The issue of enforced disappearances is now seen as one of the biggest hurdles to Islamabad's efforts to make peace with the Baloch people.

Since December 30 last, a group of two dozen boys and girls, accompanied by a few adult women, has been squatting outside the Quetta Press Club, braving the biting cold that sweeps through Pakistan’s Balochistan province at this time of the year. The group is on a daily hunger-strike, protesting the disappearance of a father or a brother, allegedly after he was taken away by state intelligence agencies.

Holding photographs of their missing family members, these children say they will sit there indefinitely — until they get some news of their family members.

In the group are the young sons and daughters of Ali Asghar Bungalzai, a 38-year-old Quetta tailor. For months after he was picked up in October 2001, military and intelligence officials reportedly kept assuring his family that he would be released soon. Between 2006 and 2007, the children — all of them then under 20 — stood outside the press club for a full 371 days, demanding that their father be restored to them. They were persuaded to leave only after the Governor assured them that he would take a personal interest in tracking down their father. But Bunglazai remains missing to this day.

A woman in the group told journalists that she was looking for her brother Zakir Majeed Baloch, a leader of the Baloch Students Organisation, who went missing on June 8, 2009, allegedly after having been whisked away by an intelligence agency. She said she was trying to get human rights organisations to exert pressure on the government for the recovery of her brother and other missing Baloch.

Majeed went missing while he was travelling by road between Mastung and Khuzdar. He was picked up twice before — in 2007 and 2008. After his release in 2008, he said he had been detained and tortured at the Qulli camp, a military detention centre in the Quetta Cantonment.

There are plenty of similar stories. Mushtaq Baloch, also a BSO activist, disappeared in March 2009. He was in the first year of his intermediate course at the Degree College in Khuzdar and was picked up along with his friends and fellow student activists Kabir Baloch and Ataullah Baloch.

Some months after he went missing, an unidentified caller phoned Mushtaq’s family with the information that a body was lying at a location in Mach in Bolan district. His brothers rushed to Mach but found nothing. Since then, there has been no news of any of the three boys.

While the issue of enforced disappearances in Balochistan is a continuing tragedy for the affected families, for the alienated province, it is yet another festering wound inflicted by Islamabad after the Musharraf regime began military operations there in 2005 to quell a low-intensity separatist insurgency, which is often blamed on India. By the government’s own estimate, there are 1,300 cases of enforced disappearances. But according to the Voice For the Missing Baloch Persons, the organisation that is behind the protest outside the Press Club, at least 8,000 Baloch are missing after being picked up by the army or the paramilitary Frontier Corps, or one or the other intelligence agency.

Earlier this week, the protesting children were joined by a sizeable number of women as they marched to the Provincial Assembly to draw attention to their cause. The rally was unusual in itself. In Balochistan, it is only the rare woman that is seen outdoors. “In a society where women hardly step out of their homes, if these women have taken to the streets in protest, there has to be a very good reason,” Nasrullah Baloch, convener of the organisation, told The Hindu.

The issue of the missing persons is now seen as one of the biggest hurdles in the way of efforts by the PPP-led government for reconciliation with Balochistan. In November 2009, Islamabad announced a package of political, administrative and financial measures for the restive province.

The package is called the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan (The Beginning of the Rights of Balochistan), the clunky title managing to convey two things: one, the Baloch people and the province had been deprived of their rights; and two, this package was the “beginning” of the reconciliation process.

But it was rejected even by moderate Baloch politicians. A major criticism was that it contained only a promise to consider in an undetermined future crucial concessions such as constitutional reforms for provincial autonomy. Baloch politicians were also angered by the announced “demilitarisation” replacing the military with the Frontier Corps. The paramilitary evokes more dread than the Army in the province.

Writing in the Dawn newspaper, Sanaullah Baloch, a young leader of the Baloch National Party, who resigned from the Senate last year to highlight what he called the government’s indifference to Balochistan, said no reconciliation would be possible unless the Constitution was changed for maximum, even “asymmetric,” devolution. He called for international mediation and facilitation, and for international guarantors to underwrite all promises made by Islamabad to the Baloch people.

The BNP at least still believes a solution is possible within the framework of the Pakistan federation. Not so many others do. According to Rashid Rehman, editor of the Daily Times newspaper, the government has failed to appreciate that the atmosphere in Balochistan has undergone a dramatic change.

“The demands that have now emerged are far more radical than anything before. Now the Baloch are talking about separation, secession, independence, and it’s being talked about openly, it is being discussed in the political space,” said Mr. Rehman, who fought in the 1970s Baloch insurgency on the side of the guerrillas.

A major narrative in the Baloch discourse is the “betrayal” of the province by successive governments in Islamabad, he said, and hence the new demands for international guarantors and third-party mediation. The minimum that “even a halfway house package” would have to contain, according to him, is provincial autonomy through changes in the Constitution, which would allow all decisions to be made in the province. Crucially, it would give the province control over the natural gas found in its territory and any possible oil find. “The relationship with the centre will have to be reversed completely, no less,” said Mr. Rehman.

The government, meanwhile, has taken some tentative confidence-building steps, in line with the measures announced in the package. In December, it withdrew 89 cases registered against political leaders and activists, including Brahmdagh Bugti, president of the Balochistan Republican Party, who is alleged to be leading the insurgency, Balochistan National Party president Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Jamil Akbar Bugti, son of the late Nawab Akbar Bugti.

But the missing hundreds — or thousands — remain missing, despite the promise in the package to release those against whom there are no charges and produce the remaining before a competent court. A total of five missing persons are reported to have returned home after the package was announced. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court also added its voice to the cause, saying reconciliation in Balochistan would be impossible unless the missing were traced.

“This is the biggest humanitarian crisis in Balochistan right now,” said Nasurllah Baloch of the VFMBP, “and the elected government should play its role in tracing them. Press charges against them if you want, but produce them before a court.”

But the question often asked is whether the elected government really has the power to bring back the missing and end the practice of enforced disappearances. It is well known that the security establishment plays a big role in shaping Pakistan’s Balochistan policy. Some would say the insurgency makes this necessary, but it is widely acknowledged that this has tied the government’s hands from doing everything it can to heal the wounds.

Revealingly, there have been several cases of enforced disappearances since February 2008, when the PPP came to power and Asif Ali Zardari offered an “unconditional apology” to the Baloch, pledging to “embark on a new highway of healing and mutual respect.” Mr. Nasrullah Baloch alleges that people have gone missing, including Sana Sangat, a leader of Brahmdagh Bugti, ever since the package was announced. Despite the difficulties, government circles remain optimistic that the Balochistan package will soon start working its magic.

At the end of December 2008, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani visited Balochistan and held a mid-sea Cabinet meeting off Gwadar. It lifted the national mood somewhat. But more to the point, on the call of the Baloch National Front, Gwadar and two other districts observed a total strike on the day of his visit, while in Quetta, the families of the missing people marked the day with a protest march.

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