Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance reporter who contributes to a number of media channels including Al-Jazeera. Here, he writes on the complexities of covering one of the most off-the-radar conflicts worldwide: Balochistan.
It had been four years since I last met Mr Purdely. The chain of uprisings in northern Africa and the Middle East that started in 2011 had kept me away from Central Asia, but I was finally back in Kabul last September, sitting down over a cup of green tea with Afghanistan´s best known Baloch intellectual.
A former MP during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah (1987-1992), Purdely is a professor and a writer. Among his several books one can also find those being used by the Afghan Baloch schoolchildren in Nimroz Province.
That far-flung spot in the country´s southwest had been the main goal of my trip to Afghanistan in 2010. It´s not just the only the area where Afghanistan´s little known Baloch minority constitute the majority. Nimroz is also the place where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran collide. If there is a “black hole” in Central Asia, that is certainly Nimroz.
“There are three schools in Nimroz where Balochi – their language – is being taught, which you may want to visit,” said Purdely, after proudly producing the whole set of school books he had released over the last four years. The normalisation of a long neglected language, however, was just one of the stories I wanted to cover during my trip.
Back in 2009 I had travelled to the Baloch populated areas bordering Nimroz in Iran and Pakistan. In retrospect, I have to admit that during the first trip to West and East Balochistan, as Baloch nationalists put it, I was barely familiar with the Marris, the Mengals, the Bugtis and the rest of the clans that make up the Baloch tribal fabric. But I did have a unique chance to detect the fear among regular Iranian Baloch of being hanged by the Iranian regime, or the appalling poverty in Pakistan-controlled Balochistan. Thanks to the help of local activists, I met victims of torture and abuses by the Pakistani security service, relatives of the myriad of missing Baloch –around 20,000 according to local sources. I also spoke to senior tribal leaders such as Khair Bux Marri or Attaullah Mengal, as well as to a few among those fighting in the rugged mountains of Pakistan´s southernmost province.
The outcome of that first visit to the troubled land of the Baloch would be a set of stories for several media wires which would eventually shed some light on this obscure conflict. The collateral effect for me would be a travel ban for Iran and Pakistan. To make a long story short, foreign journalists are prevented from entering the region, deported if they´re caught inside, and eventually beaten. Needless to say it´s far worse for the local reporters, forced to choose between “self-censorship”, according to Ahmed Rashid, or finding their names in the list of “killed and dumped”.
Paradoxically, Afghanistan had turned into my “safest” option to keep reporting on the Baloch and their conflict.
The Wild Southwest
The Taliban insurgency has made it impossible to travel overland across Afghanistan, except for a few spots like the legendary Panjshir valley, which works for a nice day-trip from Kabul. Flying is mandatory when it comes to moving around the country, and air connections between Kabul and Nimroz had slightly improved since my last visit in 2010. Back then, flights to Zaranj -the provincial capital – only departed from Herat, but last September there was a weekly flight from Kabul operated by a newly-established airline.
So I travelled there, met the Baloch teachers, the journalists who run a radio programme in Balochi and many other local activists struggling to revive their long-neglected language and culture. But there was obviously much more Afghanistan´s remotest province could offer to a freelance journalist. Nimroz is literally overrun by migrant Afghans bound for Iran, and it´s also a main hub for all sorts of smuggling: heroine coming from neighbouring Helmand province goes out, weapons come in…
In the country´s southwest I also came across dozens of Pakistani Baloch, either political dissidents or ordinary civilians, fleeing the war at home and seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Another striking story was that of the local Baloch who have found themselves living under the shadow of a border wall erected by the Iranians almost overnight. Many cross-border family ties were cut, and survival based on smuggling goods or growing crops was on the brink of collapse. Local villagers have left in their hundreds, leaving their mud houses behind. Among those who had not yet followed suit, it was not difficult to run into people who have been shot by the Iranian guards.
