Quetta, Pakistan - Zakir Majeed, a 26-year-old university student in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province, was on his way to a friend's house when he was stopped by men travelling in two cars, both without registration plates.
The men introduced themselves as Pakistani intelligence agents, and took Majeed and his friends into custody. While his friends were released soon after, Majeed, a student rights activist with the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO), was not.
That was June 8, 2009. Today, almost four years later, there remains no sign of Majeed, and, according to Baloch rights groups and his family, authorities refuse to officially disclose whether or not he was taken into their custody.
Majeed has become one of Pakistan's thousands of "missing people" - those who have mysteriously disappeared without a trace, whether picked up by armed groups or, as many families of victims allege, the government.
The missing include rights and political activists, armed fighters and seemingly innocent men and women. In Balochistan alone - where ethnic Baloch say they are marginalised by the state and deprived of their rights - the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) group puts their number at more than 2,200 since 2005.
Balochistan on edge after sectarian killings
"When a student raises his voice or his pen [in support of our rights], he is imprisoned or killed," says Javed Baloch, 33, the secretary-general of the BSO at Balochistan University in Quetta, the provincial capital.
Muhammed Jan Baloch, 28, another BSO leader at the same university, says that Baloch are being targeted by the government for fighting for their rights.
"Thousands of Baloch have been disappeared, tortured and killed," he says. "If a Baloch is working against the state, then bring him before a court and charge him. We don't see this, however - we only see their bodies appear."
Javed Baloch says many activists feel they are being left with no choice but to take up arms against the government."We have tried all democratic routes - they have not worked. Our weapons are now our only defence."
A history of marginalisation
Balochistan, Pakistan's largest but least populous province - home to about 13 million of Pakistan's estimated 182 million people - is also its least economically developed. The province has the country's lowest growth record and worst infrastructure, along with its highest rates of poverty, lowest social indicators for health and education and lowest levels of satisfaction with government service delivery, according to a recent World Bank report.
Yet it is a province at the centre of Pakistan's main issues: nuclear weapon tests were carried out here in 1998; it is here that al-Qaeda's "Quetta Shura" leadership council is said to reside; and it was the cases of missing people in Balochistan that set up a judicial showdown between the Pakistani Supreme Court and then-president Pervez Musharraf, which culminated in the imposition of a state of emergency in 2007 and, eventually, Musharraf's resignation.
Rich in natural resources but poor in development, Balochistan's economy is based on mining - mainly coal, copper and gold - basic fruit and livestock farming, and the extraction of natural gas.
And it is on the issue of natural gas that ethnic Baloch - and ethnic Brahui who align themselves with the Baloch - take issue with the Pakistani state, accusing the federal government of extracting the province's natural wealth without providing a corresponding amount of funds on development projects.
Despite the gas from the Sui gas field powering Pakistan's economic development through most of the late 20th century, the villages near the field in the province's east, residents told Al Jazeera, remain not only without basic educational and health facilities, they do not even have natural gas utility connections.
The mindset of the establishment ... is to crush the Baloch people, to dominate them, to subjugate them.
The Baloch have fought two major widespread guerilla campaigns against the Pakistani state, seeking independence between 1973-77 and again in an ongoing fight starting in 2005. Leaders say they are seeking an independent Baloch state in the province's southeast - with the northern Pashtun-majority area free to decide its own fate.
Each uprising so far has been crushed by the Pakistani army, with the government terming them foreign-funded conspiracies against the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The latest movement began in 2005, and escalated after the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a Baloch nationalist leader who had served as governor and chief minister of the province, but who had increasingly distanced himself from the central government and called for an independent Baloch state.
He died in August 2006, in circumstances that remain unclear. His supporters say he was lured into a trap by the Pakistani state, which then bombed the cave that he had set up camp in, while the government says the cave simply collapsed.
Bugti's death resulted in an escalation of the conflict with armed Baloch groups - notably the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) - stepping up attacks against security forces and non-Baloch citizens. In 2012, 690 civilians and 178 security forces personnel were killed.
Underscoring the increasing violence, a convoy carrying Sanaullah Zehri - provincial president of the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) - was attacked on Tuesday. Zehri survived but four people were killed, including his brother and son. Sanaullah is a candidate in Pakistan's general elections in May, and the BLA has vowed it will not allow the vote to go ahead.
