Mahrang Baloch and the Struggle Against Enforced Disappearances
How the disappearances of Mahrang Baloch’s father and brother at the hands of Pakistan’s security forces galvanized her activism.
By Shah Meer Baloch
Photography by Mashal Baloch
February 18th 2021
He slept with his eldest daughter in his arms on the night of December 11, 2009. They had spent the entire evening talking about a host of issues in Balochistan—from education to enforced disappearances. Take care of your mother and sisters, he told her. It was as if Ghaffar Baloch knew that it was his last night with his family. That year, Baloch had moved from Quetta to Karachi, a city in the province of Sindh, with his family, because his wife needed to be admitted as a patient at the Institute of Surgery and Medicine.
“It has been a decade, but I still remember the color of the clothes he was wearing that night. We barely slept because we had so many things to talk about. I had a feeling that something amiss was about to happen. He passed by me with a sad smile as I stood at the door and watched him leave.” said Mahrang Baloch, the then 16-year-old daughter of Ghaffar Baloch.
The following morning, Baloch was abducted on the way to the hospital by men in plainclothes. His abduction coincided with the growing momentum of the Baloch insurgency and as in the past, it accompanied a round of enforced disappearances, which have by now become the norm in Balochistan, the most troubled province of Pakistan. Baloch had joined the long list of missing persons from Balochistan.
After Ghaffar Baloch’s abduction in 2009, his daughter Mahrang took to the streets holding banners and shouting slogans, a protest she continued for two years. Donning a traditional Balochi black chadar with strips of red and yellow, instead of a veil or scarf worn by women in Pakistan, Mahrang fully embraced her role as a student leader of the resistance movement. Many noticed her on social media, when she narrated the story of her father’s torturous disappearance in a video appeal that was carried by the online journal Tanqeed.
“Those five years of my life were the hardest. I was the oldest amongst my sisters, so I had to be strong for everyone. I would pray that my father would come back. There was a hope that he would be back. I kept on holding onto the hope that life would be normal again,” Mahrang said. “But that never happened.”
Balochistan, plagued by tribalism and patriarchy, has remained male-dominated in the political arena, with the exception of a few women politicians such as Fazila Alynani, a parliamentarian from Balochistan in the 1970s, and Zubaida Jalal, currently the federal minister for defense production. With the enforced disappearances, Baloch men are vanishing from the political scene in Balochistan, creating a vacuum of sorts. To fill this gap, Baloch women have taken the responsibility of leading the movement against enforced disappearances, political and economic injustices, military operations, and the ongoing exploitation of Balochistan. This has transformed politics in the beleaguered province.
Having seen their loved ones murdered and picked up over the years, the voice of the new generation of Baloch women and girls has sparked a non-violent revolution in the face of much adversity. But at the same time, there remain feelings of alienation and distrust with the state.
Much credit for the political mobilization of the Baloch women can be given, rightly, to Karima Baloch, the first chairperson of the Baloch Students Organisation-Azad (BSO-Azad).
On December 22, 2020, Karima Baloch was found dead near Lake Ontario in Toronto, Canada, after being missing for a day. She is the second Baloch dissident to be found dead under suspicious circumstances in the countries they had sought exile in. Earlier in the year, the chief editor of the Balochistan Times, Sajid Hussain, was found dead in a river in Sweden, weeks after he had gone missing on March 2, 2020.
Subsequently, Pakistani activists around the world demanded investigations into the suspicious circumstances surrounding both deaths. Many shared a 2017 video of former dictator Pervez Musharraf claiming in an interview that the Pakistani state would hound and capture dissidents wherever they might be. Such is the historic present of the Baloch who have dared raise their voices against the injustices of the Pakistani state since the time of Partition.
Ghaffar Baloch’s abduction in 2009 was the third time he had been picked up by security agencies. This era, 2009- 2013, in the troubled province of Balochistan was marked by a state policy of ‘kill and dump’. Alleged insurgents, nationalists, political workers, students, and activists—many of whom had been accused of “terrorism” by state agencies—were found dead after being abducted.
