Where were you Lahore, when we were protesting for our missing Baloch brethren?
Punjab's indifference shown to the Missing Person's protest did not go unnoticed. Was the cause not grave enough?
I attended the long march of the Baloch Voice for Missing Persons (BVMP) in Lahore to show my solidarity with the cause. I was amongst the journalists who came from various news organisations to document a critical portion of the walk that had departed from Quetta last year.
The protestors were entering the capital of Punjab. The reception they got here could mirror the reception they receive in Islamabad.
The walk had caused quite a stir among those who followed the story behind it. The protest walk, led by Mama Qadeer Baloch, the vice president of the BVMP, received due press attention at each stop they made. When they entered Punjab, excitement over the growing popularity of the cause grew.
The protestors were warmly received in Karachi, Hyderabad and several other places in Sindh. There was no reason why the protestors, mostly women, would not get the same reception in Punjab, except, of course, given the history of the Baloch struggle against state brutality.
I met the protestors at the Canal, two hours after they had started walking from Thokar Niaz Baig to the office of the Punjab Union of Journalists on Mall Road. At first sight, the protestors looked like a small collection of people. On a closer look, I saw that they were much more organised; nearly 50 boys had formed a human chain around Mama Qadeer, Farzana Baloch and eight other women who were pushing a cart carrying pictures of their missing men. There was an additional space for female protestors who had joined the walk. Another group of 50 young men flanked the human chain, carrying posters and distributing pamphlets.
Behind them, an ambulance and a police patrol van drove slowly – a constant reminder of the fear we live in.
30 minutes into the walk and I am slowly getting aware of my aching feet. An hour into it, my throat was parched and the layers of winter clothing I had on me felt like a burden I was encased in. My hair was a mess from the wind and my face was burning up from the relentless sun. An hour later, I started wondering when the protestors would finally stop.
I pushed into the group to try to get to one of the ladies who had arrived from Quetta.
I politely called out to the backs of three women wearing hats with Che Guevara’s face on it. One of them turned when I asked,
“Are you with the people who came from Quetta?”
She nodded curtly and kept walking. I tried again. I was desperate.
“How long have you been walking?”
She turned to look at me again. I couldn’t see her face because she had covered it. But I could see her eyes trying to gauge me. I could almost hear her contemplating whether to trust me or not. Finally, she spoke.
I exclaimed, repeating her answer with complete astonishment. She had been walking since January 10.
“Wow, you walked really far.”
She nodded and looked at me for an long moment. The girls she was walking with were also beginning to show interest. They gave me furtive looks which did not go unnoticed because the only visible part of their face was their eyes.
She spoke again.
This time I stared at her. I searched her eyes as she searched mine. I hoped to God she hadn’t seen the panic I was feeling. How does a person ask for more details when you already know the answer?
But I also got mad at her for a moment. Why wasn’t she showing me her face? Then I realised that I probably didn’t want to see the grief, fear and exhaustion etched on it. It took me a while before I finally choked out,
I could tell she still clearly remembers the date when she said,
“Since August 13”
I daren’t ask her what that day was like.
“Who took them?”
She gave me a wary look and said,
I decided I needed to change the topic. It was too heavy. I have a brother too and the thought process going on in my head had to stop. So I changed the topic and asked,
“How was the journey through Punjab?”
She had a smile in her voice when she replied.
“The people in Dera Ghazi Khan were very nice. We had a nice dinner and a nice place to stay.”
I then asked her,
“What about Multan?”
She shrugged. So evidently, Multan hadn’t fully won her over. I carried on with my inquisition,
“What about the rest?”
She replied with disappointment in her voice,
“From Khanewal onwards, people stopped being welcoming,”
As I processed this, I frowned. She saw my confused face and added,
“They were cold.”
And I understood. The protestors had left the Saraiki/Baloch belt of South Punjab and had entered Central Punjab, the backbone of the province. Here the protestors had no common ground with the Punjabis, except a historical resentment.
I opened my mouth again, but she cut me off.
