The terse message from one of our minders came shortly after we’d checked into the hotel in Quetta: We were, under no circumstances, to step out on our own or make plans for any excursions.
I’d been surprised when I first received a communication from Pakistan’s information ministry on whether I’d like to join a media team to visit Quetta. Balochistan had been off-limits to foreign journalists for long, described as a “black hole” from which nothing emerged.
As one of the two Indian journalists in Pakistan, I even called the information ministry to ask whether there’d been a mistake. No, I was told, the invitation stood.
The three days we spent in Balochistan in May 2013 reminded me very much of Jammu and Kashmir at the peak of the militancy in the 1990s. There was an armed escort every time our entourage left the hotel, driving at high speed, armed security personnel stood guard every few metres along the roads of Quetta, and all important buildings were barricaded and surrounded by bunkers.
Our minders ensured we never had a chance to sneak off anywhere to have a word or two with ordinary Baloch people. When a journalist announced he wanted to shop for souvenirs, a minder came along to ensure that was exactly what he was doing.
When another reporter from a Western news wire broke away from the group to meet someone, there was a major flap. Our convoy was diverted to the building where the reporter was last spotted and the security personnel ensured she returned to the entourage despite her protests.
Meetings were arranged with selected political leaders who were perceived as being part of the “mainstream”, and all our requests to interact with Baloch students or leaders from groups working for greater autonomy for Pakistan’s largest and resource-rich province were shot down by officials, usually on grounds of security.
We were hosted for lunches and dinners by top officials, who were always polite and deferential, but gave away little in terms of information. Things were looking up in Balochistan despite the insurgency and things would soon improve, they all seemed to say. It was only when we spent a few hours with some local journalists at a dinner on our last night in Quetta that we were able to get a fix on how bad the situation was in the region.
Speaking in hushed tones in a corner of the garden where the dinner was served, the journalists told us about how vast areas were not under the effective control of the security forces. They also told us of the “pick up and dump” campaign of the army and its proxies whereby Baloch nationalists and suspected insurgents were detained without charge and their mutilated bodies were later dumped by the side of roads, often with a small note that only mentioned their name.
Probably the most heart-rending aspect of the visit was our drive through the part of Quetta inhabited by the Hazara Shia minority. Just months before our visit, nearly 100 Hazaras were killed in bomb attacks and the community had protested for days on streets with the bodies of 80 people.
One Hazara man spoke of finding body parts on the roof of a building several days after a suicide bombing of a snooker club. As we drove away from the road outside the snooker club, a man came up to us with a poster featuring a large photo of his relative killed in the suicide attack. He had only one request: Could we take a photo of his poster and document the attacks on the Hazara Shias?
I never got the man’s name, all I had time for was clicking a photo, and I never fulfilled his request. Maybe this piece will help.
(The author is one of the last two Indian journalists to have been allowed in Balochistan)