Suspended Lives: Resisting the Disappearance of Baloch Bodies in Pakistan



In this poignant text, Fatima Anwar describes the Pakistani system that “disappear” numerous people of Balochistan every year. Starting from a 2015 censored event on the topic at Lahore University of Management Sciences, she recounts the struggle of Baloch people, in particular women and children, to recover their loved ones.

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Artwork created by Pakistani artist Isma Gul Hasan for the 2021 Women’s Freedom March. The women on the poster are adorned in distinctly traditional Baloch patterns, paying homage to the resistance of Baloch women in the face of state repression. / Courtesy of Isma Gul Hasan.

In memory of Sabeen Mahmud

On April 8, 2015, two men from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), marched onto the LUMS university campus in Lahore and forcibly cancelled an academic talk to be held in auditorium B-3 the next day. I had helped organize the talk, titled “Unsilencing Balochistan,” in coordination with fellow students and professors as a part of a series of human rights roundtables. On the event poster was a portrait of a Baloch boy, possibly 10-12 years old, tightly clutching onto a photo of his missing father.

For families in Balochistan, this is not an uncommon image. Mothers hold the portraits of missing sons, wives of missing husbands, sisters of missing brothers, and children of missing fathers. The boy in this particular image was Ali Haider Baloch. Four years later, in 2019, the young boy in the picture, now a teenager, himself would go “missing.” 

It is almost impossible to speak of missing persons in Pakistan without the spectre of Balochistan haunting the conversation. A practice expanded and perfected during Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States’ “war on terror,” the escalation of enforced disappearances in the country is attributed to military dictator Pervaiz Musharraf. Musharraf, who, significantly enough, came into power in 2001. This marked the beginning of a period in which Pakistani citizens were extrajudicially disappeared and handed over to American authorities to do with as they pleased. In the era of Bagram and Abu Ghraib, as people disappeared into blacksites on a semantic turn, the Pakistani military found for themselves the convenient framework of a state of exception for “terrorists.” 

In the face of extractive exploitation and political marginalization, the Baloch have struggled for their right to self-determination ever since. 

In Balochistan, however, people have been going “missing” for much longer. The history of state violence there is as old as Pakistan itself. In the scramble to divide states during the great British escape from the subcontinent, regional governments were asked to choose between India, Pakistan, or autonomy. On August 12, 1947, the Khan of Kalat announced a short-lived independence for the people of Balochistan. On March 27, 1948, facing one of the first military excursions of the infant Pakistani military, the Khan was forced to accede to Pakistan, marking the beginning of decades of brutalization. A mineral rich province that hosts the largest natural gas field in Pakistan, Balochistan has suffered from a criminal lack of investment from the center in everything from basic infrastructure, water and electricity, to schools and hospitals. In the face of extractive exploitation and political marginalization, the Baloch have struggled for their right to self-determination ever since. 

I met Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur after we snuck him onto campus for a strange one-man version of our cancelled talk, hushly organized and advertised in a vague but thinly veiled fashion. An elder in the Baloch community, lovingly referred to as “ustad” and “baba,” he is an encyclopedia of the missing: “So and so was picked up with so and so, in front of x person, in y place, for this many years. Then he was released after n years and picked up again, released and picked up again. “Released” a final time when we found his mutilated body on the side of this road near such and such village.

“When a family member goes missing, one doesn’t know what to do,” he tells me. The families don’t know whether to keep quiet and hope their silence will buy their loved one’s life or to risk going public in the hopes that media attention will bring them back. He tells me stories: like that of Mahrang Baloch, who protested for the release of her father, only for her brother to go missing in retaliation. Like that of Lateef Johar, on hunger strike for 46 days, as journalists and politicians alike averted their gaze from his slowly emaciating body.

“They are like vegetables when/if they are returned to us.” This is what Talpur sab tells me.

After the talk was cancelled, activists from across Pakistan attempted to host the same panel at different venues in solidarity. Unprecedented defiance in the face of Pakistan’s seemingly all powerful military and feared intelligence agencies. One of these sister talks was hosted by activist and organizer Sabeen Mahmud at a community space she founded called The 2nd Floor (T2F) in Karachi. On the night of the T2F talk, the Facebook group set up by students began blowing up with notifications. Half asleep, I couldn’t comprehend what I was reading: “Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud shot dead in Karachi.”

Months later, the investigation would attribute her assasination to two young religiously motivated militants frustrated with Sabeen’s “secular” views and activism. They were booked, charged, and jailed. Nevermind that she was murdered on her way home from successfully hosting a conversation on enforced disappearances in Pakistan’s largest urban center. Nevermind that the Pakistani military has a long history of utilizing its militant “assets” to carry out its more unseemly tasks.

This is how you disappear human beings. First, you disappear their bodies. Then, you disappear their names. From every paper, from every evening news report, from every academic talk, from even the mouths of their family members. 