The culprits? Most point the finger at the state. But naming them explicitly and publicly comes with a huge risk. Instead, people use euphemisms and nicknames that vaguely address the role Pakistan’s shadowy military agencies play in these disappearances. Many, with some dark humor, refer to the abductors as farishtey, or angels.
Giving Balochistan’s issues a forum has had serious consequences. In late 2013 and early 2014, along with a small group of family members—mostly women—of missing persons, renowned Baloch activist 70-year-old Mama Qadeer, marched some 2,000 kilometers on foot from Quetta to Islamabad via Karachi to demand the release of missing persons. The record-breaking long march did not get the coverage it needed. With swollen feet they reached Islamabad, but they were not heard nor their demand of meeting with the government was fulfilled. Hamid Mir, one of the few journalists who gave the issue coverage by inviting Mama and the marchers on his talk-show, later survived an attack by four gunmen in Karachi. Mir still carries two bullets from the attack in his body. In 2015, progressive human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud had invited Qadeer to speak at a panel discussion at her cafe and bookstore in Karachi. Shortly after the event, as she was driving home, armed motorcyclists surrounded her car and opened fire, killing her.
In 2012, the former chief justice of Pakistan outrightly accused paramilitary forces of spearheading enforced disappearances in Balochistan. Deputy Inspector-General Operations Balochistan Police, Hamid Shakeel presented CCTV footage of a private hotel, in which the Frontier Corps (FC), a paramilitary force stationed in Balochistan that is responsible for maintenance of law and order, can be seen picking up three people who went missing later. FC denied involvement in this case. In 2017, Shakeel was killed in a suicide bombing.
Balochistan province, bordering Iran and Afghanistan, is not new to uprisings. The growing number of enforced disappearances can be traced to the Baloch insurgent movement that spread from the rugged mountains of the province to the coastal towns in Arabian Sea and permeated every aspect of Baloch social and political life since the earliest days of Pakistan’s existence. Soon after the inception of Pakistan in 1948, Prince Abdul Karim Khan, the brother of then ruler Khan of Kalat, took up arms against the merger of Balochistan with Pakistan. This was the start of the first round of insurgency. The movement petered out soon after but was followed by three more short-lived insurgent movements in 1958, 1962, and 1973.
The insurgency is also driven by the ongoing exploitation of Balochistan’s rich natural resources. In the early 1950s, one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves was discovered in Sui, and by the mid-1950s, pipelines were laid down to supply major cities in other provinces. Since then, the central government has been accused by insurgents and local activists of taking Balochistan’s coal, gas, minerals, uranium, and utilizing them for richer provinces, particularly Punjab.
The first signs of the most recent iteration of the Baloch insurgency were seen in the early 2000s, as the federal government developed a port city in the region. In May 2004, three Chinese engineers were killed in an attack in Gwadar, Balochistan’s coastal town at the mouth of Arabian Sea. Local nationalists had expressed opposition to the development of the region, saying that the benefits would bypass Balochistan and go to Punjab instead.
Much of their ire was directed at the policies of the then military dictator Musharaff, who had strategically aligned Pakistan with the United States in the War on Terror, seeking to rid the Afghanistan-Pakistan region of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The United States was carrying out drone strikes in parts of Pakistan, and Pakistan’s security agencies began military operations across the country which led to numerous human rights abuses, including the arbitrary detention and arrests of suspected militants.
Ghaffar Baloch was first abducted by security agencies in 2006. Four months later, on August 26, 2006, Nawab Shahbaz Akbar Khan Bugti, the former Governor and Chief Minister of Balochistan and chief of the Bugti Tribe, was killed in a military operation by Musharraf, who had once said about Bugti:
“Don't push us. It is not the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won't even know what hit you.”
These remarks were widely condemned by Baloch activists. Bugti was buried near Sui in a locked box and no one saw his body.
News of his killing spread like a wildfire across the province. The towns and villages that were not part of the previous uprisings in 1948, 1958, 1962, and 1973 now actively took part in the insurgency. Residents from Pasni, the coastal region of Gwadar, and the provincial capital Quetta, blocked roads, burnt tires, and threw stones at government vehicles. Police stations, government offices, and shops were torched and damaged.
