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Mystery of Balochistan disappearances

New Kayhan village in Balochistan
New Kayhan village is believed to be a base for Baloch insurgents

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Quetta

Time hangs lazily over New Kayhan, a small village of about 4,000 people on the western outskirts of Quetta city, in south-western Pakistan.

Signs of life are few and far between here.

A tractor towing a water tank on wheels crawls slowly across the arid, sandy valley, bringing water to houses scattered on the southern periphery of the village.

At the northern end, a boy sits in his wheel-barrow with a flat tyre, waiting for the mechanic to fix it.

A couple of men emerge from a cluster of houses in the centre of the village and walk aimlessly towards a fortress-like compound on which is hoisted the flag of free Balochistan.

Rebel base

Quetta is the capital of Balochistan province, which has been the scene of an armed secessionist movement since 2000.

New Kayhan is believed to be a major base for the rebels.

Officials say several ambushes on government forces took place here, and there are frequent rocket attacks on Quetta city from this direction.

The village has borne the brunt of the government's retaliatory action in the shape of raids, arrests and "forced disappearances" - alleged undeclared arrests by the intelligence services that cannot be traced by courts and are not acknowledged by the government.

My attempts to chat to the few people I come across in the village are frustrated. No one wants to talk to the media.

The militant leaders who promised to meet me here have also changed their mind at the last moment, saying, for want of a better excuse, that they don't trust the BBC with impartiality.

Major General Salim Nawaz
I think there are no missing persons at all
Maj Gen Salim Nawaz

A senior journalist in Quetta, Shahzada Zulfiqar, explains that they may be afraid their whereabouts might be revealed and their safety compromised, which could lead to horrendous consequences for the individuals concerned.

He may be right.

Ethnic Baloch residents across the entire province have "disappeared" for doing much less.

"My brother, Chakar Khan Marri, was picked up by the Frontier Corps [FC] troops in September 2009 because he and eight other students tried to meet the principal of their college in connection with some student grievances," says Changez Marri, a government servant.

"We still don't know where he is. A writ in the court has also not helped because the FC and the intelligence agencies say he is not in their custody."

A retired veterinary surgeon, Dr Abdul Wahab Bungulzai, has been looking for his 20-year-old son, Abdul Hai, since August 2009.

"The FC picked up Abdul Hai outside his college in the presence of his colleagues. When I tried to meet the colonel concerned, he refused to see me. We went to the court, but nothing happened," he says.

'Secret cell'

A notorious case of a "forced disappearance" - as they have come to be known - is that of Asghar Bungalzai, a local tailor from the Saryab area of Quetta.

He was allegedly picked up by investigators from Pakistani intelligence in October 2001.

He is still missing.

Between 2003 and 2005 the family was in touch with Brig Siddique of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who acknowledged Mr Bungalzai was in ISI custody and that he would be released soon.

That has not yet happened.

Mr Bungalzai's son, Ghulam Farooq, was just 11 when he went missing. He is now 20.

Dr Abdul Wahab Bungalzai, whose son, Abdul Hai, is missing since August 2009
Dr Abdul Wahab Bungalzai, whose son, Abdul Hai, has been missing since 2001

"We know my father is alive. Sometimes we get his news. But we don't know where they have kept him, or whether they will ever release him," Ghulam Farooq says.

Tidings about the missing are often brought to relatives by cell-mates lucky enough to have been released by their captors.

One such person is Shahzeb Baloch.

"I was in a (secret) detention cell for three months, and there I met several 'missing' political activists, some of whom are still in captivity," he says.

He says he was severely beaten when he was arrested, then handcuffed, blindfolded and driven to a location about 30 minutes away. Later he was taken to another location after a 12-hour drive.

'Painful'

He says he was interrogated six times during his captivity. On all occasions, he was stripped naked and lashed on the buttocks.

When he was not being interrogated, he was kept in chains, with a hood on his head.

"During those months, I started praying for death because life had become too painful, too undignified," he says.

Most people blame the Frontier Corps for picking up suspects and holding them in their safe houses across the province.

But the Frontier Corps denies this.

"We don't have the capability (to hold people)," says Maj-Gen Salim Nawaz, the head of the Frontier Corps in Balochistan.

"When we arrest someone, we hand him over to the police."

Map

Then why are so many people missing, some of them for years?

"I think there are no missing persons at all. Hundreds have gone to rebel camps (in southern Afghanistan), some have run away to Karachi or Multan, and others may have become victims of family feuds."

But the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.

The Balochistan home department recently issued a list of 992 people who are believed to be missing - their relatives claim they were picked up by security forces.

Meanwhile, the national government has launched a reconciliation process aimed at finding the missing people and bringing various factional leaders together for political dialogue.

This has caused tensions between the government and the local military command in Quetta who believe the insurgents are funded by India and Afghanistan and deserve no mercy.

Under suspicion is any Baloch man or woman who even remotely sympathises with the Baloch nationalist cause - secessionist or otherwise.

And while Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has already announced there will be no arbitrary arrests, the "disappearances" appear to continue unabated.



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