Quetta, Pakistan – Few people want to talk to Qadeer Rekhi – and even fewer want to talk about him.
The 75-year-old may be affectionately venerated as “Mama Qadeer” – mama meaning “uncle” in Urdu language – but many believe it is dangerous to be too closely associated with him.
For years, Mama Qadeer has protested something the authorities claim does not exist – the disappearance of people who oppose the Pakistani government in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan, where security forces have battled an armed separatist movement since 2005.
Mama Qadeer counts his son among the casualties of this taboo conflict.
At 8am, the former bank employee arrives at his protest camp pitched outside the local press club for his daily nine-hour vigil. Some days are easier, spent in conversation with other protesters who may join in. But most days go by in silence, alone, behind the mass of pictures of missing men that line his makeshift tent.
At 5pm, Qadeer collects the images around him, stores them at the press club, and leaves. When he gets home he eats a small plate of rice with chicken, the only meal he consumes each day.
Maybe tomorrow will be better, he tells himself. Maybe tomorrow he will be more visible to the reporters who saunter across the street, exchanging story ideas over a quick cigarette.
“Journalists from the electronic media avoid even walking close to my camp,” says Qadeer. “Cameramen don’t make eye contact. As for newspapers, I routinely go to their bureaus with press releases, but I always get the same reply: ‘Mama, we have a family to feed. Please don’t insist.’
“I understand. I don’t blame them.”
For the last six years, Qadeer has tried to draw attention to the rising number of people who have disappeared in Pakistan’s largest, least developed province.
Since 1948, Balochistan has gone through five armed insurgencies. Rebel groups have waged a war against the Pakistan army seeking greater autonomy, a larger share in the natural resources extracted from the province, and complete independence.
But Qadeer wants none of those things. The men, women and children who join him have only one priority: to find relatives who have allegedly been snatched by intelligence and security agencies on the basis of “suspicion”.
Human rights activists say paramilitary forces use enforced disappearances, secret detentions and a kill-and-dump policy to silence anti-state activities and dissent. The Pakistani government denies it is responsible for deaths or disappearances and has established a judicial commission to investigate reports of those gone missing.
Determining an exact headcount is tricky. The number of missing persons can run into thousands, hundreds, or less depending on whom you ask.
According to Qadeer’s organisation, the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, about 35,000 men and 160 women have disappeared, while 8,000 mutilated bodies have been found in the province.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan puts the number of disappeared people at 955, while Balochistan’s home secretary told the senate the official tally, as of May 2015, is 156.
Qadeer, a father of three, bristles at the official number. His organisation, he says, has the most accurate figure, which is collected through its regional coordinators.
It was set up in 2009 after Qadeer’s 32-year-old son, Shahid Jalil Ahmed Rekhi – the information secretary of the nationalist Baloch Republican Party – was abducted. Rekhi’s body turned up two years later with bullet wounds and cigarette burns.
Mama Qadeer said the former chief minister of Balochistan, Aslam Raisani, admitted to a visiting delegation that Rekhi was taken away by intelligence agencies. Raisani, who was sacked as chief minister in 2013 and now faces corruption charges, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Qadeer, meanwhile, has organised roadside sit-ins in three major cities. In 2013, he and 20 protesters, mostly women, walked 3,000 kilometres from Balochistan’s capital Quetta to Karachi, and then from Karachi to Islamabad – only to return home with scant media coverage and empty promises.
During their stay in Karachi, Qadeer says Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif assured them their relatives would be produced in court soon to face alleged charges. Asif never kept his word, he says.
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In response, Asif told Al Jazeera that Qadeer declined the chance to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad – though Mama Qadeer insists this was because he did not receive guarantees for his safety.
But those were better days. Then, Qadeer was a mild irritant to be ignored. Now, he says, he’s deliberately muffled.
In March, the government imposed a travel ban on him when he was about to board a flight to New York to attend a human rights conference. It was lifted in September after he petitioned in court, but he says he has not received his passport a month after sending it for renewal, and his name is still on the Interior Ministry’s exit-control list.
Qadeer says domestic seminars he is invited to are routinely cancelled without explanation – and one such talk had a fatal consequence.
In April, Pakistani rights campaigner Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down in Karachi after her cafe hosted a session on Balochistan, which featured Qadeer and three others.
The incident has left him rattled. He has a vivid recollection of his last conversation with the enthusiastic 39-year-old campaigner.
As the speakers were readying to leave, Qadeer remembers Mahmud saying to them, “Don’t go alone. Karachi is just not safe these days. Let my friends escort you back to your hotel.”
Minutes later, Mahmud was shot dead in her car.
“That night, she was more worried about our safety then she was about her own. We lost a friend and supporter,” Qadeer says.
Another of his allies, high-profile TV journalist Hamid Mir, survived an ambush by gunmen in Karachi last year. While it is still unclear who nearly killed him, Mir admitted to the Washington Post in July that he rarely reports on Balochistan any more – or investigates alleged government corruption – because of threats to his safety.
The Balochistan Union of Journalists says 40 colleagues have been targeted and killed in the last decade.
However, the government is adamant that law and order in the province are improving, and the interior minister told reporters at a briefing in September that 500 insurgents have surrendered this year under a general amnesty.
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Even more significantly, the self-exiled leader of the Baloch Republican Party, Brahumdagh Bugti, has offered to hold peace talks with the government.
Bugti is a hard-liner who has advocated independence for Balochistan and opposed all political dialogue. His party was proscribed in 2012 and is considered by authorities to be a front for its armed wing, the Baloch Republican Army, which has claimed responsibility for attacks damaging infrastructure projects.
Qadeer, who is rarely political, has a personal grievance with the tribal chief because of his son’s involvement with his party.
“Balochistan is not Brahumdagh Bugti’s to negotiate,” he says. “When Bugti does come back we will ask him about our children who are missing, and those who have been killed working for his party while he lived comfortably in Switzerland.”
His late son’s association with a party that has relentlessly called for secession has cast a long shadow on Qadeer’s campaign. For many on social media and television, this elderly man is a traitor.
But he says his patriotism should not be in doubt.
“I was born here, my children were born here, my grandchildren were born here,” says Baloch outside the press club. “I might live for another five years if I am lucky, but I am not going anywhere. This is where I will be.”