January issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

“Being buried in an alien land would separate me from my ancestors; I wish to be among them after death. My soul will be at peace if I’m buried in our ancestral graveyard,” 85-year-old Mashkool Ali Bugti tells his family members on his deathbed. The displaced Bugti and Marri tribes, who have sought shelter in different parts of Sindh and Balochistan following the army operation in the Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts of Balochistan, have been reduced to landless refugees in their own country.

The forbidding silence written on their faces prevents me from asking them any questions about their living conditions. But the makeshift camps are ample proof of their abysmal state. A 10-year-old girl is busy cooking in what appears to be an open-air kitchen. Sickly-looking goats are drinking from a pond of saline water and an old woman is fetching contaminated water from the same pond for drinking. Two donkeys are searching for a patch of grass inside the fences that surround the makeshift dwellings housing around 15 families of the Bugti tribe who have taken refuge at the Marri farm near Dera Allahyar.
This then is a likely portrait of the thousands of scattered shelters of the Marri and Bugti tribesmen who have been forced to flee their homes.

According to a report issued by the UN office in Islamabad in 2006, around 84,000 people have been displaced from the Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts. The report also states that among the displaced are 26,000 women and 33,000 children. A fact-finding team of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which visited Balochistan between December 2005 and January 2006, issued a report in July 2006 saying that 50,000 people had, by that time, fled from Dera Bugti alone. Of these, between 8,000-10,000 people had died due to malnourishment and disease.

Incidentally, these figures are much lower than those presented by Baloch nationalists. Rafique Khoso, a senior member of the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP), claims that in the Dera Bugti district more than 125,000 persons belonging to the Bugti tribe have been deprived of their homes and, according to Mir Mureed Khan Bugti, a member of the central committee of the BRP, the total number of displaced Marris and Bugtis from the Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts is over 300,000. The latter figure would mean that the vast majority of citizens in these two districts have been displaced.

Whatever the real figures, they are probably rising as the conflict rages on. Sadly, no survey has been conducted recently by the government or any other independent agency to gauge the actual position. Nor have there been any statistics to highlight the socio-economic problems of these displaced persons, which have multiplied due to the lack of proper shelter, health and education facilities. Added to this is the unavailability of food and safe drinking water.

A displaced individual describes the traumatic moments when rockets were fired from the military camps on Dera Bugti: “In the thunder of blasts and heavy shelling of rockets, we had no time even to collect our children’s clothes. We left in a state of panic, without any belongings; we had no idea where we would be seeking refuge.” Recalling the horrible journey from Dera Bugti, on the day that the army directly targeted the Bugti house, Essa Bugti, a selfless social worker who left his home along with 106 members of his family, recalls the story of another exodus. “We were travelling on foot continuously for five days and nights. Due to the rigours of travelling and the lack of food and safe drinking water, some of the refugees were dying. Along the way, I saw two children wrapped in a chadar, who were being buried. We had nothing to offer the victims’ family except tears of consolation. The mother lingered for a while near the makeshift grave of her children and then began to walk on with tears rolling down her cheeks.”

In addition to those innocent memberof the Bugti and Marri tribes who were not involved with the violent acts of the Baloch insurgents, including blowing up of government installations and gas pipelines, etc., 2,000 peace-loving Hindus have also been forced to flee their homes due to the large-scale military operation. The Hindu community, which has lived in Dera Bugti for several generations now, has virtually nothing to do with politics. Merchants by profession, they were running profitable businesses under the protection and patronage of the slain Baloch leader Akbar Bugti.

“We rushed out of our homes into the wilderness when the military fired rockets directly targeting the Bugti house on March 17, 2005,” says Sewak Ram Bugti, a 55-year-old Hindu businessman. “We were not prepared for such brutal action — 36 Hindus were killed. We came back after three days to collect the dead bodies and cremate them. Our houses had been destroyed and our shops looted. We found nothing except dead bodies. The military operation has not only taken away our livelihoods but turned us from rich businessmen into impoverished refugees.” Sewak Ram Bugti lost his three-storey house and an electronic shop worth Rs.5 million in Dera Bugti. Now he is living in a rented house along with seven members of his family in Dera Allahyar, and is unemployed.

The Musharraf government did not take cognisance of the plight of these displaced Hindus. In fact, they maintained that the UN figures on the refugees were incorrect, and that almost all of them had returned to their homes in Dera Bugti and Kohlu. According to the government’s claim, only 15,000 people, a majority of whom were said to be Hindu businessmen, had established their business elsewhere and were unwilling to come back.