Separately, students and political workers have continuously expressed their anger towards the seven decades long unjust and brutal policies of the state. A common saying in the street and classrooms: “Natural gas was discovered in Balochistan in the 1950s, Punjab consumed it in the 1960s, but to this date the people of Sui are devoid of gas. Only the provincial capital had gas.”
Mahrang has been speaking out against this unequal distribution of resources. She said to me: “The people in the corridors of power never paid heed to the grievances of the Baloch and their national question. They always preferred the mineral resources of our land over our people.”
The residents of Balochistan, particularly youth and political workers, lamented the Pakistani state’s approach towards their province and the Baloch. Many took up arms against the state and called for the independence of Balochistan from Pakistan. But not all nationalists backed the call for independence and preferred to demand provincial autonomy. The common denominator was that they were all against state oppression and the brutal rule of Musharraf.
In 2008, the Baloch insurgency witnessed an upsurge, and several security personnel were targeted. Settlers in Balochistan, commonly referred to and perceived as Punjabis, were asked to leave the province, as the country’s most powerful institution, the army, was largely dominated by Punjabis. They were perceived to be colluders and enemies during the military operations to quash the insurgency in Balochistan. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in 2006, the entire province was in a war-like state. Sui was bombed.
The Baloch insurgents not only targeted the state but also waged war against political workers, who campaigned for taking part in parliamentary politics to demand the rights of the Baloch nation, and common Baloch whom they suspected of working for the security agencies. In district Nazim Kech, Moula Baksh Dashti, who advocated using parliamentary politics to resolve the human rights crisis in the province, lost his life reportedly at the hands of Baloch insurgents. The insurgents were accused of picking up and killing people and became increasingly involved in abductions for ransom.
As the insurgency gained momentum, the state responded with a counter-insurgency operation. Many people, regardless of their involvement in the insurgency, were forcibly disappeared. Anyone suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents, relatives or mere acquaintances who may have studied or met someone who later became an insurgent all shared the same fate: enforced disappearance. Some were abducted to pressurize insurgents and send a message that waging a war on the state meant that their loved ones were not safe.
While no proper research has thus far been conducted on the proportion of violence carried out by the state in comparison with the insurgents, the state has always been believed to be more brutal against political workers and average Baloch citizens.
Counter-insurgency tactics are not new to the people of this province. They have witnessed them before: in the 1970s during the democratically elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Under Bhutto, the army carried out numerous disappearances. The first missing person was Asadullah Mengal, the son of former chief minister of Balochistan, Sardar Attaullah Mengal, and brother of BNP chief, Akhtar Mengal, who was allegedly killed in an encounter in Karachi. Bhutto noted in his book Rumours and Realities that he did not know about Mengal’s murder and later he was told that he was buried near Thatta, Sindh. Even the armed forces had apparently forgotten where exactly they buried him.
Decades later, during another PPP government, between 2008 and 2013, Balochistan was once again engulfed by war. Then president Asif Ali Zardari (son-in-law of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and widow of Benazir Bhutto) remained silent on the military operations and enforced disappearances and announced a development package for the province to ease tensions. But these efforts were too little, too late.
The present-day insurgency has evolved from its early days, with more involvement from young middle-class, educated Baloch who don't hail from the tribal belt.
Two months after the killing of Nawab Bugti in 2006, Ghaffar Baloch was presented in front of the court. The case continued for three years until he was released in 2009 due to lack of evidence against him.
“The happiest day of my life was when my father was released. I remember all the time I spent with him vividly.” Mahrang says. “After his release he bought bangles for me which I wore on Eid. I was so happy that he was around. But the happiness was short-lived.”
On July 1, 2011, the body of Ghaffar Baloch—carrying visible signs of torture—was found on a roadside in Lasbela district, some 300 kilometers away from Karachi.
After her father’s killing in 2011, Mahrang Baloch slowed down her campaigning for the release of missing persons. When her brother, Nasir Baloch was picked up in December 2017, Mahrang says she realized that no one was safe. It was the turning point in her life.
