Pakistan’s secret dirty war

Jun 22, 2011 12:00 AM

by Declan Walsh

The bodies surface quietly, like corks bobbing up in the dark. They come in twos and threes, a few times a week, dumped on desolate mountains or empty city roads, bearing the scars of great cruelty. Arms and legs are snapped; faces are bruised and swollen. Flesh is sliced with knives or punctured with drills; genitals are singed with electric prods. In some cases the bodies are unrecognisable, sprinkled with lime or chewed by wild animals. All have a gunshot wound in the head.
This gruesome parade of corpses has been surfacing in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, since last July. Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accounted for more than 100 bodies -- lawyers, students, taxi drivers, farm workers. Most have been tortured.

If you have not heard of this epic killing spree, though, don’t worry: neither have most Pakistanis. Newspaper reports from Balochistan are buried quietly on the inside pages, cloaked in euphemisms or, quite often, not published at all.
The forces of law and order also seem to be curiously indifferent to the plight of the dead men. Not a single person has been arrested or prosecuted; in fact, police investigators openly admit they are not even looking for anyone. This is Pakistan’s dirty little war. The revolt, which has been rumbling for more than six years, is spiced by foreign interests and intrigues -- US spy bases, Chinese business, vast underground reserves of copper, oil and gold.

The home secretary, Akbar Hussain Durrani, a neatly suited, well-spoken man, sits in a dark and chilly office. Pens, staplers and telephones are neatly laid on the wide desk before him, but his computer is blank. The rebels have blown up a main pylon, he explains, so the power is off. Still, he insists, things are fine.
“The government agencies are operating in concert, everyone is acting in the best public interest,” he says. “This is just a... political problem.” As we speak, a smiling young man walks in and starts to take my photo; I later learn he works for the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.

We cut across the city, twisting through the backstreets, my guide glancing nervously out the rear window. The car halts before a tall gate that snaps shut behind us. Inside, a 55-year-old woman named Lal Bibi is waiting, wrapped in a shawl that betrays only her eyes, trembling as she holds forth a picture of her dead son Najibullah. The 20-year-old, who ran a shop selling motorbike parts, went missing last April after being arrested at an FC check post, she says. His body turned up three months later, dumped in a public park on the edge of Quetta, badly tortured.
“He had just two teeth in his mouth,” she says in a voice crackling with pain. She turns to her father, a turbaned old man sitting beside her, and leans into his shoulder. He grimaces.

Bibi says her family was probably targeted for its nationalist ties -- Najibullah’s older brother, now dead, had joined the “men in the mountains” years earlier, she says. Now a nephew, 28-year-old Maqbool, is missing. She prays for him, regularly calling the hospitals for any sign of him and, occasionally, the city morgues.
Patterns emerge. The victims were generally men between 20 and 40 years old -- nationalist politicians, students, shopkeepers, labourers. In many cases they were abducted in broad daylight -- dragged off buses, marched out of shops, detained at FC check posts -- by a combination of uniformed soldiers and plain-clothes intelligence men. Others just vanished. They re-emerge, dead, with an eerie tempo -- approximately 15 bodies every month, although the average was disturbed when eight bodies were found in three locations across Balochistan.

Activists have little doubt who is behind the atrocities. Human Rights Watch says “indisputable” evidence points to the hand of the FC, the ISI and its sister agency, Military Intelligence. A local group, Voice for Missing Persons, says the body count has surpassed 110.
“This is becoming a state of terror,” says its chairman, Naseerullah Baloch.

The army denies the charges, saying its good name is being blemished by impersonators.
“Militants are using FC uniforms to kidnap people and malign our good name,” says Major General Obaid Ullah Khan Niazi, commander of the 46,000 FC troops stationed in Balochistan. “Our job is to enforce the law, not to break it.”

Balochistan has long been an edgy place. Its vast, empty deserts and long borders are a magnet for provocateurs of every stripe. Taliban fighters slip back and forth along the 800-mile Afghan border; Iranian dissidents hide inside the 570-mile frontier with Iran. Drug criminals cross the border from Helmand, the world’s largest source of heroin, on their way to Iran or lonely beaches on the Arabian Sea.
Wealthy Arab sheikhs fly into remote airstrips on hunting expeditions for the houbara bustard, a bird they believe improves their lovemaking. At Shamsi, a secretive airbase in a remote valley in the centre of the province, CIA operatives launch drones that attack Islamists in the tribal belt.

Baloch anger is rooted in poverty. Despite its vast natural wealth, Balochistan is desperately poor -- barely 25 % of the population is literate (the national average is 47 %), around 30 % are unemployed and just 7 % have access to tap water. And while Balochistan provides one-third of Pakistan’s natural gas, only a handful of towns are hooked up to the supply grid.
The FC commander, Maj Gen Niazi, wearing a sharp, dark suit and with neatly combed hair (he has just come from a conference) says he has little time for the rebel demand. “The Baloch are being manipulated by their leaders,” he says, noting that the scions of the main nationalist groups live in exile abroad -- Hyrbyair Marri in London; Brahamdagh Bugti in Geneva. “They are enjoying the life in Europe while their people suffer in the mountains,” he says with a sigh.

Worse again, he adds, they were supported by India. The general offers no proof for his claim, but US and British intelligence broadly agree, according to the recent WikiLeaks cables. India sees Balochistan as payback for Pakistani meddling in Kashmir -- which explains why Pakistani generals despise the nationalists so much.
“Paid killers,” says Niazi. He vehemently denies involvement in human rights violations. “To us, each and every citizen of Balochistan is equally dear,” he says.

Civilian officials in the province, however, have another story. Last November, the provincial chief minister, Aslam Raisani, told that the security forces were “definitely” guilty of some killings; earlier this month, the province’s top lawyer, Salahuddin Mengal, told the supreme court the FC was “lifting people at will”. He resigned a week later.
However, gross human rights abuses are not limited to the army. As the conflict drags on, the insurgents have become increasingly brutal and ruthless.

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