Disappearances are not uncommon in Balochistan, where Baloch nationalists are fighting an armed resistance against the Pakistani state. Yet, the tale of “missing people” in Pakistan’s largest province remains one of the most under-reported stories in the world.
Farzana Majeed's brother, Zakir Majeed, is one of the missing. She has dedicated the last few years of her life to keeping her brother's cause alive, staging protests and spreading the word about his plight and the plight of others.
The bodies of hundreds of missing people have appeared across the province bearing torture marks in the last few years, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and families like Farzana's blame state operatives.
Pakistan's security services deny allegations of their involvement, saying they are battling a fierce rebellion in the province. Since 2012, Pakistan's Supreme Court has also been investigating cases of missing people in Balochistan, issuing warnings to the government, but little headway has been made.
Farzana Majeed is also the general secretary of the rights group International Voices for the Baloch Missing Persons. Earlier this year, to raise awareness about the missing people, she and her comrades marched 2,000 kilometers from the provincial capital Quetta to Pakistan's federal capital Islamabad. Called the Baloch Long March, it took four months to complete. In comparison, Gandhi travelled only 240 miles for his famous Dandi Salt March.
In the following interview, Farzan discusses the current situation in Balochistan, the genesis of the march, and the role played by Baloch women in the struggle for independence. The interview also appears on my blog Collateral Damage.
How do you feel after completing the march?
Farzana Majeed (FM): When we started the march, we thought that the awareness we would raise might force the intelligence agencies and the state to release our loved ones. But along the way, we received the news that the Supreme Court and the High Court had dismissed some of the cases pertaining to the missing persons. Even more traumatic was the discovery of mass graves in Balochistan as we were marching. Nonetheless, it was still a major achievement that we managed to raise some awareness in Pakistan and abroad about the barbarism of the Pakistani state in Balochistan.
Can you tell us about the circumstances of your brother Zakir Majeed's disappearance?
FM: Zakir Majeed was the former chairman of the Baloch Student Organization-Azad [the largest ethnic Baloch student body in the country, banned by Pakistan in 2013 for being involved in “terrorism.”]. He had the courage to raise his voice against state brutalities, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations committed by Pakistan in Balochistan. He was also one of the members of the committee that pressed for the release of John Solecki, a UNHCR official in Balochistan [who was abducted in 2009 by a previously unknown Baloch Liberation United Front and released after two months]. Zakir also spoke out against the illegal arrests and killings of the Baloch leader Ghulam Mohammad Baloch and his comrades. He denounced the murder by the Pakistani Army of Baloch leader Akbar Khan Bugti.
Zakir was educating the Baloch youth about the Pakistani occupation of their homeland. He was particularly resentful against the testing of the Pakistani nuclear bomb in the Chaghi mountains of Balochistan. Due to his continuous demonstrations, seminars and speeches in schools and colleges all through Balochistan, the Pakistani state arrested him in June of 2008. His goal of uniting the Baloch youth on a single platform was perceived as a great threat. Zakir was the symbol of the national struggle, which is why the state is unwilling to release him from custody.
He is just one of thousands of political activists who have been illegally arrested by the Pakistani state for protesting against the occupation.
Can you tell us about the process of developing your own political consciousness and your decision to come out publicly for your brother and other missing people?
FM: I belong to a politicized family. I grew up watching my mother and many other female activists in my father’s party. Before we began the movement to raise the issue of Baloch missing persons, I was a member of the BSO-Azad. During my studies, I started my political activities on BSO-Azad’s platform. I took part in demonstrations, press conferences, seminars and other activities so that I could educate myself.
It was also my brother’s expectation that I would raise my voice for our national rights. So it was equally because of my commitment to him and our combined struggle that made me launch the movement for the recovery of my kidnapped brother and the rest of the 20,000 missing Baloch persons.
How are the wives, sisters and mothers of missing people dealing with it?
FM: Everybody is in trauma in Balochistan. The families of the missing persons are living in fear and psychological stress. Any given day could be the day they discover the mutilated bodies of their loved ones dumped alongside the highways or in mass graves. But the Baloch women are strong and they have shown great bravery in coming out protesting about the kidnappings and the state’s ‘Kill and Dump’ policy.
What were the stages of the involvement of women in the cause of missing people?
FM: Women, all across the Baloch society, are involved in different activities. Thousands of them are in universities and colleges, either as students or teachers. Many are political activists. As the Pakistani barbarism increased, the involvement of women in the political struggle also increased. Today, every Baloch woman is standing up to the Pakistani state.
Baloch women are now actively participating in the national struggle. How do you see this unprecedented dimension to the Balochistan people's fight?
FM: This is a natural outcome of the love that women have for their children. Baloch women are patriotic in the sense that no woman gives birth to a child and then sit idle as the state tortures and kills that child. Baloch women will never relent from their struggle.
What is the response in the Baloch society? Do you think many other women will follow your example?
FM: In the beginning, I encountered problems because I was a young woman. But soon I won the solidarity of the Baloch society. Throughout the long march from Quetta to Islamabad, I witnessed the great response of the Baloch people. They welcomed and showered us with roses everywhere we went and made a stop.
Other women are following me. It is my confidence that they will continue to resist.
Did you receive expressions of solidarity from the women in Karachi, Islamabad and in other places where you set up your camps?
FM: Karachi has an important Baloch population so we received a great response from the massive number of Baloch people that came out to support us. Many intellectuals and journalists also expressed their solidarity. There were some unforgettable moments in Karachi, especially with Sindhi nationalists. It was great to be reminded that Sindhi nationalists are with us. In Lahore and Islamabad, the National Awami Party and the National Student Federation supported us. Even in the Pastun areas of Balochistan there are groups who sympathize with us. We hope that they will all stay with us in the future.
The English press of Pakistan did talk about your march, but there is little echo in international forums. In your view, how can this issue be brought to the attention of the world?
FM: We have approached many international forums. We did receive a sympathetic welcome from the UN officials in Islamabad at the end of our march. But the UN and the international community need to take more responsibility and make available to us the avenues through which the plight of Balochistan could be highlighted. It is my appeal to the UN to be more attentive. We need international attention.