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Karlos Zurutuza: address to Geneva Conference on Enforced Disappearances

photo by Karlos Zurutuza

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Kachkol Ali at his residence in Quetta in June last year. This was just a few weeks after he had witnessed the kidnapping of three of his clients from his office. A few days later, their bodies were found in the middle of the desert. Mr. Ali briefed me on those facts during an interview in full detail, the same way he would do afterwards with anyone who showed any interest in those terrible events.

Geneva: November 8, 2010

Good afternoon.

First of all, I want to thank you all for your assistance. Thanks also to the International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons and the International Humanist and Ethical Union, for kindly inviting me to attend this conference. Needless to say, I feel very honoured to participate today in this forum.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Kachkol Ali at his residence in Quetta in June last year. This was just a few weeks after he had witnessed the kidnapping of three of his clients from his office. A few days later, their bodies were found in the middle of the desert. Mr. Ali briefed me on those facts during an interview in full detail, the same way he would do afterwards with anyone who showed any interest in those terrible events.

photo by Karlos Zurutuza

The consequences of his bold struggle to denounce that outrageous episode, are surely known by everybody here. A few months ago, Mr. Ali had to abandon his native Baluchistan to seek refuge in Europe.

Mr. Ali cannot go back to Baluchistan because of the obvious threat to his life. And neither can I. I conducted a journalistic work in an area whose access is banned to foreign journalists by Islamabad. This is my crime.

From his position, Mr. Ali has bravely defended the rights of his people who face a tremendous repression at the hands of both Islamabad and Tehran. Unsurprisingly, lawyers like Mr. Ali, or journalists like myself, belong today to the ever growing group of “undesirable people” for both Iran and Pakistan.

I hope there’s no misunderstanding here. By no means am I attempting to draw any kind of parallel between the situation of Mr. Ali and my own. I’m simply pointing out the terrible circumstances that have made possible this meeting today. In fact, the differences between us both are doubtless abysmal: I´ll go back home after this conference, and he won’t. It’s as simple as that.

The organizers of this event asked me if I could talk about my personal experience as a journalist in Balochistan so I’ll go straight to the point.

I was lucky enough to step on Baloch land again just a few weeks ago, this time in the north Baluchistan region (under control of Afghanistan.) Before travelling to the southern provinces of Helmand and Nimroz I had the chance to meet several colleagues in Kabul who had travelled to Afghanistan in order to cover the last parliamentary elections in the country. Several of them were foreign correspondents based in Islamabad, who had already spent several years working in Pakistan. However, it came as no surprise to me that none of them; and I repeat: “none”, had ever visited East Baluchistan.

All of these colleagues told me that they’d love to travel to Quetta and surroundings, but that they couldn’t because Islamabad did not give them permission to do so. If they did, they said, they would be deported never to set foot in Pakistan again.

photo by Karlos Zurutuza

After my first trip to Baluchistan last year I pitched my material to different media which I thought to be serious and rigorous. The most recurrent answer was “Thank you, but we already have a correspondent in Pakistan”. Yes, a correspondent in Islamabad who will never set foot in Balochistan for fear of being deported, or even worse. And I’m now thinking of Carlotta Gall, a very reputed journalist working for one of the biggest newspapers in the world. She was badly beaten in Quetta by men who identified themselves as members of a special branch of the Pakistan police, and who accused her of “being in Quetta without permission”.

In short, everything suggests that Baluchistan will remain a province where a well-planned, slow motion genocide, is being inflicted to the local population, and where there’s no foreign media present to report.

Assuming that either Pakistan or Iran would grant me a visa at some point, going back to Baluchistan would mean putting my own life at risk. And, what’s more, the lives of those who would help me in this new endeavour. I always try not to forget that I’m able to leave a conflict region, but those fixers, translators, or simply, local friends, have to stay.

