The secret war in Balochistan

The Pakistani province is beset with violence.

On 10 January, two bomb blasts ripped through a snooker hall in Quetta, Balochistan, killing 86 people and injuring 120. Most of the dead were Hazara Shias, an ethnic and religious minority. The militant Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility. Earlier that day, an unrelated blast at a security checkpoint in the same city had killed 12; that bomb was planted by the United Baloch Army, a nationalist group.

The two attacks shone a light on the troubled province, which was placed under federal rule soon afterwards. The following week, as a warrant was issued for the prime minister’s arrest and speculation mounted that the forthcoming general election could be delayed, Balochistan was forgotten once again.

The state makes great efforts to keep Balochistan out of the international news: often foreign journalists’ visas are restricted so they cannot visit the capital city, Quetta, and if they do get permission they are closely monitored by security agents.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, making up 44 per cent of the country’s land mass, but it has the smallest population, just half that of Karachi, capital of the neighbouring Sindh. Its vast mineral riches, including gold, copper, oil, gas, platinum and coal, are largely untapped, while its deserts and long borders with Afghanistan and Iran make it an attractive terrain for unsavoury characters. Between Islamist militants, an aggressive separatist movement and a crackdown by the central government, the province is beset with violence.

The separatist movement stretches back to the 1920s, long before Pakistan was created in 1947. It considers anyone not ethnically Baloch to be a “settler”, even though some of the Punjabis, Hazaras and Mohajirs have been in Balochistan for the best part of a century. Nationalists target civilians with shootings and bombs. They also target schools and universities, which are seen as symbols of the state and are mostly run by the so-called settlers. The attacks on schools resulted in a bloody riposte from the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a secret war that has brought Balochistan to its knees.

“Nationalists are destroying any prospect for the future of the children of the province,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch. “But the viciousness with which the military has attacked nationalists has increased the violence.”

I recently spoke with a local official in Quetta. He was reluctant to speak on the phone because his line is tapped by the ISI. Attempts to speak on Skype proved abortive. The rebels had blown up the main pylon near his office, so there was no electricity.

Over the past few years, a grisly series of YouTube videos has shown the mutilated bodies of young men. They are found at the rate of about 15 each month. Their deaths are barely reported on or investigated, but Human Rights Watch claims there is “indisputable” evidence that the ISI and its sister agencies are responsible.

A 2012 Freedom House report on internet freedom found that Baloch nationalist websites were the most systemically censored in Pakistan. Baloch Hal, the first English-language Baloch news service, has been blocked since November 2010.

It remains to be seen what difference the imposition of governor’s rule is having on the province. The devolved government had been widely criticised for failing to control the violence. Yet the local writ in Balochistan has always been limited. The heavy ISI and military presence has corroded provincial authority to the point where it barely exists.

Such lawlessness creates a terrifying environment for minorities. Thousands of Hazaras have already fled to Australia. “This is an ethnic tinderbox,” Hasan tells me.

A girl holds a placard during protests following the bombing in Quetta. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle