Pakistani security forces have cracked down on trained Baluch youths and alleged militants forcibly ‘disappeared’, sometimes for years, without trial, according to news reports, student lawyers and human rights groups.
“Today, law enforcement agencies consider any university student from Baluchistan as a potential militant,” said Faisal Nawaz, a student from Panjgur, Baluchistan, who studies at the University of Karachi.
Separatist attacks are concentrated in the sparsely populated Makran region of Baluchistan, where residents depend on illegal cross-border trade with Iran in fuel and other goods. In a desert area with few employment opportunities, smuggling can be a matter of survival. But the official border crossings were closed in March 2021, making trade more difficult and exacerbating the misery of the local population.
“If the government set up industries for us, the young people would not be involved in dangerous business,” said Sakhi Dad, 28, who said he started smuggling after graduating from university and unable to find another job.
In November, a protest movement led by a Gwadar cleric, Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, mobilized thousands of people and called on the government to address the plight of the people of Makran. They demanded easing of border trade, easing of security checks established to protect Chinese workers in the port of Gwadar, and an end to illegal trawling that is destroying the livelihoods of local fishermen.
The government has responded with vows to improve conditions. On April 23, during a visit to Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, the new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, cited neglect of the region as a cause of violence, promising “to raise the issue of enforced disappearances with a powerful party”.
The Pakistani military leadership has broadened its public contacts in Baluchistan in an effort to show a friendlier face, especially in Makran. After the February attacks, the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and other military leaders visited Baluchistan to meet with political leaders and university students, and asked the local government to open the border to trade. He also encouraged the youths to join law enforcement agencies.