It will be years before I can even dream of meeting my friends in Quetta, Khuzdar, Iranshar and Zahedan. Unfortunately, the limitations for foreign journalists in neighbouring Iran, hardly differ from those in Pakistan. No foreign correspondents can travel to the "forbidden” Iranian regions of Kurdistan or Baluchistan, for the very same reasons that attach to Pakistan.

photo by Karlos Zurutuza

Surprisingly enough, I have recently confirmed that the most accessible Baloch region for a foreign journalist is the one that lies within the borders of Afghanistan. I’ve faced no obstacles, nor any kind of threat by the Afghan government over travelling to the southern provinces of Helmand and Nimroz, where there is a significant Baloch population. I had total freedom to interview, among others, Baloch intellectuals in Kabul or even the very governor of the Nimroz region, who happens to be a Baloch. Unlike Tehran and Islamabad, Kabul has not threatened to deport me, neither have they prevented me from visiting Afghanistan again in the future in case I attempted to report on the situation of the Baloch in that country. Moreover, none of the people I met will face any problem for speaking with a foreigner, at least not from the Afghan government.

Yes, Afghanistan is a war-torn country but, isn’t Pakistan, as well? I am personally convinced that there are more Talibans in the city of Quetta than in the whole of Nimroz province. And you have to add to this the myriad of Pakistani agents who are largely responsible for the missing Baloch we’re focusing on today.

And what can we say about the situation in Balochistan under Iranian control? After several years as a journalist in conflict regions, West Balochistan has been, without doubt, one of the areas where I’ve felt the biggest fear among the local population. It truly reminded me of my time among the Syrian Kurds in the sense that nobody would dare to speak with me. Small wonder here, as being seen talking to a “suspicious” stranger today, can lead to a public execution tomorrow on charges of being an "enemy of God". That is Iran in the year 2010.

photo by Karlos Zurutuza

Before my first visit to Balochistan last year, I remember asking average Persian and Punjabi people on the street about their perception of the Baloch.

"Most of the Baloch are terrorists" I would hear repeatedly in Pakistan; "Do not go down there, they are terrorists and drug smugglers", was the recurrent buzz in Tehran and Isfahan. The reactions against the Baloch were always strong, but I rarely came across anyone who had ever visited the area they recommended not to travel.

I conducted the same experiment among the Afghans during the weeks I spent in Afghanistan before arriving in North Balochistan. The majority of them described the Baloch people as “combative”, “honest” or, simply, “humble people”.

Could those arbitrary borders possibly draw such big differences among the same people?

What I am trying to say here is that the travel ban to the area for journalists may appear to be of lesser importance when compared to the hatred towards the Baloch inculcated by both Tehran and Islamabad. First they are accused of the most horrendous crimes. And then, when the propaganda has achieved the desired effect, the Baloch can be hanged in public squares, dumped from helicopters, or their villages razed without the rest of the population uttering a word of protest. The goal here is to make Iranian and Pakistani citizens fear the Baloch as a whole, for the entire Pakistani and Iranian population can not be deported the same way as the handful of foreign journalists who will visit the region.

Many of you will probably think that I still haven’t answered the key question in this discussion: How can we make the world media open their eyes to the terrible ongoing situation in Balochistan?

I wish I had the right answer to this, but all I can do is contribute a couple of ideas. Let’s not forget that Balochistan is full of brave local journalists, victims as well as direct witnesses to events there. I know several of them, but I won’t mention their names in order to avoid a public exposure that may bring them more harm than good. Nonetheless, I do believe that they hold the key. Foreign independent journalists like myself can travel to the region, but we will never have either the access or the understanding of the conflict the locals have.

As I said before, I cannot go to either east or west Baluchistan; even though, I truly believe that I can continue working on the Baloch issue in several ways, either by attending meetings like this one, but also by serving as a bridge between those local journalists in Quetta, Khuzdar, Zahedan, etc, and the western media I regularly work for.

I know this deal is far from being fair, as the most dangerous part falls to them; field work in a scenario where they´re literally risking their lives. Just for this reason, the role of foreign journalists here should be to knock on every door of every newspaper, magazine, radio or TV channel so that the cry of an entire people finally reaches the general public.

I would like to finish my talk by bringing to our memory all those Baloch colleagues who have been killed, beaten or harassed by Tehran and Islamabad.

I also want to convey the best of luck to those who are still alive and active and, above all, my most unconditional support.

Thank you!

(Thanks to Karlos Zurutuza for providing us with this advance copy of his speech.)

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance correspondent from the Basque Country.