DERA BUGTI: The political and security crisis in Balochistan swings between two opposite narratives.
One narrative claims that the security conditions in Balochistan are improving. Target killings have been controlled; Baloch insurgents have been reduced to a few hundreds; the rebels stand divided and are retreating. The other stipulates that the situation remains dangerous. Insurgents hit and run after firing bullets, rockets and sometimes mortars at places of their choice. Mines and improvised explosive devices (IED) explode frequently in troubled areas like Dera Bugti.
What makes the two conflicting stories even more confusing is that both come from the same source: The Pakistan Army. Or, to be precise, the Frontier Corps (FC) that virtually runs Balochistan.
A journey from Quetta to Dera Bugti presented a mix of both narratives. It lasted for about 12 hours crossing through Sindh, Punjab and then again Balochistan. Hundreds of passenger and trade vehicles ply through the arduous, historical Bolan Pass daily. Being part of an FC convoy constitutes a bigger threat, however. The para-military jawans keep their eyes and G3 rifles aimed at the adjoining mountains for any possible attack. One has to be constantly on the watch while the convoy command is changed from Ghazaband to Sibi Scouts and then to Sui Rifles. This is a major dilemma for the security forces.
The rebels can hit and run at the place and time of their choice in an area stretching hundreds of miles. But the troops have to maintain round the clock vigil to secure railways, highways, strategic assets and communication lines, even if they are attacked once in weeks and months by a handful of miscreants.
The outpost at Saryab Road that opens into the valley outside Quetta has turned relatively peaceful. The mountains from which the insurgents can attack seem far off. Electricity, telephone and railway lines mostly run parallel to the highway. It is difficult not to appreciate the beauty of wilderness all around even when traveling in the shadow of guns. Troops straighten their arms while entering the ridges of Kollpur, the word Koll meaning the cap in which the Hazara labourers got their earnings when they migrated from Bamiyan to work in coal mines here in 1890s.
The convoy gets more alert when passing through the narrow Bolan gorge surrounded by high cliffs. Train lines passing through long tunnels here are a marvel that only the British could build. It is ironic that trains were faster and safer a century ago. Insurgents have occasionally attacked here, the latest being last week, and then escaped through the mountainous terrain they know better. Once out of the strategic pass, Machh is peaceful. A local police officer said the only subversive activity happened a few months ago. An influential mine owner got himself released from kidnapping after paying a handsome amount.
Rumour has it that mine owners pay money to Baloch insurgents for peace in Machh, more known for its harsh jail that had nationalist leaders like Khan Abdul Ghaffaar Khan, Abdus Samad Achakzai, Wali Khan, Attaullah Mengal and Khair Bux Marri among its former captives.
Further along, Sibbi is safer. The third biggest city of Balochistan is home to Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi tribes and most people communicate in Sindhi. Nawab Khair Bux Marri’s son Changez Marri won from here as an MPA once but the seat is now held by PML-Q’s Bakhtiar Domki. “We get affected by violence but many Baloch youngsters sympathise with the insurgents,” says local journalist Aslam Gashkori. One does not feel insecure while roaming around in Sibbi bazaars, even when coming across the general secretary of the political wing of the most dreaded Baloch Republic Army, Dr Bashir Azeem, supposedly run by Nawab Akbar Bugti’s grandson Brahmadagh Bugti.
Dr Azeem believes that Sibbi is peaceful but “you can’t say this about other areas particularly Dera Bugti.”
As we enter the plains, the area between Bakhtiarabad and Mangoli is where attacks on railway trains take place. Railway lines here are close to populated areas, which makes it easier for the saboteurs to disappear. The FC has deployed posts throughout the troubled area but it just takes a handful of miscreants, mostly around Dera Murad Jamali, to sneak in and fire upon a running train.
A train driver got hit by gunfire last month but he managed to avert a bigger disaster by not stopping. A few passengers got injured though. An occasional hit like this has driven out fun from what was always a children’s delight in travelling from Punjab and Sindh to Quetta. It takes more than double the usual time; if at all Railways give the go-ahead for traveling. The impact of the trauma is more psychological than physical. Those who cannot afford road or air travel do so while constantly fearing for their life.
Life becomes suddenly normal as we enter Sindh through Jaccobabad and onto Shikarpur. It seems like walking from a black hole of violence into a peace galaxy. As we renter Balochistan from Kashmore towards Sui, one finds Sindh on one side of the road and the Punjab on the other. Maps do not show that Sui is just a stone’s throw away from Punjab’s Rajanpur area. It is just an accident of history that Punjab’s southern most belt which is home to the largest Baloch population in Pakistan was cut off from Baloshistan by Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh only two centuries ago.
Surprisingly, the road to Sui is quite peaceful. One came across normal traffic even after daylight. But we were told by the FC that we could not go onwards to Dera Bugti “as the conditions are extremely dangerous.” The general impression given to us was that Dera Bugti was still a troubled area and not safe for visiting. While I was willing to take a chance the local FC officers remained adamant that it was not possible to allow entry into Dera Bugti. It was frustrating to be told after a tough journey of 13 hours that we could not make it to the last 40-minute drive to Dera Bugti. We were told the next day that the conditions had become even more “dangerous” as an IED exploded roughly at the time when we were scheduled to travel. One got the impression as if one would have died if the FC had not stopped us on time.
It was difficult to insist when we were told that we would be compromising the lives of others by risking the forward travel. The much longer return journey was even more frustrating.
The real shocker on ‘the trail of insurgency’ came when Frontier Corps Inspector General Major General Obaidullah in an interview at his Quetta headquarters the next day, told us, “Dera Bugti is perfectly peaceful.”
He gave us a picture that was opposite to what his men had told us on the Dera Bugti border. He insisted that it was so safe that he had been walking in the Dera Bugti bazaar all by himself. He denied vehemently when asked if there had been an IED explosion on the day we were there. “I would have known as the IG FC,” he claimed confidently with a smirk on his face. He got upset when he was told that we were denied entry on the pretext that the conditions were highly volatile and that the news of an IED explosion was concocted to stop us. The general, visibly angry, started making enquiries on phone and promised us to return with an explanation. The explanation is still awaited after four days and may well never come.
This adds credence to the allegations that the conditions in Balochistan are what the army makes of it. Former Senator Manzoor Gichki is not wrong when he says that the FC dubs the Balochistan conditions “good or bad when it suits them. We have no way of confirming what goes on here. They control everything.” He may not be wrong.
It is easy to understand different narratives emerging from different institutions but how do you confront two conflicting voices from the same institution. One of them is obviously not telling the truth. This is as polite as we can get.
November 6, 2011