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29 January 2013updated 31 Jan 2013 8:59am

The secret war in Balochistan

The Pakistani province is beset with violence.

By Samira Shackle

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.

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“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.