The conflict-stricken Balochistan is not only rich in natural resources but is also home to a deep sea port in Gwadar located at the junction of major oil trade routes. Throughout history, the strategic location of Balochistan has attracted interests of many global power players — from China to Russia. In recent years, China, on the model of the ancient Silk Road, has invested roughly $60 billions in the name of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The multi-billion project is seen as the flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative which is projected to link the port city of Gwadar with China’s Kashgar city in Xinjiang.
Balochistan, which literally means ‘the land of the Baloch’, has been the battleground of a seventy-year-long separatist insurgency by the indigenous Baloch. The ongoing insurgency is the fifth and the longest one which was sparked by the assassination of an octogenarian Baloch leader, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, by Pakistan’s military.
The Baloch maintain that their country has been annexed by Pakistan against their will, to which Pakistan responds with brutal force claiming the mineral rich Balochistan as its fourth and largest province. This deadly conflict between Baloch and Pakistan military has turned the entire region into a war zone.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, over 5,000 Baloch men have been forcibly disappeared since 2001, however many local and international human rights organisations, and independent sources claim the number of Baloch missing persons is as high as 20,000.
According to International Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), a Baloch human rights organisation collecting data on the forcibly disappeared and extra- judicially killed Baloch persons, over 5,000 bodies bearing signs of extreme torture have also been found in Balochistan till date.
In January 2014, BBC Urdu reported about the discovery of three mass graves in the Tootak village, district Khuzdar, Balochistan. From the mass graves, around 103 bullet-riddled decomposed bodies were discovered. Some local sources claimed that the number of bodies is as high as 169. Baloch rights groups fear those dead bodies were of the missing Baloch persons who were extra-judicially murdered and then their tortured bodies buried in those graves. The discovery of mass graves did not halt there. After the first discovery, several other mass graves have also been discovered in other parts of Balochistan, including Turbat and Panjgur district.
Women of Balochistan and reports of harassment and rape
Last month, reports of harassment and blackmailing at the University of Balochistan came to surface after the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) interrogated university officials in relation to harassment. They had started the investigations a month earlier, under the orders of the Balochistan High Court.
CCTV cameras had been installed at private and hidden locations of university’s women’s hostel. The video recordings were then used by the officials to sexually harass students, especially the women. It is being alleged that many high-ups of the university, including the vice-chancellor himself, are involved in the harassment scandal.
When the news became public, many female students left the hostels as they were called back by their family members, putting an end to their education. Many Baloch nationalists are of the view that harassment through CCTV footage of female students’ private moments is a conspiracy against girls’ education by the military establishment as family members in the conservative Baloch society no longer feel that educational institutions are safe for the girls and would prefer them staying in the safety of their homes and under the protection of their families instead of pursuing an education, let alone higher education. Thus, the nationalists assume that the scandal is a deliberate military strategy to keep the indigenous people of Balochistan educationally backward.
Although, according to the international law, women and children are to be considered as non- combatants in any armed conflict, women are the most vulnerable victims of a war as they are most often at the risk of sexual violence, harassment, bullying and intimidation during military action. While there is no denying of the fact that even today the battles are fought mainly by men, but in order to avoid direct confrontation, they mostly go in hiding, leaving their women unaccompanied. Once the men are out of reach, widespread sexual violence and harassment against women is the method of warfare used by rival forces to break the will of the men and destroy the whole community.
Sexual violence, especially against women, can be traced back to the beginning of recorded history, for as long as armies marched into war. Sadly, this abominable practice is still rampant in the 21st Century as rape is still considered cheaper than bullets by both non- state actors and professional armies.
Previously, rape had been thought to be inevitable, as a consequence of uncontrolled sexual desires when soldiers were deprived of female intimacy for prolonged periods. In modern times, perceptions surrounding rape have changed into a deliberate and contemporary weapon of war that employs sexual violence against women with the intent to punish, humiliate and annihilate an entire ethnic group or community.
