Zaranj, Afghanistan – Gulam Mohamed walks unnoticed among the colourful human tide of Shar-e-naw district in central Kabul.
Like all those around him, he is familiar with war – but as an exiled activist from neighbouring Pakistan his experience is distinct.
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Mohamed, who prefers not to give his real name to protect his family back home, arrived two years ago from Quetta, the administrative capital of Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province.
“I had no choice but to flee with my wife and two children due to my relationship with the BSO [Baloch Students Organisation],” he told Al Jazeera. The BSO is a student group seeking independence for the province.
Speaking at a coffee shop in a mall often affected by the Afghan insurgency, Mohamed claims to have lost three relatives in a conflict that has been called Pakistan’s “secret” war.
In August 1947, the Baloch nationalists declared independence, but nine months later the Pakistani army marched into Balochistan and annexed it, sparking an insurgency that has lasted, in spurts, to this day.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest, but least populated, province and its local ethnic Baloch population shares borders with their kin in Iran and Afghanistan. The entire area, including those parts in Afghanistan and Iran, is a territory the size of France and boasts enormous mineral resources.
In the absence of comprehensive census data, an estimate by Professor Abdul Sattar Purdely puts the population of Afghan Baloch at about two million.
Afghanistan’s best known Baloch intellectual describes it as a community “scattered throughout the country”, but which still makes up the largest ethnic group in his native Nimroz province.
|The neglected village of Haji Abdurrahman, in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, has turned into a main hub for Pakistani Baloch seeking shelter in Afghanistan. [Karlos Zurutuza/Al Jazeera]|
It was the Baloch community that brought brothers Karim and Sharif Baloch to this inhospitable area in southwest Afghanistan, where the country’s borders meet with those of Pakistan and Iran.
“We fled Khuzdar – 265km south of Quetta – after a big military operation on February 18, 2011,” Sharif Baloch told Al Jazeera from a humble apartment in Zaranj, the provincial capital. “We had to hide until we crossed the Afghan border in 2012.”
Sitting next to him, Karim produces the photos of two of the five relatives they lost that day – their brother Naeem, killed in the operation, and their father Mohamed Rahim, who has been missing ever since.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said more than 100 bodies have been recovered from mass graves found in the Tootak area of Khuzdar.
Pakistani officials, however, deny these claims, arguing the total number of bodies amounts to only 17.
Last August, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch urged Pakistan’s government “to stop the deplorable practice of state agencies abducting hundreds of people throughout the country without providing information about their fate or whereabouts”.
According to Qadeer Baloch, the founder of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons group advocating peaceful protest, which was formed by some of the families of the disappeared, up to 19,000 people from Balochistan have been missing since 2000. But that number is disputed, with others saying around 3,000 people have gone missing.
Figures cannot be confirmed as no proper investigation has been conducted so far.
A life on the margins
Stories of violence and persecution also resonate inside the mud houses of Haji Abdurrahman, a Baloch village on the border with Iran where sheep and goats graze between piles of garbage scattered on dry dirt roads.
|Karim and Sharif Baloch show the portraits of their lost brother and father at their current residence in Zaranj, Nimroz province [Karlos Zurutuza/Al Jazeera]|
Sattar Khan received Al Jazeera in his adobe house, which has neither running water nor electricity – what he has called “home” since he left Dera Bugti, 230km southeast of Quetta in 2007.
“There are at least 1,000 of us in the province, and those are just the ones we know about,” the former teacher said.
Khan cannot send any of his four children to school because of their irregular status, and his two youngest have pressing medical needs.
“They suffer from hydrocephaly. We gathered money among all of us so they could get treatment in Herat [west of Kabul], but they need surgery every two years,” Khan said.
He guided his daughter Zahra across the humble room. Aged nine, she has lost her sight to the disease.
“We do not even dare to dream of going home,” he continued. “We are just asking for urgent help for sheer survival.”
From his residence just 2km away, Nimroz governor Amir Mohammad Akhadzade told Al Jazeera he was not aware of the existence of a Pakistani Baloch community in his province.
“I’m pretty sure they’re just local Baloch badly trying to get something from international NGOs,” said the senior official.
Ahmadullah Noorzai, head of the UN’s human rights organisation in Zaranj, acknowledged the existence of Pakistani Baloch, but underlined that “none of them had shown any interest in requesting assistance”.
“That’s a blatant lie,” Hasnan Baloch, a 38-year-old Pakistani Baloch from Quetta, told Al Jazeera. “Many of us went to the office several times, but we weren’t even allowed in.”
|A sit-in in central Quetta for those who have disappeared, the capital of Pakista’s restive Balochistan province. [Karlos Zurutuza/Al Jazeera]|
Hasnan added he had also tried to seek help at a UNHCR branch in Kandahar with no result.
After this reporter’s visit, Pakistani Baloch were finally let in to the Zaranj office and given a “hotline” number where they could get the necessary information to register with the UNHCR.
“Somebody over the phone told us that we should fill our applications in the Zaranj office,” said Jamal Baloch, another refugee.
“We went back the following day and a man at the gate told us that the branch was ending operations in the area.”
The UNHCR does not include Pakistani Baloch among its “people of concern”.
From his office in Kabul, Bo Schack, UNHCR representative and country director, admitted that Al Jazeera was the first news organisation to have raised this issue with him.
The senior official said he had no means of knowing how many people among the Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan were Baloch.
Shack confirmed the Zaranj office is being shut, but was not specific about the process the Baloch community in Nimroz should follow in order to register for assistance.
Follow Karlos Zurutuza on Twitter: @karloszurutuza