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PAKISTAN: Hundreds missing in conflict-torn Balochistan

QUETTA, 10 May 2007 (IRIN) - Dr Hanif Sharif, 29, was regarded until 2005 as one of the most gifted young writers in the Balochi language.

Known for his quick wit, charm and ability to coin unusual turns of phrase, he formed the nucleus around which a group of talented Baloch intellectuals gathered in the small town of Turbat in Pakistan’s impoverished, but resource-rich south-western province of Balochistan.

In November 2005, while sitting with friends in a restaurant, Sharif was dragged away by six armed men. Despite widespread publicity of the case and a petition in the Balochistan High Court, he remained missing for nine months.

He was eventually released, apparently from the custody of security forces, in July 2006. He had been extensively interrogated about his role in Baloch nationalist activities, and so severely tortured that he is today reportedly suffering acute psychological problems that have left him a shadow of his former self.

Other Baloch activists taken away by intelligence agencies have provided similar accounts of their ordeals. Dr Imdad Baloch, a leader of the radical Baloch Students Organization (BSO), 'disappeared' for just under four months in 2005.

But they are among the fortunate few who have returned after spending time in safe houses or secret jails allegedly run by security forces or intelligence agencies in Pakistan. Some of these entities, such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Military Intelligence agencies, appear to operate beyond government control, activists say.

The Pakistan government denies this. Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao has said the "government is not involved" in disappearances. A few weeks ago, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said the missing persons may have "gone away on their own”.

Hundreds missing

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), hundreds of people in Balochistan have disappeared.

"The number of disappeared people is very high. We have hundreds of names, and are in the process of verifying them," Zahoor Ahmed Shawani, an advocate and the vice chairperson for HRCP in Balochistan, told IRIN. The number of missing exceeds 600, he said, while some political organisations in Balochistan say that up to 1,000 people could be missing.

Among them is Ali Asghar Bangulzai, who disappeared four and a half years ago. His eight children, the youngest of whom cannot remember their father, have regularly set up protest camps outside the Quetta Press Club, but so far their pleas have been unheard.

"We believe he is alive, but no one has seen him now for many years," Nasrullah Bangulzai, Bangulzai's nephew, said.

The issue of disappearances in Pakistan was previously unknown in the country but has repeatedly made news over the past year.

International rights group Amnesty International has taken up the matter, and in October 2006 organised a high-profile seminar with HRCP in the capital, Islamabad, in an effort to draw attention to the problem.

Since then, HRCP has moved the matter to court – presenting the Supreme Court with a list of 190 names of missing people. At least 114 of them are from Balochistan.

"We need to verify each name to make sure the facts are accurate. This is a new task for us," I.A. Rehman, the director of HRCP, said.

Impact of 9/11

The problem of missing persons first arose in Pakistan in 2002, after the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001 (9/11) brought changes in global anti-terror policies.

According to rights activists, persons believed to be involved in extremist activities were ‘picked up’, and either kept in local safe houses or handed over to US authorities. A small number ended up in Guantanamo Bay, a US-run military prison camp in Cuba. Many others simply disappeared.

"My husband, Masood Janjua, is an educationist and businessman. He has been missing since July 2005. My three children and I wait each day, not knowing if he will ever return," said Amina Masood Janjua, an Islamabad-based housewife who has emerged as a leading campaigner for the families of disappeared people.

The problem, however, soon expanded beyond the ranks of suspected militants. Activists says security agencies used the post-9/11 anti-terror climate to tackle growing dissent - particularly in the minority provinces of Sindh and Balochistan where strong nationalist movements exist as a response to perceived injustices by successive governments in Islamabad.

As such, the largest number of disappeared people is in Balochistan. Many of them were taken away in 2005 and 2006 at the height of fighting between paramilitary forces and rebels allied to Baloch tribal leaders who seek greater autonomy from the government. Hundreds remain missing.

"My brother, Samad Bugti, has been gone now for two years. Our mother is in anguish. She is in poor health and just wants to see her eldest son once before she dies," said Talib Bugti in Quetta. His elder brother was taken away in 2005 from their village near the conflict-torn area of Dera Bugti.

Across Balochistan, families wait for sons, husbands, fathers and brothers to return. Some, such as the family of Munir Mengal, a Baloch Voice television executive who was taken from Karachi airport in April 2006, have threatened self-immolation.

But despite the uproar, hundreds of people in the country remain missing, leaving families behind who do not know if their relatives will ever return.



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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