A meeting with Lashkar-e-Balochistan
Story and photos by Karlos Zurutuza
November 17, 2009
See other editions of this story: gara.net (download
pdf in Spanish), The
Diplomat and Vice
Magazine has published several language editions of
the article: German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, English
The Baluch homeland is divided,
straddling the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
This is a conflict in one of the "hottest" spots of the
world, yet it is a conflict in the shadows. The world
may have forgotten about the Baloch people, yet predatory
folk outside Balochistan have certainly not forgotten about the rich
land upon which the sandal-clad Baluchs walk every day. Lashkar-e-Balochistan
is one of the groups that comprises the ever growing Baloch insurgency.
first stage of our journey is a two-hour night drive
in a pick-up truck with tinted windows. The driver and
his escort cover their faces with turbans. Both my fixer,
Said, and I travel blindfolded. “Security reasons,” they
said. But even with a blindfold, you know the moment
when the vehicle leaves the main track and heads for
the open desert. The car shakes to the rhythm of the ‘Paadha,
Baloch’ that rings out from the truck’s speakers: ‘Wake
up, Baloch, we are at war!’, sings Savzal Bugti,
a man whose music is as popular in Balochistan as it
is proscribed in Pakistan. It is almost like a hymn for
a people whose land was annexed against their wishes
in 1948, seven months after the creation of Pakistan.
Besides, the Baloch homeland also includes parts of Iran
one in the morning the car stops and we are handed
to a fellow guerrilla in the middle of nowhere.
Blindfolds off for the second part of this unusual
journey: a challenging hike through a rugged granite
landscape. Not easy in the middle of the night. "Watch
your step,” warns our guide. "The Red Crescent
will not be coming out here to rescue you."
At one in the morning the car stops and we are handed
to a fellow guerrilla in the middle of nowhere. Blindfolds
off for the second part of this unusual journey: a challenging
hike through a rugged granite landscape. Not easy in
the middle of the night. "Watch your step,” warns
our guide. "The Red Crescent will not be coming
out here to rescue you."
It´s a five hour moonless hike, during which
it is forbidden to light your torch or twist your ankle.
Finally, the silhouette of a guerrilla praying on a ridge
shapes against the dawn. We have arrived.
“Salaam, heriat, teek-tak”, the Baloch language
greeting from two masked guerrillas as they emerge from
a black granite wilderness. Next, they fill a canteen
in the river and mix the water with lemon and sugar.
Four water bottles later, the sun rises, a great sphere
in the Baloch sky.
The guerrillas´ camp is extremely austere. There
is no building, no hut, not even a single cave in which
they might take refuge during from either the cold winter
nights or a possible air strike. Were these men now to
break camp, the only evidence that they had ever been
here would be the fire-blackened stones where now lamb
is slowly cooking.
"Let’s take a rest here. We can have breakfast
afterwards and then you can get on with your job," says
our host, pointing at a Baloch rug laid on a flat stone.
But the well deserved
nap is disrupted by curiosity. Children’s voices. It is a nomad family.
The shepherd walks slowly wearing a kulla (the
Baloch red cap), and his two camels follow him
in line. The first camel carries the family goods,
just a black cloth tent and a handful of metal
cooking utensils. The man’s wife travels
on the second camel with a baby in her arms.
Four kids yell at each other whilst they take
the sheep to the banks of the river to drink.
The mother and the daughters wear the colourful
pashk, the Baloch traditional dress adorned with
metal studs and tribal motifs.
"Please do not take pictures of the nomads," says
one of the guerrillas. It is not merely the obvious
security issue. Taking photos of a Baloch woman
still breaches a generations long taboo.
It is impossible to know where we are, but trying
to guess who our hosts are is also far from
easy. It turns out that the Baloch armed resistance
is fragmented with a plethora of armed groups:
there is the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army),
but also the BRA (Baloch Republican Army),
the BLF (Baluch Liberation Front) and Lashkar-e-Baluchistan
(Baluchistan Army). The apparently divided
Baloch insurgency is just the clear reflection
of a distinctly tribal society.
"We are Lashkar-e-Baluchistan,” answers
the commander, who claims to be around 40, but
hides both his face and name. We can call him
Mir, the word for ‘leader’ in the
"There are various armed groups in East
Balochistan (under Pakistan´s control)
but there is no rivalry between us. In fact,
we are all perfectly coordinated", explains
Mir over a generous breakfast of freshly roasted
lamb. "The enemy tries to portray us as
terrorists, but the Baloch have only been defending
themselves from the illegal occupiers since day
one. Today we all pursue the same goal: the liberation
of Balochistan”, remarks the leader of
this battalion of 20 guerrillas.
