Balochistan is one of the most underdeveloped provinces in Pakistan, marred by deep-set poverty and lack of infrastructure to offer its inhabitants basic needs for a normal life. Geographically, it’s an arid desert and mountainous region and has been named after native Baloch tribes who inhabit the region with a traditionally heavily male-dominated patriarchal society. The Balochistan region is administratively divided among three countries including Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Since its annexure in Pakistan the Baloch national separatist, insurgencies have been fought in 1948, 1958–59, 1962–63 and 1973-77 — with a new ongoing and reportedly stronger, broader insurgency beginning in 2003. Historically, “drivers” of the conflict are reported to include “tribal divisions”, the Baloch-Pashtun ethnic divisions, “marginalization by Punjabi interests”, and “economic oppression”.
In such an insecure scenario, for the first time ever I showcase the interview of a Baloch rebel fighter, 32-year old Nadia Zehri* (not her real name), a Masters graduate in Sociology.
Saadia Haq: Asalam O Alaikum (Peace be upon you) how are you doing Nadia? Thanks for talking with me.
Nadia Zehri*: Wa-Alaikum-Salaam, I am very well, thanks.
Saadia Haq: Can you tell me how you got involved in the Baloch cause?
Nadia Zehri: Being a woman in Balochistan has never been easy as you know, we have a very tribal and staunch male dominated culture, plus we have been marred with internal conflict since way before I was born. Things took a very disturbing turn when General Musharaf’s operation against Bugtis ended into the death of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, one of our tribal lords. Since then conflict escalated and I realized it was time to become active.
Saadia Haq: Musharaf’s operation that killed Akbar Nawab Bugti was a response to his direct involvement government with a series of deadly bomb blasts and a rocket attack on President Pervez Musharraf? What do you have to say about it?
Nadia Zehri*: Well, Balochistan is home to gross human rights abuses done by army and it is not limited, the Baloch insurgents have been involved in many activities in response to this.
The Baloch have made serious accusations against the Pakistani government and Armed forces military operations and human rights violations. Mass graves, the arming of Baloch rebel militants – the dirty proxy wars thanks to Indian role and abductions of locals are most common occurrings’ seen in the recent few years. Might I remind you that this year, Pakistani human rights activist Sabeen Mehmud was shot dead minutes after the end of an interactive event ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ organized by her and attended by journalists and rights activists, including the founder leader of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, Abdul Qadeer Baloch. I wrote about it, here. Many voices have been silenced before and after Sabeen Mehmud for just supporting the end of religious military conflict against the Baloch people.
Saadia Haq: So in your opinion who and why foreign elements outside supporting Baloch cause?
Nadia Zehri*: Well, there are contradictions to why they are helping us, obviously they are not friends of Pakistan and nor of us. They probably want their share of the “economic resources loot.” In case of India’s support to Baloch insurgents is kind of tricky, there have been claims and negations but several Wikileaks provide evidence. I think India sees Balochistan as payback for Pakistan India disputed Kashmir issue.
Saadia Haq: So tell me more about your own role in the Baloch movement?
Nadia Zehri*: I and my group focuses on the problems of Balochi women and children that are stuck inside this bloody conflict – as fighting continues from both sides. The western jihadi supportive elements also using our internal war for their vested interests. In today’s time, Balochi women are suffering from severe discrimination, there are mass abductions of local women and men, missing persons and killings have gone up. Nine years ago a male cousin went missing for two years and was later his dead body was found in an unknown place. That was the starting point when I realized that I needed to stand up and do something for the women’s situation here.
Saadia Haq: So your work takes a feminist perspective?
Nadia Zehri*: Well I don’t believe in labels, I don’t like saying I am this I am that. But yes, you can say I am feminist in my own way. But feminism is very selfish in many ways, for instance Pakistani feminists or UN level foreign feminists are all talk about women rights and equality, but they are always silent on the atrocities done on Baloch women by military or jihadi factions. God save Baloch women from such sort of feminists who come here and tell us – oh you need to learn how to drive? Saadia I mean seriously? We the Baloch women need to be protected from rape and abductions and treated like humans, given economic opportunities to improve our status in becoming independent.
Saadia Haq: Yes, I totally agree with you and having worked with international organizations on such issues to come towards such realizations. So tell me more of your work?
Nadia Zehri*: I am supporting the documentation of missing persons, unexplained deaths and filing cases of abducted men and women. I also report case studies of relatives of abducted Baloch women and children, all in all we work very carefully otherwise we could end up dead tomorrow.
Saadia Haq: When you joined the movement, what was the reaction of your family?
Nadia Zehri*: They were worried but agreed that women cannot sit at home and accept their fate to die or become widows. In recent years, there has been a very positive increase in numbers of women taking up active and leading roles in the Baloch nationalist movement. In my sessions with women I have been discussing the need for women’s participation at various places. Sometimes, the husbands or children also come to sit in at these meetings.
Saadia Haq: What are the reactions of women and people on such sessions?
Nadia Zehri*: It is usually a space where we can freely discuss on our problems, women voice many grave issues. The reality is that Baloch are fed up of being marginalized and discriminated against. The baloch anger is rooted in deep poverty, for 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 its own people have gas in their homes. We want to control our natural resources rightly so, no Pakistan, no China, India, US or no whatever.
Saadia Haq: I agree, because during my several visits to Quetta, I saw the state of affairs and the daily struggles of the people. I also noticed during my meetings with activists that there is strong anti Pakistani fervor and can understand the reasons. What have you to say about this?
Nadia Zehri*: It is true but I want to clarify that we are against the government and military’s doings because otherwise many Baloch people have been integrating into other places like in Karachi and Hyderabad. However, here Balochi school going children refuse to sing the Pakistani national anthem or fly its flag. Like myself, many women fed up of being stuck into conflict have joined the struggle and many universities are full of nationalist sentiment. But the GoP should ask itself as to what it has really done for us, instead the Punjab governments are hell-bent on draining our resources.
Saadia Haq: If Baloch insurgents take control over Balochistan’s resources, will that help the Balochi people?
Nadia Zehri*: That is a question I have been asking myself time and again. I fear Baloch people’s struggle will be manipulated by the militant lords for their own interests. I and many other female activists are arguing to end this conflict peacefully because we are suffering the most!
Saadia Haq: If you don’t mind me asking do you personally feel any Pakistani sentiment within yourself. Do you think that Pakistan and diversity go hand in hand?
Nadia Zehri*: Pakistan is a country where on a major scale the ability of Pakistanis to live together despite its patchwork of ethnicities and cultures under an Islamic shadow is our strength. All in all, there is a strong sense of oneness despite me being Baloch, you being Muhajir and so on. But there are grave threats to its own existence mostly due to corruption and bad governance.
With this we came to an end of this interview, I thanked Nadia Zehri* for agreeing to speak considering the risks involved to both of us. This is a true story but names and details have been changed to protect the interviewed.
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