Interview with Qadeer Baloch, founder of the ‘Voice for Baloch Missing Persons’
At 72, Qadeer Baloch or “Mama” Baloch walks the talk. After covering 3,300 km from Quetta, a journey that began on October 27, 2013, he and his fellow marchers reached Islamabad on February 28, with a long stop in Karachi. Walking the last part of his journey to Islamabad, Mr. Baloch told Meena Menon that his greatest wish was to visit India. Two years ago, when a United Nations team visited Quetta, he demanded an audience with them. He was invited to Islamabad as a result and decided to walk there. This was how the idea of this Long March was born. Mr. Qadeer’s son, Jalil was picked up by security agencies in Quetta in 2009 and his body was found three years later on the border with Iran. That decided things for him. He founded the “Voice for Baloch Missing Persons” in 2009. He has campaigned against extra judicial killings and illegal detentions and filed two cases in the Supreme Court, but to no avail. This march to the capital is his last stand for justice from a world body since he has no faith in the government. Excerpts from an interview:
Why did you decide to have a Long March to Islamabad? And what do you hope to achieve?
When I founded the “Voice for Baloch Missing Persons” in 2009, a lot of young men and women had already gone missing. I felt that unless there is a platform for the families, no one would pay any attention to them. All the members of this organisation are related to the missing persons. The case for missing persons began in 1947 when Balochistan was forced to join Pakistan after it was freed from the Kalat state. Since then, we have been fighting the state and this brutal repression is the state response to our struggle. I used to work in a bank and I retired in 2009. My son, Jalil Reki was picked up because he was the Baloch Republican Party (BRP)’s central information secretary. I know it’s the intelligence agencies who did this because they called and told someone who was with him at that time. Three years later we found his body. Today, my grandson is marching with me because he also wants justice. So far, we have documented 19,200 missing people and recovered 2,006 bodies. The numbers increase every day.
How did you mobilise resources for your organisation and what has been the response?
People are calling me a RAW [Research & Analysis Wing] agent and they think I get money from some agency. I don’t know this RAW and I have not seen or met anyone from there. I don’t need funds — there are over 19,000 missing people and their families contribute to the organisation and we also raise contributions.
You have filed cases in the Supreme Court? What is the progress so far?
Yes, we filed two cases on missing persons in 2012 and there have been 102 hearings so far. We had asked for the missing persons to be produced in court. We contended that if people have done something wrong you have to punish them, not take them away or detain them and kill them. The situation in these detention centres is terrible. People cannot even stretch their legs, the rooms are tiny and they are blindfolded. In some of the bodies we recovered, we found holes drilled in the legs. We get a lot of bodies with the vital organs removed.
There are women too who are missing.
Yes, there are women from the Marri and Bugti tribes who are missing. Women are taken away by agencies so that pressure can be put on their families to make sure their sons don’t join the various Baloch groups. We have documented cases of 170 women. Sometimes their children too are taken away. There is the case of Zarina, a schoolteacher, who was picked up in 2005 and her son, Murad was a year old then. How can a child survive without the mother?
Why is there no accountability for all these actions despite the Supreme Court case?
It is the Pakistan state agencies which are doing all this. Balochistan was independent and we were forced to join Pakistan. Now, we want freedom from the Army. We waited for five years for justice but nothing happened. The United Nations working group had come to Quetta two years ago and later we were invited to meet them in Islamabad. We met the United Nations country office and the European Union delegation to Pakistan and we have two demands. We want the missing persons to be recovered and we want a separate Balochistan. We want the intervention of NATO forces or international support there to help us. There is no other way out.
The Supreme Court has managed to do one thing only. That is to establish that it is the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], the Frontier Corps and the military intelligence which have picked up our young men and women. There are so many orders to produce the missing persons but no one does anything. The security forces defy the orders and it is no use. For instance in the case of one of the marchers, Farzana, the court had ordered her brother to be produced in court but it was not followed. There are so many cases like this. There is no accountability at all.
Who inspired you to go on this march?
I had read somewhere that Mahatma Gandhiji had walked over 300 km to fight the British and they conceded to his demands. I thought if an old man like him could walk, so could I. Even Mao Tse-tung had a long march. The important thing was that Gandhiji made an impression on the British rulers. We hope that our demands too will be met after this long march which is over 3,300 kilometres. We walked for 108 days.
After I formed my organisation, I got a lot of support from people. If there is a referendum in Balochistan, people will vote for independence. We have worked with honesty and integrity. All along the way, except in the Punjab, lakhs of people supported us.
How did you mobilise young women to walk with you?
In Balochistan we observe strict purdah. Women don’t leave their homes but now people are so helpless, they have taken to the streets.
The young women with me have either lost a father or a brother. Their lives are miserable, some have left school for this march. They still hope their loved ones will be returned some day. This is our plight. There are nine girls and three children including my grandson on this march.
You faced a lot of threats and abuse during the march.
Yes, people used to stop our march, get out of the car and abuse us. There was firing on us from moving vehicles and a truck dashed against two marchers injuring them. I was also threatened on the phone to stop the march. Even in Islamabad we are not safe. Even before I was leaving I got calls every day asking me to stop the march. An intelligence official threatened me that my other son would also be killed. For me the grief of my dead son is the grief of all the families who have lost people. In Punjab, we were openly threatened. In Gujarat, police blocked our march but we persisted despite all these problems and poor physical health.
In Balochistan, the young people continue to be picked up. Recently about 32 deaths have been reported and over 30 were taken away. It doesn’t stop.