The state, for its part, is alleged to have increased the number of "disappearances" of Baloch activists, and, through its security agencies, to have begun a "kill-and-dump" campaign post-2009, with the previously disappeared people appearing on roadsides, their bodies bearing marks of torture. Baloch activists allege at least 398 people have been extrajudicially killed since 2009.
"The Baloch people did not gain anything from [participating in parliamentary democracy], and they will not gain anything," says Jamil Bugti, Akbar Bugti's son, who spoke to Al Jazeera at his home in the village of Mian Ghundi.
He and many of his tribe remain unable to return to Dera Bugti, their main village, he says.
"The main thing is the mindset of the establishment ... to crush the Baloch people, to dominate them, to subjugate them," Bugti says. "They are more interested in the Baloch land and the Baloch, in whatever little way, is resisting that. You [can] call it an insurgency, call it a freedom fight, call it getting rid of slavery, which is everybody's right."
'Kill and dump'
The dumping of bodies of those disappeared began after the civilian government took over from Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan as military dictator and president from 1999 to 2008, says Bugti.
Rights activists say a 136 bodies were found in alleged "kill-and-dump" cases in 2012. Between January and March 2013, 130 civilians were killed in violence in the province and 39 bodies found dumped.
"They picked up people, tortured them, killed them and then made sure that their bodies were recovered," says Bugti. "Sometimes with 'Pakistan Zindabad' ['long live Pakistan'] written on their bodies, or a Pakistani flag stuck in their bodies. Or bodies hanging from trees, and all that. So this [is] kind of a message.
"[But] the more you suppress people, the more innocent people are picked up, the more the movement gains strength."
|Baloch leader Jehan Zeb Jamaldini [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Other Baloch political leaders agree.
"The sense of deprivation has made the Baloch people incredibly pessimistic," says Jehan Zeb Jamaldini, a central leader of the Balochistan Nationalist Party-Mengal (BNP-M).
Jamaldini does not contest the allegations that some armed Baloch pro-independence groups are killing non-Baloch settlers, but he says the state responding with violence is not the answer.
"You have made the separatists' work easier," says Jamaldini. "This is like striking your own foot with your own axe."
Nawabzada Lashkari Raisani is a leader of the Raisani tribe and a former senator who recently resigned saying the government - led by his former Pakistan People's Party (PPP) - was not addressing Baloch grievances. He is against the creation of an independent nation, however. Raisani has since joined the opposition PML-N.
When these people who are raising slogans come into government, they will see the ground realities. It is very easy to raise slogans when you are outside government.
Raisani says most Baloch are less concerned about independence, and more worried about good governance.
"People today cannot do their business in peace, they cannot send their children to school … There is no electricity. These are all the crises, and this is making people desperate enough to stand with those people who [have] called for separation."
As one Baloch lawyer, who is an advocate at the Pakistani Supreme Court and spoke on condition of anonymity, put it, most Baloch feel betrayed by the federal government.
“There are only two things we can expect from the Pakistani state now: freedom or death.”
The Pakistani government, for its part, denies it is depriving Baloch of either their rights or their natural resources without fair recompense.
According to the federal government, the Balochistan provincial government's budget is subsidised by the state, with expenditure outstripping revenue by a staggering 97 percent, $1.62bn, in the last fiscal year.
Nationalist leaders, however, consider that figure to be flawed.
"The federal government is not giving us anything - it is looting our province, and then giving us some of it back as charity," says Jamaldini, the BNP-M leader.
On disappearances, the government and security services deny involvement in kidnappings, and allege it is Baloch separatist groups that are responsible in order to justify escalating their own violence.
"Of the 950 names that [the VMBP] put before the Supreme Court, most have been located," Akbar Durrani, the provincial home secretary, told Al Jazeera. "Only 86 remain missing. These allegations are made only to malign our intelligence agencies."
Durrani also alleges that armed Baloch groups receive financial support from unnamed international powers seeking to destabilise Pakistan.
Tribal sources and businessmen involved in the mining sector, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera a major part of funding comes from protection money paid by mine owners in rural parts of the province.
As for Baloch political leaders' allegations of state complicity in extrajudicial killings? Durrani denies any government involvement.
"When these people who are raising slogans come into government, they will see the ground realities. It is very easy to raise slogans when you are outside government," he says.
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