Officials at the water supply department in Zaranj told me that Iran is to blame for diverting and storing water from the Helmand River and also responsible for Nimroz´s endemic drought. But accusations went beyond interference in the water supply. The Iranian presence is overwhelming, something which is visibly evident in Zaranj´s massive bazaar area, with hundreds of stalls loaded with Iranian products. Transactions are made in Iranian currency and electricity to Zaranj also comes directly from Iran. Moreover, locals are highly suspicious of Iranian NGOs.
“This is a nest of spies,” could be read in graffiti on the walls of The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation´s headquarters.
Somewhere in the Mountains
My next stop on my Baloch tour across Afghanistan was Kandahar, so I was forced to fly back to Kabul. A first attempt to leave Zaranj ended up with the aircraft swerving violently across the runway after one of the engines collapsed during take-off. I had experienced something similar during my 2010 trip, so although it was pretty scary, it came as no surprise.
The flight was delayed until 5:00 a.m. the following day but I´d still be in time to fly to Kandahar at 1:00 p.m. Unlike Nimroz, Kandahar is not Baloch land as such but it hosts a significant Baloch community, which includes both Afghan and Pakistani Baloch. The Baloch Language Department at Kandahar´s university and the large number of families that have settled there after fleeing Pakistan´s south would definitely help me complete my stories on culture and refugees. However, there was another powerful reason behind my visit.
Contacts in Kabul had arranged a rare interview with Baloch insurgents from the Balochistan Liberation Army. The meeting point would be “somewhere in the Sarlat mountains”, a rocky massif on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It was a long drive, after which came a long hike. BLA commander Baloch Khan was waiting for me at an undisclosed location, escorted by three fellow fighters. They had walked for 12 hours from the other side of the border.
“Taliban presence in this border area is at its peak but they use their own routes and we stick to ours so we hardly ever come across them,” commander Khan told me. I found his words reassuring, kind of.
The 41-year-old guerrilla told me he felt very close to the Kurds, “as their land is also stolen by their neighbours”. He even admitted ideological parallels between his group and the Kurdistan Workers Party-PKK. Their enemies were seemingly sticking to similar tactics, yet in different degrees. While Ankara has been sending Islamic extremists into areas under the control of the Syrian Kurds over the last three years, Khan insisted that Islamabad was following a similar strategy to tackle the Baloch issue:
“Until 2000 not a single Shia was killed in Balochistan. Today Pakistan is funnelling all sorts of fundamentalist groups, many of them linked to the Taliban, into Balochistan to crush the Baloch liberation movement,” stressed the commander.
Apparently, there are around half a dozen Baloch armed groups operating in Pakistani Balochistan. One of them is the Baloch Liberation Front, a group led by Allah Nazar, a former physician, who today leads his fighters in the southern coastal region of Makran. Obviously I couldn´t travel that far without a visa but I did chat over the phone with Nazar to get his assessment of Pakistan´s alleged support for Islamic extremists. He spoke about the Taliban, and even gave me the coordinates of “at least four training camps”, where members of the Islamic State are reportedly receiving instruction with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services.
“The Islamic State is overwhelmingly present among us. They even throw pamphlets in our streets to advocate their view of Islam and get new recruits,” the former gynaecologist told me, visibly disturbed.
Back in Kabul I met Purdely again to compare notes on “Afghan Baloch language and culture”. We both hoped we didn´t have to wait for another four years to see one other again. I also had to say goodbye to the rest of the Baloch who had backed me with info and logistics during my trip. One of them was Guljam, an exile from Pakistan who had been calling me on a daily basis to make sure I was always sticking to the right people.
During my first days in Kabul I had been meeting Guljam at the same coffee shop in a shopping mall to make the necessary arrangements before my departure to the country´s south. Dressed in his shalwar kamiz, the 38-year-old could walk completely unnoticed across the city. He could pass for an Afghan and, like them, he was also familiar with war. Yet his is another war, unfortunately one we barely ever hear of.