Mohammed Hanif, an acclaimed Pakistani novelist and journalist, is one of the few that has made an effort to document the stories of the disappeared. In The Baloch Who is Not Missing and Others Who Are (2013), he writes of a practice among Baloch prisoners in blacksites of taking turns to give the adhaan (call to prayer) and ending it with their names. So that if another prisoner is released, he carries with him a recitation of the names of the still living. In another story, he writes of a brother who sends his sister the buttons off his shirt with a returned missing person, so that she may know he is alive.

The stories in his pamphlet follow the same painful cycle; a family member is picked up and the rest then consign themselves to endless rounds of the Missing Person Protest Checklist: file an FIR, get a lawyer, submit a habeas writ, write letters to the government, to media, to human rights workers, and wait.

What emerges is a bizarre labyrinth of paperwork and police stations, courtrooms, and government offices, protest camps and human rights NGOs. The governor says: “I can’t do anything, it’s the military who has your son.” The Military Intelligence says: “We’re being forced to clean up ISI’s mess, you should keep quiet, it’s what’s best for you.” One year they say: “We have your son, he is safe, he is alive, he is only being questioned.” The next year they say: “We never had him.” And the next year still, they say: “He died five years ago.” That your eyes lied to you if you saw him alive, that your ears betrayed you if he heard him over the phone. “He is dead, we never had him.”

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Ali Haider’s portrait as a young boy holding a picture of his missing father on the Unsilencing Balochistan poster.

The families of missing persons live suspended lives.

March, camp, protest, hunger strike. Go to the thaana. Go to the court. Speak to this journalist, speak to that lawyer. Rinse and repeat.

Suspended childhoods, suspended schooling, suspended jobs.

Suspended marriages, suspended motherhoods.

And perhaps most painfully of all, suspended grief. Because mourning cannot happen until there is confirmation of a death. This is the ultimate cruelty of enforced disappearances. At the end, the plea of so many Baloch families becomes a plea for a body and a prayer. For that last shred of dignity of being allowed the certainty of death and the release of grief.

“All I want from you is that you take me to his grave. I’ll dig it up. I’ll identify him. I’ll offer my prayers and then never bother you guys again.”

The Pakistani state answers this plea in the form of bodies mutilated beyond recognition, dumped unceremoniously on far-flung roadsides.

In 2013, one of the speakers of our cancelled talk, 72 year old Mama Qadeer, set out with an odd assortment of some 20 Baloch men, women, and children to walk over 2,000 kilometers from Quetta, in Balochistan, to Karachi to Islamabad. With them walked 8 year old Beauragh Baloch, whose father had been missing from 2009 to 2011. Beauragh was 4 years old when his grandfather Mama Qadeer took him to see his father’s scarred and mutilated body. Together, grandfather and grandson broke Gandhi’s salt march record as the oldest and youngest person to complete such an arduous trek of protest on foot.

Of the women who marched, one was Farzana Majeed, another would-be speaker on the panel of our silenced talk. The sister who received her missing brother’s buttons, student forced to abandon her Master’s in biochemistry, and general secretary of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), Farzana has now spent over a decade agitating for the return of her brother. In the face of unimaginable grief, Baloch women have stepped up to lead the charge for the dignity and rights of the Baloch people.

The first woman to chair the Baloch Students Organization, Karima Baloch, was an inspiration to scores of Baloch students, convincing girls to study and join Baloch politics. In defiance of a highly insulated conservative society, she led the charge not just for Baloch rights but women’s rights within Baloch society. In December 2020, Karima Baloch was found dead in a lake in Canada, where she had been living in asylum. A few months prior, Baloch journalist Sajid Hussain’s dead body wound up in a river in Sweden. Both Canadian and Swedish authorities ruled out foul play despite evidence of threats provided by their families.

“Karima was like a daughter to me,” Talpur sab tells me, “There is a searing pain in my heart every time I see her picture, but it would be betraying her sacrifices for me to lose hope, to give up.”

It is painful enough to have to make a spectacle of one’s pain, to turn one’s body into a site of protest, and to create a public display of one’s innermost grief. Worse still, to do so in front of unseeing eyes and unfeeling hearts. The Baloch have been demonized as de facto traitors. It is not that Pakistanis have trouble believing what they have suffered, it is that they believe it to be justified. That is the ugly face of unrepentant nationalism and allegiance to the State that the Baloch are contending with.

Writing this piece itself has been a painful and disconcerting process. It is hard to hope in the face of this history and it is hard to imagine one’s pitiful contributions adequate. It is harder, still, to confront the way I and other Pakistanis have failed our Baloch brothers and sisters. That being said, the memory of fear is difficult to shake from one’s bones. And one thinks and rethinks the truths they are allowed to say.

Some years after the events of “Unsilencing Balochistan,” I visited Sabeen’s community space T2F in Karachi. Among all the art, pictures of Pakistani icons, and messages of love scribbled in colourful markers, there is a wall that carries her legacy: “Fear is just a line in your head, you can choose what side of that line you want to be on.” ■