“I was again on the roads but this time it was for my brother,” Mahrang says with a grim smile, “The deputy commissioner of Quetta told me that I had two options. Either I should sit at home silently, or spend time on roads and eventually move to Europe for my safety. I decided I will remain on the roads and protest, but I won’t flee.”
“I don’t remember when I stopped becoming an ordinary Baloch woman and became a Baloch woman activist instead,” she chuckles, as she looks back and thinks about all the turns that life took, “I felt it is important to use social media if I wanted to talk about the issues concerning Balochistan. I started using Facebook and Twitter after my brother’s abduction. The first tweet I put out was about my brother’s enforced disappearance.”
Mahrang’s brother was released three months and 10 days after his abduction. His release marked not the end of her activism but the beginning. She started raising her voice for other missing persons. The local Pakistani media would not give them coverage, “so social media was the only platform left for us to bring our issues forth and pressurize the government,” she said. “Initially I did not know what to write and what not to write, I worked on choosing my words carefully.” Along with organizing on the ground, she mobilized protests through social media and became a vocal voice for the Baloch missing persons on various online networks.
On August 13, 2020, Hayat Baloch, a student of Karachi University, hailing from Turbat, was killed by the FC in front of his parents. This incident sparked widespread protests across Balochistan. When a picture of Hayat’s parents weeping next to his dead body began circulating online, many Baloch social media users were divided on how to interpret the incident. Some argued that it was wrong to circulate the image out of respect for the family’s privacy. Mahrang in a tweet, cited the picture that sparked the Soweto uprising in South Africa. It shows a dying student being carried in the arms of a fellow student and accompanied by his screaming sister. She said that after seeing the image, Nelson Mandela had said “Enough is enough.”
When her father had gone missing, Mahrang’s uncle had advised her to speak to the media in order to plead for his return. She would desperately watch news channels to see if there was any news about her father. “At the time, Pakistani news channels gave very little coverage to the issue of missing persons,” she says, “but now, even that little coverage has vanished into thin air.”
The issue of missing persons has become an eternal part of Balochistan’s politics. In the general elections of 2018, Balochistan National Party’s (BNP) chief Sardar Akthar Mengal participated in the election promising to amplify the cause of missing persons. He joined the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)-led government at the center, under Prime Minister Imran Khan, after being promised that PTI would address Balochistan’s issue of missing persons, among others. That never happened. Mengal submitted a list of 5,128 missing persons in the National Assembly. The government was unable to fulfill their promises. Mengal finally broke his alliance with the PTI in April 2020, saying that even if the government had released 500 missing persons in the last two years, more than 1,500 others had been picked up.
In 2019, Mahrang led protesting students of the University of Balochistan who had broken their silence on years of blackmail and threats by the university administration. Newspapers reported that for several years, officials in the university administration had been using footage from CCTV cameras installed around the university campus citing ‘security’ reasons while extorting money and sexually harassing female students. As a result of protests across the province, the university’s vice chancellor stepped down.
“I realized as a woman that if they would not let us get an education then what really is left?” Mahrang asks.
Further, she often found that she received little allyship in her activism from around Pakistan. “The response from feminists and women’s rights activists from other parts of Pakistan during our protests was not satisfying. Since the boots [i.e. security agencies] were involved in the scandal, perhaps that is why they did not speak up. It is rare for such mainstream groups to talk about missing persons and human rights abuses. Perhaps they do not care about what happens in Balochistan, just like most Pakistanis.”
Many Pakistanis say they do not understand what’s happening in Balochistan. Just a few years ago, news rarely travelled out of Balochistan. The province is rightly called a “blackhole for media”. But today, many, if not all incidents and news reach the people through social media. Mahrang adds “I believe they are intentionally silent, and that a fake sense of patriotism has clouded their minds, so they ignore everything, even human rights abuses.”
Renowned Pakistani novelist, Muhammad Hanif, puts it in a candid way: “Balochistan is not remote just geographically but in our imagination as well.”
