Tribal Rebellion in Balochistan
The tribal chief sits next to a campfire in his mountain hideout discussing his chances against the Pakistan government that his tribe, the Bugtis, are fighting for autonomy in Balochistan, the country's poorest province. "We have three things on our side — time, space and will," says Nawab Bugti, age 79, gazing into the flames.
The Bugti tribe and their allies, the Marris, to the north attack Pakistani garrisons daily, exchanging mortar fire with the much larger and better equipped army. They say they are fighting for a larger share of the wealth from Balochistan's vast natural resources. First among these is natural gas that the federal government pumps from the arid Baloch soil for use in other parts of Pakistan.
I first contacted the rebellious Bugti tribe through a Pakistani journalist who had visited them several weeks before. I contacted the Nawab, or tribal chief, via satellite phone after I had been described to him as someone who could be trusted. The Bugtis agreed to my visit but the trip was complicated because my identity as a foreign journalist might draw attention to them. They move their base frequently to avoid attack by Pakistani forces flying drones overhead to locate rebel positions. I would be the first foreigner to visit them since the recent fighting started.
I flew to Balochistan and was driven into the rugged guerrilla territory in a white rebel 4x4 caked in mud as camouflage. We travelled cross-country, avoiding roads and the Pakistani military checkpoints along them. I wore a "shalwar kameez," the voluminous cotton garb worn here. As headgear, I donned a "pakul," the wool hat common along the Pakistan/Afghan border. Occasionally they outfitted me with a bulbous, Bugti-style turban.
After each meal a tribal shaman would clean the last bits of meat from the scapulas of the slain goats and hold them against the sunlight to "read" the future in the lines of the bones. Sometimes, he said, the bones say nothing while other times they foretell the deaths of allies and enemies alike.
We spent days in their hidden headquarters. The Bugtis then transported me under cover of darkness to their capitol town of Dera Bugti that was virtually encircled by Pakistani forces. During a month of mortar exchanges between Pakistani forces and rebels, many civilians had been killed and some 20,000 had fled. I spent four days there taking refuge in bunkers during Pakistani mortar attacks. I ate a lot more goat and drank gallons of tea from glasses washed with a swish of cloudy well water. I charged my computer and satellite communications equipment with a small generator they produced for me. The Pakistani government had cut off power to the town ages ago.
After a week with the Bugtis, I contacted a leader of the Marri tribe to the north, located in an even more remote part of Balochistan. No journalist, Pakistani or foreign, had visited the Marris since the most recent fighting began last December. They agreed to take me in and we coordinated a handoff near a remote Marri outpost. A Bugti guide led me six hours on foot to reach the meeting point.
Using satellite phones and radios the Marris coordinated the attacks. Unlike their adversaries, the Marris knew every mountain and valley in their district. On the other side, Pakistani grunts were brought in from other provinces of the country. While the Pakistani forces were hunkered down in visible firing posts, the guerrillas nestled into high crevices and rained mortars down on their foes from unseen positions. Rebel spotters in observation posts radioed in corrections to errant shots, guiding each guerrilla mortar closer to its target. The regular army soldiers returned fire but they launched their mortars haphazardly, oblivious to our location.
As it turned out, the greatest danger for me was not the incoming ordnance but our return to the rebel camp after the fighting. To avoid attack we traveled without the aid of flashlights. My guides led me down the mountain, bounding from rock to rock on the moonless night. They joked as we climbed down sheer cliff faces in the blackness, laughing as rocks slipped out from under my shaky feet, falling into the oblivion.
Finally arriving back to camp, which had been pitched in a deep gorge far from the Pakistani post, a roaring fire awaited with another steaming dinner of goat. Some talked about their time as university students in the provincial capital of Quetta before they followed the tradition of their fathers and grandfathers and took up arms against the Pakistan government.
The rebels say the Pakistani government takes their resources and gives them little in return. Some want a better cut. Others want Baloch independence from Pakistan. They all asked me if I thought that Pakistan would disintegrate as a country when they finally won their struggle. I told them that countries don't fall apart that often, no matter how bad the fighting gets. And when they do, I said, sometimes it just makes things worse.
After a few more days almost all of my equipment was dead. The rebels had small solar chargers they used for their Thuraya satellite phones but the chargers were insufficient for my computer and camera batteries, especially under a cloudy sky. After a few final helpings of "sagi," they guided me along the four-day journey out, handing me back to the Bugtis, who had shifted to another hideout. As the Bugtis guided me closer to home, I changed vehicles and guides four times along the way, starting with the guerrillas in a mud-camoflaged Toyota Hilux in the mountains and ending up in the provincial capital, Quetta.
Balochistan's bloody conflict cannot really be counted as one of the world's forgotten wars -- few even know it exists at all.
Many in Balochistan call it a just struggle. But other Pakistanis call them "miscreants" and see them as traitors. An acquaintance in Islamabad told me journalists should be banned from Balochistan so that the Army could massacre the lot of them and be done with it. But that has not happened yet so for now they are still up there, still fighting, using their advantage of time, space and will.
© John Moore
Dispatches are brought to you by Canon. Send Canon a message of thanks.
Back to March 2006 Contents