Ram Chand, who was earning Rs.700-800 daily through his bicycle shop in Dera Bugti, has taken refuge, along with his family, at Baba Giandas Darbar (Mandir) in Dera Allahyar. Fifty-five-year-old Ram Chand has no source of income and no place to live. “We are lodged in a dharamshala, where food and shelter is provided free of cost. My two young sons are working on daily wages, earning Rs.2,000-3,000 per month. This money is insufficient to rent a house and feed six family members.”

Hindu businessmen, who had been living in close-knit communities, yearn for those days when the entire community got together to celebrate Holi and Diwali. Now they have settled in different cities of Balochistan and Sindh and often fail to meet up for religious and cultural festivals. Apart from this cultural isolation, many families have no source of income and have been forced to take refuge in dharamshalas in Quetta, Kashmore and Rohri. Some of them are living in Sadha Ram Rahrki Sahib Mandir in district Ghotki in Sindh. According to Ram Chand, seven marriages of displaced couples have been arranged at the Rahrki Mandir and Saen Sadha Ram; the guardian of the temple has paid for all the wedding expenses.

Those affected the most by this displacement are children. An internal assessment report carried out by UNICEF two years ago revealed that the displaced children were suffering from severe malnutrition and that 28% of them under the age of five were “acutely undernourished.” Out of these, 6% were in a state of “severely acute malnutrition.” Further, 80% of the deaths among the internally displaced persons were of children under the age of five. The report cautioned that 6% of the children were so underfed that they would die if they did not receive immediate medical attention.
Several children have died of hepatitis and thousands are severely ill and have not received any treatment. Their families have no resources or access to medical treatment to save their offspring. Essa Bugti showed Newsline the test results of 85 children brought to Quetta Medical Hospital for blood screening: 82 of them had tested positive for the hepatitis virus. Pointing to the swollen stomachs of his children, Maula Bux Bugti said they were suffering from hepatitis. But there was nothing he could do. He had already spent all his money treating other illnesses. Maula Bux then pulled the shirts off three of his children to show the cuts on their stomachs from the kidney operations they had undergone. Their kidneys had collapsed because of the contaminated water. Maula Bux says he has nothing more to sell to get further treatment for these children. “I am the father of six children who are going to die.” Like most Baloch, he will not ask for charity. “We have to go through what is written in our destiny. It is against our values to beg for our survival,” says an aged Baloch. His children, too, are seriously ill, but he is unwilling to hand them over to an orphanage.

Incidentally, it is not only death that stalks the lives of these children. Thousands of school-going youth have been deprived of their right to education, leading an entire generation towards a bleak future. They are now compelled to work. Six-year-old Usman carries a heavy hammer in his small, tender hands. He accompanies his father every morning and crushes stones till the sun sets at Kot Diji, district Khairpur.

“We can bear the loss of property and land, but what is intolerable for us is that our children will remain illiterate,” says Ghulam Qadir Kalpar Bugti, who is holding classes outdoors for 35 children, who are seated on the floor. “I am trying my best to educate them. But while I can teach the students to read and write, they will not be able to get a job without having a school certificate,” he adds.

Almost all the children have been deprived of official schooling. Meva, Umar Khan and Shakeel Bugti were studying in class six at Sui. Now they are being tutored at a private institution some seven kilometres away in Dera Allahyar. According to Ghulam Qadir, at some places in Kot Diji, the educated among the refugees are providing education to children on a self-help basis.

Unfortunately, the plight of the displaced has been overshadowed by the continuing conflict in the area, which in fact has exacerbated following the killings of Akbar Bugti and Balach Marri. The Zardari government has ignored the cries of these hapless refugees. Human rights organisations have also turned a blind eye to their plight. “In the last two years, no humanitarian organisation has offered us a relief package,” says Essa Bugti, who has consistently been asking for assistance.

Even the locals in the places where these families have settled, seem indifferent to their plight and have not extended any help or shown any sympathy towards them. “We are being treated like aliens by the local people in Sindh. Even in the Jaffarabad district of Balochistan, we are known as mohajireen (refugees). Could you tell me what the word refugee stands for?” asks Bugti.

The silence of the mainstream media on the inhuman living conditions of these refugees is equally deafening. One reason for under-reporting the issue could be the threat journalists face from security agencies. “In the Naseerabad and Jaffarabad districts alone, there are more than 70 working journalists, but not a single one of them dares to write about what is happening inside Balochistan. I have tried to report on it several times, but I have received phone calls from security agencies asking me to remain silent,” says Hashim Khoso, a local reporter from a leading news channel and newspaper. So their story largely remains untold and their problems remain unaddressed.

A freelance journalist, with an experience of print, electronic and web media. She writes, and trains media on climate change, gender and labour issues, as well as media ethics.