November 23, 2023 marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Baloch struggle for justice and accountability in Pakistan.

On that day, the country’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) claimed that Balach Mola Bakhsh, a 24-year-old Baloch man who had been forcibly disappeared in October, was “killed in an encounter” with security forces in the city of Turbat in Balochistan.

His family knew this could not be true, as Bakhsh had been presented to a “anti-terrorism” court by the same department just two days earlier and charged with possessing five kilogrammes of explosives. He was in state custody when he was killed.

The killing of Bakhsh, and the attempts by security forces to lie about what happened to him, was not only a mockery of Pakistan’s justice system, but also a perfect example of the injustices and gaslighting our community has been facing in this country for many decades.

After receiving the young man’s dead body, his family organised a sit-in protest in Turbat attended by thousands. At the protest where Bakhsh’s corpse was also present, they demanded the state investigate his death and punish those responsible. On November 25, a local court called for a First Information Report (FIR) to be registered against counterterrorism department officials, but the police defied the order. Eventually, the High Court had to intervene and get the FIR registered. Yet, the culprits who had custody of Bakhsh at the time of his death remained free (in fact, they did not face any accountability to this day).

After our week-long sit-in alongside Bakhsh’s dead body in Turbat achieved no results, in the first week of December we decided to move our women-led protest to Quetta, the provincial capital. Our aim was to find justice for Bakhsh and prevent other young Baloch men like him from being forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially killed.

We protested in Quetta for three days, but our cries for help once again fell on deaf ears. So we decided to move to the national capital, Islamabad. But reaching the political heart of the country proved much more difficult than we imagined.

We were not breaking any regional or national laws with our peaceful march towards the capital, but the police used force to stop us anyway. At least 20 participants of our peaceful march were arrested in Dera Ghazi Khan. As the march progressed, sedition cases were lodged against many of us, including me, in many different parts of the province.

However, these intimidation attempts were not successful. We continued our march, and calls for justice and accountability, because we know that inaction is no longer an option for our community. Because we know that the extrajudicial killing of Balach Mola Bakhsh was not an anomaly, a one-off tragedy, but part of a devastating pattern.

Indeed, unlawful arrests, forceful disappearances and extrajudicial killings have become a routine part of life for Baloch people in Pakistan in the past 20 years. Since a flare-up in the decades-old ethno-nationalist insurgency in the early 2000s, thousands of Baloch have been forcefully disappeared, and hundreds have been brutally murdered and their bodies dumped on desolate mountains or deserted roads. Many of these corpses bore signs of torture, with limbs snapped, faces bruised, and flesh sliced or punctured with drills; some even had slogans like “Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Pakistan)” written on their backs.

My own family also suffered the consequences of these systematic attacks on the Baloch community.

My father, Abdul Ghaffar Lango, who was a political activist for the ethno-nationalist Balochistan National Party (BNP), was forcefully disappeared from outside a hospital in Karachi, Sindh Province, in December 2009.

At the age of 16, as the eldest among my six siblings, I embarked on a desperate struggle to find my father. My family asked the police to register an FIR, but they refused. We then turned for help to the Sindh High Court, which summoned top officials, including the chief of Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI, the inspector-general of the Sindh Police, and the Sindh province home secretary, among others. But they all defied the court’s orders and refused even to register an FIR on my father’s disappearance.

Nearly two years after his disappearance, in July 2011, my father’s bullet-riddled body – which bore apparent signs of torture – was recovered in an abandoned hotel in the Lasbela district of Balochistan. Despite everything my family had been through, I chose to remain silent and focus on my education.

However, in December 2017, my brother, Nasir Baloch, was also forcefully disappeared. Terrified that my only brother would share the fate of my father, I decided not to stay quiet any longer. I began to campaign for justice for my father, brother and countless other Baloch men sharing the same fate with them. My decision to speak up triggered a campaign of harassment against me and my family.

My brother was thankfully released and returned to us in March 2018, but the organised campaign of intimidation against me and my family continued unabated. I, alongside others in our movement, faced many baseless charges, threats and attacks over the years. And yet, I continued to talk about forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of Baloch men because I knew the experiences of my family mirrored the experiences of hundreds of other families in our community.

With the killing of Balach Mola Bakhsh in November, our principled struggle for justice entered a new phase. Now, the Baloch people are more determined than ever before to put an end to these blatant attacks on our community.

Our women-led protest march reached Islamabad on December 20. Three days later, we initiated a sit-in in front of the National Press Club in Islamabad.

From that day on, we faced the worst harassment at the hands of the Islamabad police. Officers attacked us with batons and tried to disperse our protest using water cannons in freezing temperatures. Some 290 protesters, including myself, were arrested, and released only after the intervention of the Islamabad High Court. The Islamabad police attempted to “deport” us to Balochistan, but we resisted. The police used the term “deport” as if we were illegal immigrants, not Pakistanis. Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar labelled us as “terrorist sympathisers”.

Another camp, backed and encouraged by the state, was established next to ours, consisting of individuals who said their relatives were being killed by armed groups in Balochistan. Their presence there was clearly aimed at delegitimising our protest and justifying what is being done to innocent Baloch men in the name of “security”.

Then journalists and YouTubers linked to Pakistan’s powerful army descended on our sit-in camp. They pushed their microphones into the mouths of elderly mothers, children and youths, demanding that they condemn armed groups in Balochistan before asking for justice for their forcefully disappeared loved ones – just like those journalists who demand Palestinians “condemn Hamas” before speaking of the abuse and injustices they suffer.

The Balochistan provincial government spokesperson held dozens of press conferences,  maligning us, and accusing protest leaders, including me, of taking part in the sit-in merely for personal gain. He even claimed that I was trying “to become Malala 2”.

On January 22, the National Press Club in Islamabad, under state pressure, voiced concerns about our sit-in, and asked the police to remove us. Thus, on January 23, we ended our sit-in in Islamabad and returned to Quetta.

In Quetta, we were welcomed by thousands. We announced our intention to stage yet another protest on January 27, but merely hours after our announcement, the provincial government banned gatherings of more than three people in the region. Despite these obstacles, we still managed to get together thousands of people and once again raise our voices to say we won’t take this abuse any longer.

The Pakistani state, however, does not seem to be listening. Just last week, after an overnight attack by Baloch rebels in the city of Mach, located 65km (40 miles) south of Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, the authorities once again killed five individuals in fake encounters. Three of the affected families were with us during the protests in Islamabad.

Those who hold power, or gearing up to assume power after today’s election, seem insistent on ignoring our suffering and deeming us traitors or even “foreign agents” merely for demanding justice for our families. This has been evident in their election campaigns. Indeed, not a single mainstream political party in this country has included the issue of missing persons in its political manifesto, because none of them want to offend the powerful army.

We will continue to draw the attention of authorities to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings to ensure the rule of law in our country. We want peace and security for our people and the whole of Pakistan. The state claims that we are against it, but the truth is that it is the state that is against us.

Today our resolve is stronger than ever before. We will continue our peaceful protests until we find justice for Balach Mola Bakhsh and thousands of other fathers, brothers and husbands who have been taken from us.

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