The insurgents in East Balochistan may all share
a common agenda, but there is no harmony between
them and their compatriots in West Balochistan
(an area under Tehran´s control). The Baloch
are mostly Sunnis, not an issue at all in Pakistan,
but a real bone of contention in neighbouring
Iran, where power is held by the Shiite Farsi
elite. Whereas the Pakistani Baloch armed movements
are secular, those fighting against Tehran show
a strong Wahabi infuence. Nonetheless, political
resistance is equally rejected on both sides
of the border.
"We also make politics, but with weapons.
In Pakistan there is no other way," says
Mir quoting Khair Bakhsh Marri´s words,
a historic leader of the resistance as well as
the sardar (tribal chief) of the Marri clan,
one of the biggest tribal groups in East Balochistan.
"Our operations consist mainly of sabotage
of communications towers and other army infrastructure.
We conduct mortar attacks against military garrisons,
place roadside bombs against the army or the
Frontier Corps (military police) convoys, or
shoot them with our RPG (Russian-made bazooka)”,
explains the commander about their modus operandi,
which is also common to the rest of the armed
Since the death in 2007 of Balach Marri, Khair Bakhsh
Marri´s son, the visible head of the Baloch insurgency
today is Brahamdagh Bugti, leader of the BRA. This young
28 year old man is the grandson of Akbar Bugti, the sardar
of the Bugtis, who died three years ago at 79, after
forces from Islamabad bombed the cave in which he was
taking refuge. There is no end of rumours about Brahamdagh´s
activities and whereabouts. Some say he has his headquarters
in Kabul; other, in Spin Boldak, an Afghan strategic
location halfway between Kandahar and Quetta (the capital
of East Baluchistan). Some even suggest that he and his
troopers are being trained by the Coalition forces in
Afghanistan and “used” to control the Taliban
traffic across the Af-Pak border.
"Such rumours are spread by Islamabad to fuel the
theory that India and USA are helping us, but the truth
is that we are still waiting for any kind of outside
help and recognition," says Mir as he hangs his
Kalashnikov over his shoulder and invites us to meet
the guerrillas he leads.
"Such rumours are spread by Islamabad to fuel the theory that India and USA are helping us, but the truth is that we are still waiting for any kind of outside help and recognition," says Mir as he hangs his Kalashnikov over his shoulder and invites us to meet the guerrillas he leads.
‘Revolution’ and ‘Revenge’
The commander and his fighters wear the shalwar kameez,
that characteristic baggy shirt and trousers outfit
which rules the men’s fashion scene across Central
Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
“Most of our comrades here have seen hard times
in life but there are also those who had a comfortable
livelihood and are well educated as doctors, engineers
or lawyers”, explains Mir before introducing ourselves
to his battalion.
Every fighter hides his face under a turban and his
identity under a code name. We first speak with Enqelab
(‘Revolution’ in Baluchi). Both his life
and that of his brother changed dramatically because
of the basic human need for water.
"In my village there is still no running water,
no gas or electricity," starts the 25 year old fighter,
carefully laying his Russian bazooka on the ground. "My
elder brother and I used to go everyday to the joints
of the pipes that carry the water for the gas plant in
Sui region. We would loose the nuts with a wrench and
collect the water in a five litre plastic drum",
explains the young man, illustrating his testimony with
his hands the colour of the stone around us.
"One day the police came over and arrested my brother
on charges of “sabotaging government installations”.
Enqelab’s brother spent six years in prison and
today he cannot look after himself due to the lingering
effect of the terrible torture he endured.
The gas plant mentioned by Enqelab
is the biggest one in Pakistan, as well as one
of the triggers for the Baloch armed uprising. “Whatever
you may dig out from the Baloch soil, rest assured
it will be contaminated with human blood”,
said once Attaullah Mengal, the tribal leader of
the Mengals. Well, Sui is the very epitome of dispossession
with Islamabad controlling Balochistan´s
huge natural resources: gas, coal, uranium, gold,
even oil. This amounts to an enormous treasure
from which the Baloch people secure hardly any
revenue. But much more humiliating is the fact
that the gas from Sui has been powering the rest
of Pakistan for decades, but still has not reached
the humble adobe houses in areas close to the plant.
Bair (‘Revenge’) is also a Baloch
but he covers his face with a traditional turban
from the Sindh region. Alongside the Baloch and
the Pashtun, the Sindhi also complain about being
marginalized by the Punjabies, the dominant ethnic
group that, according to most Baloch, rules Pakistan.
Bair arrived from Quetta three years ago, where
he was an active member of the BSO (Baluch Students
Organization). His urban activism cost him dear.
During a two month detention he was tortured on
a daily basis. According to NGOs such as Asian
Human Rights Commission or the International Crisis
Group, over 7000 political, social and human rights
activists have been kidnapped, tortured or murdered
by Pakistan’s secret services since March
2005. Some are found dead a few days later in the
desert, like the three political activists who
were grabbed at gunpoint in their lawyer's office
and then thrown out of helicopter last April.
