Human Rights activist told Vicenews while he brought to mind recent cases as Zahid Askani´s, the director of a private school who was gunned down last December.

Karima Baloch says she has no doubts over the responsibility of the attack:

"Askani was assassinated by Pakistan sponsored religious extremists who have their own education program: a network of madrasas (Islamic schools) to pollute the minds of the people," blurted the young leader.

Women speak up

Women in Balochistan have to cope with living in Pakistan´s least developed province, where maternity mortality rates are among the highest in Asia and female literacy rates rank as the lowest in the country.

Karima Baloch gives a figure of 3000 members within the ranks of the BSO, many of them being women. The activist claims to be "very proud" of the latter.

“The price to pay for taking part in public life ranges from being killed and been disfigured to acid attacks. If the Baloch women didn´t mobilize for fear of the constant, entire generations would remain in slavery,” explains Baloch, before pointing to a better known leading female movement in the Middle East:

"We follow the news and we are fascinated by our Kurdish `cousins´ (the Kurds and the Baloch share a common origin). Women there have also shown the whole world that they can fight for their rights alongside men," stressed the activist.

Pakistani officials refused to speak to Vicenews on the situation in Balochistan.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a political analyst based at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government as Edward Mason Fellow takes stock for Vicenews on the political and social role of the controversial Baloch students´ organization. Siraj Akbar ensures that the movement is “a very unique organization that does not have any parallels in Pakistan”:

"The BSO Azad was an offshoot of the original BSO (founded in 1967) which emerged in the wake of changing political and security circumstances when the Pakistan government was plotting new offensives against the Baloch people,” explained Siraj Akbar. He underlined that there are also women´s wings in other Pakistani political parties, but that none of them “does the kind of risky work the BSO Azad does.”

Sabeen Mahmud was actually the last woman killed for campaigning on behalf of the Baloch people. The 39-year old Human Rights activist was gunned down last Friday after hosting a conference on Human Rights violations in Balochistan, in the arts centre she was running in Karachi, Pakistan´s biggest city.

“Sabeen was not Baloch but she was killed for speaking up on the situation of our people,” claims Karima Baloch from Quetta. The activists announces new protests but she does not disclose where and when she will show up next in a public gathering “for obvious security reasons”.

Follow Karlos Zurutuza on Twitter: @karloszurutuza

Karlos Zurutuza is a roving correspondent covering conflict along parallel 33, from Western Sahara to Eastern Baluchistan, and is a regular contributor to IPS News, Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, Gara and Vice News.