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Baloch from Afghanistan: between insurgency and famine

By Karlos Zurutuza

The Afghan Baloch are another people that make up the colourful ethnic mosaic of the country. And like the Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks, the Baloch have also seen their land divided by arbitrary boundaries in Central Asia.

"Nomads crossing the desert with their camels; dark-skinned women dressed in bright colours (rarely under a burqa) and children cleaning the characteristic dark blue Baloch carpets in the Helmand river . . . These are some of the images one associates with the Baloch," observes Daulat Popal, history professor at Kabul University. But, according to the Pashtun scholar, there is much more to this forgotten people than romantic and colourful clichés.

Baloch kids drawing water from Helmand River

Divided today by the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Baloch have their own language, Balochi, and live in a land the size of France they call "Balochistan." That rugged terrain under their feet boasts enormous reserves of gas, gold and copper, untapped sources of oil and uranium as well as a thousand kilometers coast at the doors of the Strait of Hormuz. "Our children walk barefoot on a golden soil," says accurately an eloquent Baloch proverb. In fact, the Baloch happen to live in the three most underdeveloped regions in their respective countries, Afghanistan included.

"The Afghan Baloch are humble people who hardly give any problems," says professor Popal, though his descriptions reveal a more complex picture:

"For their strategic position and, above all, for their long coastline to the Persian Gulf, the Baloch enjoyed the favour of the Kremlin during the occupation of the country," explains Popal. "Moscow even financed training camps in Afghanistan for the Baloch insurgents. But the main obstacle to the spread of communist ideals among these people was their nationalist agenda. The Kremlin never succeeded in attracting them and lost his only chance to reach the warm waters of the Indian Ocean."

Even today, Pakistani Baloch insurgents still seek refuge in Afghanistan. Secular and nationalist guerrilla fighters are said to have their training camps in Kandahar and Zabol regions from which they can easily cross the Afghan-Pakistani border to carry out attacks against Pakistani security forces.

Moreover, Iran's Baloch insurgents also cross the border seeking refuge in Nimroz, the only province in Afghanistan where this minority makes up the majority of the population.

Street scene in Zaranj, capital of Nimroz province

The northern Baloch and the "Southern Alliance"

"We estimate there are between one million and a half and two million Baloch in Afghanistan but not all of them speak Balochi. Those in Kandahar, Wardak, Uruzgan and Balkh provinces speak Pashtun while the Baloch in Kunduz, Badakhshan, Takhar and Dai Kundi speak Dari (local variant of Persian). Today only those in the provinces of Helmand and Nimroz speak Balochi," explains Abdul Sattar Purdely, a Baloch intellectual who has dedicated his life to keep his culture alive in Afghanistan. Purdely comes from Nimroz, a province sandwiched between the rebellious Farah and Helmand, which also shares a 500 kilometer border with both Iran and Pakistan. If there's a geopolitical hotspot in Afghanistan, for sure that's Nimroz. The 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team is deployed in Delaram, a small town that lies on the furthermost spot from the border and the province´s capital, Zaranj. But Afghanistan's south-western, porous border remains unguarded.

Baloch gang of kids in Nimroz, North Balochistan

"Nimroz is a major smuggling hub in Afghanistan: heroin goes out and weapons get in across the Afghan-Iranian border," says Ahmed Rashid, the best-selling writer, who admits to having no insight regarding the 'military abandonment' of this remote, but potentially key, southern province. Nonetheless, the lack of military presence along the borders doesn't imply that Nimroz remains untouched by the everlasting Afghan war.

"The Taliban control the areas of Delaram, Khashrod and the border with Pakistan, but Zaranj (the capital of Nimroz) is under Kabul's control," explains Abdul Jabar Purdely, a Baloch who is today head of the local police.

Purdely's direct superior is Karim Brahui, another Baloch who is today the current governor of Nimroz as well as a key piece in Afghanistan's complex map of insurgent movements. Everybody has heard about the Ahmad Shah Massoud-led Northern Alliance, but very little is known about what was going on at the opposite end of the country. Apparently there was a "Southern Alliance" too, the so called "Nimroz Front" which Brahui founded in 1979 and commanded against the Russians first, and the Taliban afterwards. The resistance group fluctuated between 300 and 700 hundred individuals, most of which were secular and leftist fighters--very much in the antipodes of other religious conservative armed groups also fighting the Russians.

Karim Brahui, former leader of the Nimroz Front and current governor of Nimroz province

"It was essentially a Baloch group but there were also Pashtuns. We took shelter in Iran and conducted guerrilla operations against the enemy inside Afghanistan," recalls Brahui, very likely the best-known Baloch throughout Afghanistan.

Bordering Iran, Pakistan and Africa

"We are one of the smallest communities in Afghanistan and we live in the farthest region from Kabul. For us it's much easier to cross to Iran than to Kabul," says Kamal. This fifty year old man runs a mobile shop in Zaranj's bazaar. Like everybody here, most of what he sells has arrived from neighbouring Iran. Even transactions are conducted in Iranian tomans in Zaranj. In fact, the very border—drawn by the British in the XIX century—lies within walking distance from this street market.

"I studied in Quetta (Pakistani controlled Baluchistan) but when the Taliban arrived I moved to Zahedan (Iranian controlled Balochistan)," recalls Kamal while he unpacks Indian made mobile phones brought by his brother yesterday across the border.

Kamal belongs to the Narui clan—one of the largest in the area—that could well be the paradigm of a family divided by the three borders that converge here. Many like Kamal have spent their life jumping across the countries' boundaries, fleeing either the Taliban's violence, the Ayatola's repression or Islamabad's iron fist. Military operations against Baloch villages and the disappearances of Baloch are sadly too common in Pakistan controlled Balochistan.

Zaranj's busy bazaar may remind one of any of those scattered across the Middle East but after a mere ten minute drive, one might think he had reached the very heart of Africa: adobe houses without electricity or water, distributed along both banks of a dry dirt road; sheep and goats "graze" through piles of garbage while shaven head kids load water jerry cans from the Helmand river on their donkeys. This is Nasrabad village, but the picture is also recurrent in neighbouring Haji Abdurrahman as well as most Baloch towns scattered throughout Afghanistan’s remotest province.

Baloch youth in Haji Abdurrahman, Afghanistan, Nimroz-province

The Baloch from Afghanistan have settled for centuries alongside the banks of the Helmand river. But the draughts of the past ten years, the excessive use of the rivers water for opium growth and the destruction of irrigation channels in Nimroz have lead to the collapse of agriculture in the province. Hundreds of local Baloch families have been forced to leave their native land while NATO operations in neighbouring Farah and Helmad provinces have provoked and exodus of Pashtuns to Nimroz to the also called "Silk Road of Opium and Heroin."

Kids in Nasrabad, Nimroz province

"I´d like to move with my family somewhere else but where to go? I'm a farmer, not a nomad. I cannot read so my chances are to smuggle oil across the border or to join the Afghan army in a war which is already lost," complains Nobat, another Nimrozi Baloch, while his donkey drinks from a stinking ditch of water.

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance journalist covering off-the-radar conflict regions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. He was awarded the Nawab Bugti Reporting Award 2009 for his reporting on the Baloch areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.