“He was our pampered brother. He would come home at night and put his head in our mother’s lap … If you look at my mother’s condition, it is as if she is dead.”
The death of Younus Baloch’s brother, Balaach Mola Bakhsh, in a remote town of Balochistan last month has devastated his family of folk singers. It has also spurred a nearly 1,600-kilometer-long march toward Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, to draw attention to forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the militancy-ravaged province.
Balochistan’s Counter Terrorism Department, or CTD, says Balaach Mola Bakhsh, a tailor, was arrested November 20 with explosives in his possession. The CTD says he appeared in court the next day but died November 23 in a shootout between security officials and militants.
Authorities say that while in custody, Bakhsh was leading them to the militants’ hideout and was killed when armed men fired shots. Three other men who authorities claim were insurgents also were killed in the incident.
The family has rejected the CTD’s claim. It accuses the agency of killing Bakhsh in a fake encounter. They allege he was abducted October 29 from his home and presented in court almost a month later.
Refusing to bury him, the family, along with a large number of men and women, protested under the open sky next to Bakhsh’s coffin to pressure police to file a report against CTD personnel for the alleged killing.
He was eventually buried on November 29. Police filed a report December 9 against four members of the CTD, but only after the top court in the province rejected the government’s attempt to prevent the filing.
The protest over the incident, however, continued to swell with time.
Largely unreported by the mainstream media, the long march from southern Balochistan to Islamabad received a warm welcome along the way. Videos on social media show thousands of ethnic Baloch coming out in different cities to show solidarity with Bakhsh’s family.
Protesters are being blocked from entering Islamabad.
“We demand that those who are disappeared should be released … we demand that CTD be disarmed so that in the future no one is abducted and then killed in a fake encounter. Our movement will continue until our demands are met,” Mahrang Baloch, a leader of the march, told VOA via phone on her way to the capital.
Mahrang Baloch is one of the most prominent leaders of the Baloch Yakjehti Committee, or Baloch Unity Committee, that has organized the march. Baloch began her activism following the 2009 abduction of her father. His body, bearing signs of torture, was found in 2011. The circumstances surrounding his disappearance remain unclear.
The convoy of about 200 people stopped in several cities to raise awareness about the issue of enforced disappearances and to register families of victims.
The marchers also faced obstacles. Clashes erupted between the police and protesters in Islamabad past midnight Thursday. This came hours after marchers and their supporters staged sit-ins on the capital’s roads as the administration refused to let them proceed to the press club.
Videos on X, formerly Twitter, showed police detaining protesters, who marchers claimed had remained peaceful. In a post on X, the police said they took action after protesters pelted them with stones.
Earlier, Mahrang Baloch told VOA that as the march traveled between towns and cities, armed men harassed her group while local administrations blocked roads to prevent marchers from moving forward. Several protesters were also detained, and police reports were filed against demonstrators that included, among other accusations, charges of raising anti-state slogans.
Although Pakistan’s Baloch community has staged several protests and marches in the past to draw attention to forced disappearance and killings, Oslo-based Pakistani journalist Kiyya Baloch told VOA this march is unique because women are leading it and support for it has spread across provinces.
He said women are forced to take the lead because men protesting for their missing relatives often face harassment, sometimes go missing themselves or make compromises with authorities to end the protests.
“Due to their uncompromising stand, Baloch people trust [women] more,” Kiyya Baloch said.
He credited sustained awareness efforts by local rights groups for the march’s success in galvanizing ethnic Baloch communities outside Balochistan, particularly in Punjab, the center of power in Pakistan.
The scope of enforced disappearances has also spread, with ethnic Baloch families living outside the province also becoming victims. This, he said, has made the marchers’ message resonate across provincial borders.
For the last two decades, Balochistan has been in the grip of a violent insurgency that has left a trail of forced disappearances and bodies dumped on the sides of roads.
Caught between militants who accuse the state of robbing the mineral-rich province of its precious resources and the military fighting violent groups are Baloch families waiting for news on their loved ones who have gone missing.
“There’s an institution of the state that is using the power of the state unreasonably,” said Mahrang Baloch.
Many accuse the country’s security agencies of abducting the civilians.
“Government’s perspective has been that whomever we abduct, they are suspected militants, allegedly involved in militancy,” said journalist Kiyya Baloch. “But now they are in complete denial. Now they say the state has no role in enforced disappearances.”
Militancy in the province has intensified since the launch of the multibillion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor a decade ago, as Balochistan is home to the prized deep-sea port of Gwadar developed with Chinese funds.
Lethal attacks on Chinese nationals by Baloch militants have prompted the Pakistani government to further tighten security, raising friction with locals who feel disrespected and disenfranchised.
Simmering anger over a growing security presence, lack of economic opportunities, curbs on free expression, and continued forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings have created sympathy for resistance fighters, Baloch said.
As most missing persons are never charged with any crime, however, it is difficult to assess how many actively support militants.
For years, various governments have promised to resolve the issue of forced disappearances with little to show for it. A bill introduced by the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to tackle the issue infamously went missing.
According to data released in January 2023 by the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, since its inception in 2011, the independent body has received more than 9,000 cases from across the country. While it traced more than 5,000 people and saw nearly 3,800 return home, more than 2,000 cases are still pending. The largest number of cases is from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, followed by Balochistan.
Following a hearing at the Islamabad High Court last month, then-Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti, who comes from Balochistan, refused to give details on who had abducted those recently released. Instead, he told journalists to ask the recovered persons whose custody they were in.
Bakhsh’s family has rejected the commission of inquiry the provincial government set up to investigate his death.
Expressing a lack of trust in such commissions, Marhang Baloch said Bakhsh’s death has left the community fearing for family members.
“We had hope that [since] a person has been presented in court, maybe he will get a sentence and will be free in 10 or 11 years. Now there is a fear that you abduct someone, present them in court, but a week later you might kill them.”
This activist said that fear is prompting many to support the march. She said they want to ensure the parliament and courts take action to disarm the Counter Terrorism Department.
Balaach Mola Bakhsh’s brother, Younus Baloch, said he wants justice for all those whose family members are missing or have been killed without due process.
“We want good justice. If we don’t get justice, I will fight until death.”