Roots of the Balochistan conflict run deep

For two years, Faqir Hussain, 26, has been searching for a job. He goes about the task methodically from his tiny flat in the southern Pakistani city of Quetta, cutting out notices that appear each week in the Sunday newspapers and maintaining a meticulous list of the organisations he has already written to.

But so far, this diligence has brought no dividends, and Faqir, a graduate in economics, admits he is increasingly despondent. "It is very difficult to be without work. I get extremely depressed, and sometimes I just spend days sitting at a tiny café in the bazaar, smoking cigarettes and sipping green tea.”

Along with a sense of deep disappointment, Faqir is also intensely angry. He insists that his plight, and that of thousands of others in the vast, southwestern province of Balochistan, has been created by the unjust policies of what he calls the "Punjabi-controlled government" far away in Islamabad.

He cites the security forces, deployed in Quetta, and the reports of new military cantonments cropping up at many places in Balochistan, as evidence that: "The army wishes to take control of Balochistan and suppress the rights of the Baloch people." He also maintains Balochistan's immense energy resources, mainly in the form of natural gas located at Sui, are being "stolen" from it.

Leading activists, Afrasiab Khattak, also an astute political analyst who has recently visited various parts of Balochistan, agrees. "Militarisation is creating many difficulties for local people and resentment is intense," he told IRIN.

The Baloch animosity towards the central government of Pakistan and the country's most populous province, Punjab, which is seen as controlling the military and the administration, has a long history. Divided in the nineteenth century among Iran, Afghanistan, and British India, the Baloch found their aspirations and traditional nomadic life frustrated by the presence of national boundaries and the extension of central administration over their lands.

Many Baloch believe their province was forcibly incorporated into the new state of Pakistan, as the Indian subcontinent was split at the end of British rule in 1947.

The Khan of Kalat, ruler of the Baloch coastal state of Kalat, rose up in revolt at the time, triggering off the first of a series of insurgencies in the province. New uprisings, essentially seeking greater autonomy, led to confrontations between Baloch nationalists and the Pakistan military in 1958 and 1962.

A long-dormant crisis erupted in Balochistan in 1973 into an insurgency that lasted four years and became increasingly bitter. The insurgency was put down by the Pakistani army, which employed brutal methods and equipment, including Huey-Cobra helicopter gunships, provided by Iran.

The current clampdown in Balochistan was triggered by an attempt on President Pervez Musharraf's life in December 2005.

According to a January 2006 statement by Pakistani Senator Sanaullah Baloch, at least 180 people have died in bombings, 122 children have been killed by paramilitary troops and hundreds of people have been arrested since the beginning of the campaign in early 2005. On 8 December 2005, the federal interior minister stated that some 4,000 people had been arrested in Balochistan since the beginning of 2005.

Rights groups are concerned. Amnesty International (AI), in a statement released on 10 January, demanded that “human rights abuses [in Balochistan] be stopped forthwith and that all allegations of violations of human rights, including civil, political and economic rights, be independently and impartially investigated with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice”.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) recently conducted a fact-finding mission to Balochistan. HRCP chairperson Asma Jehangir said that the commission had received evidence that action by armed forces had led to deaths and injuries among civilians. “The population had also been subjected to indiscriminate bombing”, she said.

Contributing to the sense of anger that runs deep beneath the sandy soil of the barren province, comprising almost entirely of desert, scrub and rock, are high levels of poverty and deprivation.

According to the Karachi-based Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC), poverty levels in Balochistan are the highest in the country and nearly double those of the Punjab – the country's most prosperous province.

Every second person in Balochistan lives below the poverty line. Only 50 percent of the province's population of 7 million people have access to clean drinking water, only half the children attend primary schools and only a third of children between 12 and 23 months are immunised, the SPDC maintains.

Figures from the government's Labour Force Survey 2003-2004 show that while urban unemployment is 9.7 percent in Pakistan, it stands at 12.5 percent in Balochistan. Even during periods of economic growth, when employment levels rose elsewhere in the country, joblessness expanded in Balochistan.

So many in Balochistan blame Islamabad for their plight and point out that the benefits derived from the province's natural wealth have not been returned to it.

But others hold that the traditional way of life in the isolated region, where tribal chieftains rule by decree and are sometimes an obstacle to development, also needs to change. Many say these traditional rulers are responsible for retaining a tight grip on wealth in the province and adhering to traditional codes under which education, empowerment and political dialogue are all hampered.

Afrasiab Khattak told IRIN: "It is important that development in Balochistan addresses the needs of the people. Schools, vocational training institutions and other such projects are needed to meet needs, and not just giant infrastructure works, such as road networks or highways."

Ethnic tensions in Balochistan are being tweaked, say some observers. Large non-Baloch ethnic groups, including the Pashtuns, are settled in many parts of the vast province.

Prominent journalist and author Ahmed Rashid has warned that authorities may attempt to "play the ethnic card", as part of their strategy, to weaken the hold of tribal chiefs fiercely opposed to the state.

As has happened in the past, it is the ordinary people of the province who suffer most from the conflict. The tensions, the road blocks, the rockets fired by militants and the threat from landmines, inevitably have an adverse affect on economic activity.

The situation also makes it even harder for people like Faqir to find work. "No big companies come to Quetta. Even NGOs have been frightened away," he said, despondently.