She turned around, raised a loudspeaker to her mouth and called out,
“Mama Qadeer, kadam barhao”
(Mama Qadeer, step forward)
And from behind me, a chorus of male voice rang out,
“Hum tumharay saath hain”
(We are with you)
She gave me one last apologetic look and began chanting in earnest.
“Baloch rights are also human rights.”
“We want justice.”
“Free those who have gone missing”
And finally, a chant that sounded like a hymn; they called out a list of names of men who were taken away from their families, like a prayer for their safe return.
The protest walk in Lahore was attended by 200 people. Awami Workers Party and a group of other people’s movements facilitated their stay. When I asked around, I was told that the protestors were all young Baloch and Pakhtuns studying at the Punjab University and the Government College. They didn’t identify themselves through their ethnicity unless asked.
I asked one handsome young Baloch student why he was there. He was almost offended I asked the question when he replied,
“To mark my protest of course!”
I spoke to Noore Maryam, the co-founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance, who was also walking with the protestors. I spoke to her in Lahore and later in Gujrat on Tuesday night once the group had settled in.
She told me,
“Lahore’s response has been quite disappointing. While the protestors had been warmly received by supporters in Gujranwala and Gujrat, entering the cities was suddenly problematic. The protestors, notably Mama Qadeer, received threatening phone calls from untraceable numbers. The callers told us to call off the march for we would not be allowed to enter further cities ‘at any cost’. While these calls had been alarming, we decided to proceed with the march nonetheless. There was nothing to lose.
When we were entering Gujrat, we were stopped by a large contingent of police, something that we had not encountered all through our journey. The police included a team of the Elite Force, which did a head count of the number of protestors (nine women, two boys and several males). They apparently had orders to arrest us if we got violent. They had no idea who we were and had been told that we were a group of terrorists.”
I inquired about the progress of the protest,
“How did you all manage to enter Gujrat, then?”
She informed me that,
“We reasoned with them, of course. We told them we were their sisters and were going to register our protest in Islamabad. When we told them that we were protesting against illegal abduction of Baloch men, one of the policemen exclaimed that his brother had gone missing a week ago. As we spoke to the policemen, we saw their expressions soften. They were immediately sympathetic towards us and eventually, they let us pass.”
I asked her about what they’re hoping to achieve from this protest, when she told me,
“We want the United Nations to take notice of this brutal policy. When we reach Islamabad, we will protest outside the UN office. We want them to hold the government of Pakistan accountable.”
It was a simple plea.
She informed me that the best way to show solidarity was to show up to the protest in Islamabad when the protestors reach, which was expected to be in three days.
“We know that some Baloch and Pakhtun activists will be joining us in Islamabad. But there is strength in numbers. We hope many people come out and join us in this protest.”
I was curious about how the protestors had managed to stay hydrated through the journey. Maryam told me that the ambulance that has been driving behind them from Quetta was donated by the Edhi Foundation. The ambulance was packed with first aid supplies and a stock of water bottles.
My last question to her was borne out of pure curiosity. I wanted to know the name of the girl who had spoken to me briefly in Lahore. She informed me that it was Zarina Baloch. I looked up the meaning of her name – gold. To me, she immediately became the ‘Golden Girl’. Her brother’s name is Manzoor Qalandarani.
Ali Haider, a nine-year-old boy who I also spotted in Lahore, has not seen his father since 2009. Maryam answered my queries about this boy as,
“He was discouraged from joining the march because he is so young. He is a determined young man and therefore he refused to just stand back and not participate.”
The rest of the protestors included Farzana Majeed, who has the flu as she walks, and has not seen her brother Zakir Majeed since 2009. Sammi Baloch has lost her father Dr Deen Muhammad. Some other names of the protestors include two girls – Samina Baloch and Gul Saba.
The low participation of the Punjabis and the indifference shown to the protestors in Lahore was not missed by anyone. I was left wondering where the Lahoris were.
Is it because the protestors did not bring with them an entourage of singers to entertain them?
Is it because the walk was just too inconvenient?
Is the cause not grave enough?
Is Mama Qadeer not fun enough? Good looking enough? Not giving away free laptops?