For more than 11 years, relatives of people who disappeared in the murk of a separatist movement in southwestern Pakistan have gathered outside the Press Club of Quetta wanting to know who took their fathers, husbands and sons.
The daily sit-in protest in the provincial capital of Balochistan began on June 28, 2009, after a doctor, Deen Muhammad, was abducted by “unknown men”.
Relatives suspect Muhammad, like many other missing ethnic Baloch, was snatched by Pakistani security forces hunting separatists, who for decades have waged a campaign for greater autonomy or independence.
Sometimes less than a dozen join the daily protest, other days many more, but Muhammad’s two daughters have been among the regulars since they were eight and 10 years old.
“Our little hands were holding pictures of our father back then; now we have grown up and we still have no clue if he is alive,” Sammi Baloch, now 21, told Reuters news agency by telephone from Quetta.
When the weather is too extreme in Quetta to hold protest, a sit-in is observed by Baloch in front of the press club in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and a melting pot for different ethnic groups.
‘Stop disappearing people’
The separatist movement in Balochistan, a sparsely populated, mountainous, desert region bordering Afghanistan and Iran, has both waned and intensified over the years.
Last month, the Balochistan National Party (BNP) quit Prime Minister Imran Khan’s parliamentary bloc, frustrated by unfulfilled promises to address Baloch grievances including the festering issue of the disappeared.
When he led the BNP into an alliance with Khan’s coalition two years ago, Akhtar Mengal gave the government a list of 5,128 missing people.
Since then, more than 450 of the people on the list have been found or returned to their families, but during the same period, Mengal says another 1,800 were reported to have disappeared.
“If you cannot recover people, at least stop disappearing more people,” said Mengal.
Another Baloch party – set up in the months prior to the 2018 elections with backing from the military establishment, according to political analysts – is in a coalition with Prime Minister Khan’s party at federal and provincial levels.
Balochistan Awami Party Senator Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar told Reuters the numbers of the missing are “exaggerated”.
But Mama Qadeer, who heads a group called Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, keeps his own count.
“In last six months, the number of Baloch missing persons has risen,” he told Reuters by telephone. His son disappeared 10 years ago.
In February last year, Qadeer’s group handed a list of 500 missing people to provincial officials. Since then, nearly 300 have been returned to their homes but 87 others disappeared in the first half of this year, according to the group.
But for all the durability of the Baloch struggle, the conflict has seldom drawn international attention.
It grabbed headlines however in late June when a group of young Baloch fighters launched an attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi.
Last week, three soldiers were killed and eight wounded in Balochistan’s Panjgoor district, an area known for attacks by Baloch rebels.
But beyond giving the grinding casualty toll, the veil of secrecy over the conflict is seldom lifted, and foreign journalists are often discouraged from visiting Balochistan.
Multiple calls, texts and emails to Pakistan’s human rights ministry, the military and Balochistan’s provincial government, seeking their comments for this story went unanswered.
The military issued a statement last year sympathising with families of missing Baloch, while saying that some may have joined rebel groups and “not every person missing is attributable to the state”.
Pakistan has repeatedly blamed India for fanning the rebellion in Balochistan, a charge New Delhi has consistently denied.
China raises stakes
A federal commission set up nine years ago listed 6,506 cases of enforced disappearances nationwide by the end of 2019. Most came from the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Only 472 were registered from Balochistan. Advocacy groups say Balochistan’s number is far higher, pointing to difficulty in having cases accepted by the commission.
“There’s hardly a home in Balochistan that hasn’t had a relative or loved one picked up,” Mohammad Ali Talpur, an aged activist who once fought alongside Baloch rebels in the 1970s, told Reuters.
The conflict has a long, complex history, but since that time, the stakes rose as Balochistan’s wealth of copper, gold, gas and coal deposits caught China’s eye.
The prospects of Pakistan’s most reliable ally pouring in money excited successive governments, while heightening Baloch resentment over how little would come their way.
Separatist fighters have frequently targeted Chinese construction in Gwadar, a port on the Balochistan coast, near the entrance to the strategically-important Gulf of Oman.
In 2018, the Balochistan Liberation Army launched an assault on the Chinese consulate in the southern port city of Karachi, killing four Pakistani police and civilians.
It was the most prominent attack by the group until June 29 this year, when its fighters attacked the stock exchange, again killing four people.
The attack came a day after hundreds of relatives of missing Balochs gathered in Quetta to mark the 4,000th day of their protest since the disappearance of Deen Muhammad.