There are also those who simply rot in jail, or
the lucky few who are released. Their awful stories
of torture inspire the next generation of fighters.
Bair is one of those who survived the torture. "My
cell was a six feet by one, dark damp", explains
the man. "It was like being buried alive.
They only took me out to beat me, always upside
down and blindfolded. I would often faint, and
look for anything that could help me end my life
afterwards. I never thought I would survive in
there but, amazingly enough, I was eventually released.
I didn’t want to risk being arrested and
go through the same thing again, so that’s
one of the reasons why I joined Lashkar-e-Balochistan.”
Bair is the exception in a group where the majority
of its members come from rural areas which lack
the most basic infrastructures. Schools and hospitals
are non-existent. Small wonder then that eighty
per cent of the Baloch in Pakistan are illiterate.
And that would apply too to this guerrilla community
in the desolate granite wastes.
‘Lightning’ and ‘Hope’
But despite some of them not being able to read, these
Baloch guerrillas are fluent in both Baloch and Urdu,
and many of them also number Pashto and Brahui in their
linguistic repertoire. One of these polyglots is Girok
(‘Lightning’). Unfortunately, his command
of four languages has never been of great help. After
his village was destroyed by the Pakistani army, he
and his family were forced to change the loneliness
of the Baloch desert plain for the garbage in the outskirts
of Karachi, Pakistan´s largest city with a population
over 20 million people. Around 80,000 Baloch families
have suffered the same fate over the past three years.
"I've spent my life on the run, since I was a small
kid", confesses Girok. Eventually, the young fighter
moved to Lyari, the predominantly Baloch neighbourhood
in Karachi. This is a district whose daily feverish activity
only freezes when Brahamdagh Bugti is interviewed by
a foreign TV channel, usually from neighbouring India,
Pakistan's arch-enemy. Lyari was Girok´s last stop
on his way to this inhospitable landscape where he serves
“We will struggle until the liberation of Baluchistan
and the destruction of the Pakistani army”, can
be read on a big, flat stone. Just nearby, Umit (“Hope”)
cleans his weapon thoroughly. He´s been released
from guard duty to spend some time with us. The other
men maintain the vigil, ever scanning the horizon from
the peaks of the imposing towers of rock. Every man knows
that, with 600,000 troops, the Pakistani army is one
of the largest in the world as well as one of the best
equipped. It has a great reserve of US weapons. In any
case, Umit doubts a large-scale ground operation will
ever take place in this area.
will struggle until the liberation of Baluchistan
and the destruction of the Pakistani army”,
can be read on a big, flat stone. Just nearby,
Umit (“Hope”) cleans his weapon thoroughly.
He´s been released from guard duty to spend
some time with us. The other men maintain the
vigil, ever scanning the horizon from the peaks
of the imposing towers of rock. Every man knows
that, with 600,000 troops, the Pakistani army
is one of the largest in the world as well as
one of the best equipped. It has a great reserve
of US weapons . . .
"This is very rugged terrain and there are no roads
to transport the troops. The only option here is from
the air", says this guerrilla fighter, referring
to those Cobra helicopter and F16 fighter jets. “In
that case, we can only hope that this granite bastion
is as hard as it seems”, he adds.
"Islamabad is using against us the weapons Washington
gave them to fight the Taliban but, as Nawab Akbar Bugti
would say, nations do not die by mere physical death,
but by losing their conscience", says Umit, holding
the Kalashnikov rifle once wielded by his father. He
is the last of a family whose members have participated
in the five armed uprisings since Pakistan took over
Balochistan in 1948. In any case, most of his predecessors
did not have to face the Cobra helicopters that fly overhead.
Some of the latter came from Tehran before the Islamic
revolution in 1978. Apparently, Shah Reza Pahlevi handed
the US-made arms to Pakistan to quell a Baloch insurgency
that threatened to spread to Iranian controlled Balochistan.
“Why should we sacrifice our right to freedom
by belonging to a federation dominated by a single nation?" asks
Umit, in the middle of a silence broken only by the rattle
of the hot desert wind.
This is the cry that has echoed in the ears of the Baloch
for the past 60 years. There is no easy answer to the
Baloch cry for freedom in their own homeland, a demand
born of the most basic desire of every living creature:
is using against us the weapons Washington gave
them to fight the Taliban but, as Nawab Akbar
Bugti would say, nations do not die by mere physical
death, but by losing their conscience," says
Zurutuza is a freelance correspondent and writes in Basque,
Spanish and English. He´s been awarded with the
Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti Reporting Award 2009 for highlighting
the Baloch struggle in diferent newspapers and magazines.