The frustrated Pakistani military establishment is willing to take any desperate measure in order to change the course of the costly Balochistan conflict. As the Baloch fighters remain undeterred, targeting Baloch women seems a viable tactic to dissuade them by bringing shame and disgrace upon both the rebel’s family as well as Baloch society at large.
Enforced disappearances of Baloch men has become an unfortunate nor., However, for the last three years, one wake up almost every day with the news of forcible disappearances of Baloch women in the hands of Pakistan’s paramilitary forces. It is evident that the establishment has adopted a new policy to abduct Baloch women to pressurize Baloch activists who are highlighting atrocities being committed in Balochistan. One wonder what’s the crime of these women other than being the family members of Baloch nationalists? Where have they been kept? What is being done to them in detention centres?
Recently, Hani Gul Baloch, a student of medicine at Hamdard Medical University, Karachi, held a press conference, in which she alleged that she was forcibly disappeared along with her fiancé, Naseem by intelligence personnel. She was kept in an ISI detention centre where she was tortured and tormented for three months.
Upon her release, she was also expelled by her university. When I approached Hani Gul, she denied being affiliated with any Baloch military or political organisation. She said she was beaten and maltreated by military forces while they were interrogating Naseem. Torture towards Hani Gul, a Baloch woman was used as a method of interrogation to get required information out of her finance.
In 2009, one of the first cases of sexual violence and sexual slavery in Pakistani detention setting came to the surface through the claims of a former Baloch prisoner, Munir Mengal.
Mengal claimed that while he was in detention, a young woman was brought to his cell at around midnight in January 2007 by a prison guard. He ordered him to rape her.
Mengal noticed that she was trembling and sobbing whilst praying in Balochi for her child. She identified herself as Zarina Marri, a schoolteacher from the Kohlu district of Balochistan. She told Mengal that intelligence agencies had indicted her of being a member of the BLA, a Baloch militant organisation fighting for the liberation of Balochistan.
She had been held incommunicado in different army torture cells for three years. She claimed to have been repeatedly raped by the military officers and that she was being used as a sex slave to persuade (forcibly detained) Baloch activists to consent to state- manufactured confessions
Rape is also used as a method of torture in detention centres to obtain sensitive information. During the past century, from Rwanda to Bosnia, from Bangladesh to Democratic Republic of Congo, the belligerent armies used sexual violence as a weapon to destroy communities. To quote Major-General Patrick Cammaert, former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the eastern Congo, “You destroy communities. You punish the men, and you punish the women, doing it in front of the men.” He added: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”
The strategic use of rape as a weapon of war by Pakistani military is not a new phenomenon. During the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971, soldiers and officers of the Pakistan army reportedly raped around 200,000 to 400,000 women in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape.
During an organised ethnic cleansing, rape is used to systematically attack the lineage of an entire ethnic group, for instance by impregnating women.
Susan Brownmiller writes in her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, “Rape in Bangladesh had hardly been restricted to beauty. Girls of eight and grandmothers of 75 had been sexually assaulted … Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use. Some women may have been raped as many as 80 times in a night.”
The sexual violence against Bengali girls and women resulted in thousands of pregnancies, birth of war babies, abortions, infanticide. The shame and stigma surrounded by rape caused hundreds of thousands of victims to commit suicide. Those who did not commit suicide were ostracized and abandoned by families and society.
Gita Sehgal, the former head of Amnesty International’s Gender Unit, while speaking to BBC, said: “It was a mistake to think such assaults were primarily about the age-old “spoils of war”, or sexual gratification. Rape is often used in ethnic conflicts as a way for attackers to perpetuate their social control and redraw ethnic boundaries.”
She added: “Women are seen as the reproducers and carriers of the community, therefore if one group wants to control another they often do it by impregnating women of the other community because they see it as a way of destroying the opposing community.”
Throughout the past century, be it the Bangladesh war of liberation or the Bosnian conflict, the most common and repeated message that the offenders of sexual violence had sent out through the victims of rape to the community at large that their women now would have the privilege of having a child with a different ethnic background. They would tell the married women that she could go home and tell her husband that he was not man enough to protect her. An organised and professional army sending out such messages through the survivors of rape to an ethnic group that they are at war with is an exceptional war strategy that is employed to destroy the social fabric of community, their capability to face the brutality and survive the hostility.