Baloch women are often leading the movements advocating the release of their loved ones. Tribalism in Balochistan is one of the reasons women have often been confined in their activism and daily life. State institutions have supported and strengthened tribalism. The government has always preferred supporting tribal leaders because it is easy to control them in parliament. Since an entire tribe remains under the control of the leader, and the leader remains under the control of the establishment, the government is able to exert control at all levels of Baloch politics.
"The Sardars [tribal leaders] and the establishment have a strong nexus. The establishment brings Sardars to the parliament and so the ongoing Sardari system remains one of the biggest impediments to the development of a middle class in Balochistan. Instead, political efforts should focus on ceding power to the local people," says Mir SherBaz Khetran, a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.
Yet in dominant Pakistani political discourse, particularly among so-called intellectuals in cities outside the province, the Baloch are perceived as an illiterate nation. Mahrang believes that such perceptions have caused Baloch women even more suffering. “Baloch women have always been a part of the movement for rights against state oppression. This challenges the dominant narrative, but most activists have rarely supported that.”
When Mahrang’s father was briefly released in 2009, he told her that she should participate in student politics and talk about what was happening in Balochistan and that she had to continue her activism for the women and other people of Balochistan. “He said I won't give you any advice; I want you to analyze things yourself and make your own narrative.”
Alongside her activism, Mahrang Baloch is a medical student. Over years of protests and activism, she has made sure that her studies are not adversely affected. “Everything related to studies would always excite me. School has always been my favorite place. I never took education as a necessity or something I had to do, but rather as something I loved doing.”
The government of Balochistan has also been divided over the current quota system in educational institutions, arguing instead that merit should prevail. Mahrang, however, is firmly in favor of quotas. She led protests to restore the quota system, and ultimately succeeded in doing so at Bolan Medical College (BMC).
“There should be merit, but after providing equal educational opportunities to all students,” Mahrang says. “You can’t expect a student from a government school to compete with a student from an elite private school.”
Last year, during her protests for the restoration of the quota system and amendment of the BMC Act, Mahrang and other students were asked to meet with Education Minister Sardar Yar Mohammed Rind, who was also one of Balochistan’s most influential tribal chiefs. Instead of seeking consensus, Mahrang says, the minister shouted at her in front of five other ministers.
“He said if you women were truly [representing] our honor, you wouldn’t be out here protesting,” she recalls smiling.
Mahrang says at the time, she had two options: either to ignore what he had said or respond to the misogynistic act. She chose the second option because what the minister had said was not just about her but pertained to all women. She told him that what he had said was wrong. As an employee of the government, he was responsible for solving their issues. He had failed to do his job.
A clearly flustered Rind (the Education Minister) began to misbehave and told her to leave because, as Rind said, “respectable women don’t protest.”
“I went to the protest area and I was disturbed. I wondered whether to talk about this in front of the media. I decided I must so that no one else, be it an elected or a selected person, does something like this ever again. I did not expect the positive response I got from the people of Balochistan for speaking up against the tribal chief and minister,” she says. Mahrang made history as the first woman to confront one of Balochistan’s most influential chiefs and hold him accountable for his job.
As a result of consistent efforts, protests and hunger strikes by Mahrang and her fellow students, the government finally announced amendments to Bolan Medical College Act. They also assured students that the quota system would remain intact.
As an activist, Mahrang feels tired and frustrated at times but the work she does brings her joy. “The real happiness lies in activism and talking about the rights of your nation and its marginalized communities,” she says. She calls herself a nationalist. “I fight for the rights of the people of Balochistan; the land I belong to.”
She quoted a line from Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth:“For a colonized people, the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”
Mahrang Baloch was first jailed in 2006 when she was a 13-year-old, protesting for the release of her father. When her uncle arrived to bail her out, she refused and said she would not leave jail until her father was released. Spending days protesting in August, having to sleep on roads and getting dragged and thrown into a police van—none of these hindrances deterred her from her activism.
“I believe jail is not something new. It has more freedom, as I can read and spend time with myself in the prison,” she chuckles. “They cannot break me by imprisoning me. They would liberate me.”