A chance to win hearts and minds in Quetta

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Life, interrupted A quake survivor holds her child in front of collapsed mud houses at Labach in Balochistan
Life, interrupted A quake survivor holds her child in front of collapsed mud houses at Labach in Balochistan. Photo: AFP

Even gods get angry with the poor people in Balochistan, who were recently hit by two massive earthquakes in one week. The first one of 7.7 magnitude struck on 24 September, followed by another on 28 September of 6.8 magnitude, killing and injuring hundreds of people. In fact, the extent of destruction is unaccounted for due to a weak State apparatus and an ongoing conflict in the area. According to the US Geological Survey, the epicentre of the earthquake was recorded around 96 km away from Awaran and Khuzdar districts. The former is one of the poorest areas with visible scars of underdevelopment, poverty and the ongoing war.

These areas present a different picture than the Northern Areas and Kashmir, which were hit by another massive earthquake in 2005. It took years of constant international assistance and support from all over Pakistan to deal with that tragedy. It brings back great memories of how Pakistanis came together to assist the less fortunate. One remembers how media groups were falling over each other to cover the events and take supplies to the earthquake-hit areas. A similar thing happened again when floods ravaged Pakistan in 2010.

However, the same does not seem to be the case with the recent natural disaster in Balochistan. An Islamabad-based foreign diplomat expressed her frustration over the inability of her mission to reach out due to the security situation. Foreigners, in particular, have stayed away from the province for many years because implementing and monitoring development work is almost impossible. There is the fear of being caught between the state and Baloch nationalists militias.

I remember being gently warned by a friend a couple of years ago to spare myself (and the Balochis) the trouble of visiting the province because it is the most likely area to get bumped off in, with the blame going to the Baloch nationalists.

Indeed, one of the major issues after the earthquake is the relatively little media coverage because, unlike the Northern Areas and Kashmir, the media has less accessibility. In any case, the area is so underdeveloped that it does not have the natural civil society support, which would prove helpful to an outsider.

Now it seems humans will achieve what the gods failed to accomplish. There will be more devastation caused due to conflicting politics of the State versus the Baloch nationalists. Awaran, which is close to the epicentre of both earthquakes, is home to Dr Allah Nazar, the man considered a legend by Balochis. The army would love to get hold of Dr Nazar, who is more important for the war against the State than any of the scions of Marri, Bugti or Mengal tribes. Baloch nationalists look up to him as a force who represents their frustration and desire to challenge the status quo.

However, the quake presents the Baloch militias with a bigger challenge of deciding whether they should allow the State to provide assistance to the affected population. Thus far, the nationalists have called for the international community to provide assistance. They have also encouraged non-governmental organisations and private people to deliver aid. Various Baloch groups and individuals have appealed to people from all over the world and drawn attention to the plight of the people in the quake-hit areas. The stories and pictures of people affected by the earthquake seem to add to the gloomy images of deprivation. But how does one trust non-State militants as there is no guarantee that they can be held accountable if they fail to fulfil their promise? Not to forget the possibility of unfriendly elements penetrating the area and doing some damage, which could then be blamed on anyone.

So far, help is scant. Approximately 10,000 tents are needed for refugees in Mashkey subdivision of Awaran, but only 200 have materialised till date. Medical help is also deficient as there are very few doctors attending to the needs of the people. But it would require a lot of confidence building and effort for the international community and Pakistani civil society to muster support and courage to go to the area to provide relief.

As mentioned earlier, given Balochistan’s reputation, the tendency of many would be to route help through the government. The other alternative is to venture out themselves, which might not appear feasible to many as there is a real fear of being attacked by militants.

Then, do the nationalist militants allow State forces, particularly the military, to operate in the area? The apprehension is that the armed forces will use the opportunity to infiltrate the sub-region and create problem for the nationalists. Military check-posts, people being picked up by the military and disappearing forever or subjected to torture and their dead bodies abandoned are something experienced on an everyday basis in Balochistan. Islamabad’s opinion is that Baloch nationalism is an example of external intrusion and that these militants are being raised, trained and launched by outside forces, especially India and Afghanistan, to threaten Pakistan’s security. Therefore, the State does see the calamity as an opportunity to re-establish its power in these areas.

The situation presents the Baloch nationalist leadership with a Catch-22 situation. They don’t have the capacity themselves to provide the much-needed support. Although Allah Nazar is a doctor himself, given the challenges, it is difficult to visualise him as a Baloch Che Guevara who would fight a war of liberation but also provide social service to the people. In any case, he is stuck in the mountains with his small number of men, planning and executing an insurgency against the State.

On the other hand, the military is the only resourceful organisation in the province. The police is less effective and weary of the shenanigans of the security establishment. Even before the earthquake, the police had refused to take certain actions mainly because they are more exposed to violent threats than the military, which is safely protected in the cantonment areas.

The possibility of Balochistan becoming a campaign advertisement for both the nationalists and Pakistan’s military is very high. While the State will emphasise its inability to provide help due to the threat posed by the nationalists, the latter will highlight the State’s negligence to protect the people. A lot of help will be lost in scoring brownie points. The other option is for the State to use the friendly and even the less-friendly religious militant forces that have been spreading their influence in Balochistan to provide assistance. After all, the Jamat-ud-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and others have been setting up shop in Balochistan.

Surprisingly, these militant NGOs have not been as active in rescue operations as they were in the 2005 earthquake or the 2010, 2011 and 2012 floods. Interestingly, even the al Qaeda seems to be operating in the province and trying to instigate Baloch nationalists against the State. To sum it all up, the picture of militancy in Balochistan is far more intense than one imagines. But this time around, it is the ordinary people who are going to be affected by the varied colours of conflict.

There is little possibility of Balochistan getting the kind of attention that the other areas did. Furthermore, the prevailing donor fatigue and lack of resources will contribute to the existing plight. But this is a time when Islamabad needs to do proactive thinking and provide extra help to people who feel neglected by, but not cut off from, Pakistan. The question is, does the State have the capacity to gently mend fences?

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc

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