According to Slavenka Drakulić, a Croatian journalist and writer who had written extensively during the Balkans conflict of 1990, “In the war in Bosnia mass rapes were tools of ethnic cleansing. How it works is very simple: it works that by shaming women you shame men from the community who were not able to protect them. Out of fear and shame people flee, leave their villages, their territory – which is then “cleansed”.
When we look at the background of the current and longest insurgency in Balochistan, we should not ignore the rape case of a lady doctor and employee of Pakistan Petroleum, Dr. Shazia Khalid, in the Sui tehsil of the Dera Bugti district.
Dr. Khalid was raped in January 2005 by a Pakistan Army officer, Captain Hammad. The involvement of an Army officer pushed the Army to cover up the horrific crime at the expense of Dr. Khalid’s honour much to the disappointment of the local Bugti clan. She was told by officials of Pakistan Petroleum that if she reported the crime she could be arrested as under then Pakistan’s Hudood laws if a woman reported that she had been raped was liable to be arrested for adultery or fornication unless she could provide four male eyewitnesses to the rape.
Nawab Akbar Bugti, the head of Bugti clan and a Baloch nationalist leader, took the crime in his heartland as a breach of Baloch code of honour and this was what brought the Baloch nationalists into a direct confrontation with the Pakistan army destabilizing the whole Pakistan.
The dangerous confrontation of Baloch nationalists continues with Pakistan army till date, now involving another actor to the conflict, China. As China is becoming more concerned about the successful completion of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), pressure is building upon Pakistan to deal with the Baloch fighters with brute force as they regularly carry out attacks on Chinese projects in Pakistan, including an attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi last year.
The University of Balochistan scandal, the abduction of large number of Baloch women for the last three years and reports of rape by military forces suggest to the vivid change of strategy and course of action in Pakistani military quarters to deal with the Baloch insurgency. It shows that they are at the verge of desperation and are adamant on repeating another genocidal rape, this time in Balochistan.
Balochistan is a deeply conservative society and there’s a shame and stigma attached to sexual violence and harassment. In conservative societies, victims of rape and harassment are often blamed for their own victimisation, thus it would not be wrong to assume that a large number of rape and harassment cases go unreported. Women who are raped express shame, self-blame and humiliation. They also fear of being stigmatised, disowned and abandoned or ostracised by their families, so they try to brush the incident under the carpet to uphold the family’s honour.
When bombs destroy houses, neighbours and relatives come to the rescue and provide temporary shelters. But survivors of rape and abuse are stigmatised and abandoned by their own communities. For all these reasons sexual violence and assaults in detention centres are rarely reported too, victims would testify to abuse and torture, but not rape.
United Nation did not recognise mass rapes during conflict as a war crime until 2008. On June 19, 2008, UN Security Council adopted the Resolution 1820 in which the organisation acknowledged rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security. It states that sexual violence is “a tactic of war to punish, humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or an ethnic group.”
The resolution also demanded the “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians.”
Although women’s rights groups welcomed the resolution and called it as ‘historic’, they claim it provides no legal solution for victims of wartime sexual violence. They demand setting up of a formal mechanism to tighten accountability and monitor compliance.
Now that the Security Council has recognised sexual violence by the hands of the belligerent armies during warlike situation as ‘war crime’, it is under obligation to send fact-finding missions in the areas of conflict, including Balochistan, establish commissions of inquiry, gather proofs to prosecute the perpetrators of mass rapes at the International Criminal Court.
It is sad that even today mass rapes during conflict go unchecked right under the eyes of United Nations Security Council, encouraging the perpetrators that they could get away even with genocidal rape.
Maryam Khanzai is a humanist. She often campaigns for the rights of the Baloch people, especially the missing persons. Her interests include politics, literature and feminism.