Karachi Literature Festival: Voices of the missing
Farzana Majeed’s voice resonated through the garden as she explained what happened to her brother at the session on the launch of the book The Baloch Who is Not Missing and Others Who Are. “It has been four years since Zakir Majeed Baloch was taken into the custody of Pakistan’s secret agencies,” said the MPhil student. “He had raised his voice against the ongoing atrocities in Balochistan.”
Since then, Majeed has been campaigning for her brother’s release. Her protest has largely gone unnoticed, as have those of hundreds like her. Since 2010, protestors from the Voice for Baloch Missing People have been sitting outside the Karachi Press Club with framed photos of sons, daughters, brothers and fathers who have been missing for years. They are victims of the campaign of enforced disappearances credited to the country’s military and intelligence organisations. The stories of how they were one day taken away, and not heard from since, are not those which one hears often because like them, their accounts are largely missing from the agendas of news organisations.
This ignored group was finally centre stage at the KLF. Author and journalist Mohammed Hanif, who has been among the few to document the stories of the families of the missing, has produced a volume of these in collaboration with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Hanif was joined on stage by Majeed, Mohammad Ali Talpur, a veteran of the Baloch insurgency in the 1970s, and noted human rights activist I.A. Rehman. In the audience was Qadeer Baloch, a leader of the Voice for Missing Baloch People, whose son was among those picked up and later killed.
Majeed tried to paint an image of bodies being discovered in indescribable states, of protestors who spend months at camps. “Thousands of political activists are in the custody of intelligence agencies, and they were picked up for supporting the fight for the freedom of Balochistan.
“If you look for it, on Facebook you can see the kind of tyranny and oppression the state is responsible for in Balochistan,” Majeed said, recounting footage of shelling that has killed men, women and children. Activists have been posting footage of attacks online because the media isn’t covering what is going on in Balochistan. Majeed says journalists often visit the protest camps, are sympathetic and take interviews and record videos, but these never surface because, as reporters tell her, “the intelligence agencies have to review them first.”
“This is a little book about a big problem,” Rehman said of The Baloch Who is Not Missing. “These stories are representative of hundreds of stories.” Yet, Rehman said, there are many people who are not ready to speak out because they are often warned by a military officer not to ‘create any noise’.
Talpur, Rehman and Hanif had to break down the issue — painful memory by painful memory — for the audience. Hanif did so by appealing to the parental instinct in each person. “Imagine that your child goes to school, but is half an hour late in coming back. You call the school and they say your child has left. You do not get any news from the route. His teachers do not answer their phones. Zakir Majeed was picked up four years ago. Can you imagine how a brother or a sister can accept this as a ‘normal’ situation?”
For Talpur, these wounds date back from the 1970s, when his friend Dilip Dass — part of a noted group of insurgents — was taken away by the military, never to be heard from again. He has been writing about Balochistan for years, but as Hanif and Talpur noted, this has become a ‘normal’ situation for the rest of Pakistan and people remain apathetic. “Someone’s son is missing. Why do we think that we can remove these people from our lives?” Hanif asked.
“We don’t deal with human beings anymore; we deal with numbers,” Rehman said. “We have stopped thinking about the people involved. We see their demonstrations at press clubs for months and don’t bother to find out why they are protesting.”
If it seemed extraordinary that the panellists were discussing atrocities in graphic detail it was because of a sense of helplessness: “We cannot get a single person released,” Rehman said.
Hanif pointed that those involved “do it because they think they can get away with it.” But Hanif also noted that the military would not dare to pull off something similar in Lahore, for example, and for this he blamed the media, the “seths” who have made their fortunes from the resources of Balochistan, and society at large, for not caring. “We have taken on this attitude that we do not name who has done the crime … that we do not know.”
The session ended with Majeed pointing out that the judicial commission investigating enforced disappearances and the Supreme Court have done nothing to recover the missing. She appealed to global human rights organisations and the United Nations to take up the issue. This was not the first time she has made this call, and given the horrific stories in the volume, it will not be the last.
— Saba Imtiaz