12-year-old Ansa at a rally in Quetta.
12-year-old Ansa at a rally in Quetta.

Ansa thought her family were among the lucky ones: Amir was returned alive in 2019 after two years in a detention centre in an unknown location. The family was told by the security agencies never to return to the protest camp again.

“I hope I won’t be back to the camp for my brothers but I will keep visiting the missing persons camp for the release of missing persons,” she said.

In Balochistan, a highly conservative region where women have restricted rights, it is women, from housewives to students, who have been leading the charge against the continued forced disappearances, human rights violations and extrajudicial killings.

The region, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, is Pakistan’s poorest and least developed. It is home to a long-running and violent separatist insurgency that has been met in response with a brutal military-led crackdown that has targeted political workers, activists, insurgents and family members of those associated with the Baloch National Movement (BNM) and other nationalist groups.

Thousands have been abducted from the streets or their homes in the dead of night, allegedly by plainclothes security agents, and then taken to detention centres in undisclosed locations and often tortured. Some are returned alive, but more often than not the disappeared turn up dead years later.

Protesters hold photos of their loved ones during a rally in Karachi.
Protesters hold photos of their loved ones during a rally in Karachi.

In the past few years the killing of a student, Hayat Baloch, and a picture of his dead body lying in pool of blood in front his crying parents, the murder of Malik Naz, a woman who resisted the private militia in Balochistan, and the mysterious death of a Baloch exile, Karima Baloch, in Canada have mobilised women to protest.

Mahnaz Mohammed Hussain, 72, whose three sons allegedly have been killed by security forces, said women were at the forefront of the fight for justice in Balochistan because they continued to pay the heaviest price. “Women suffer the most in conflict and war,” she said. Men get killed or abducted. But now we see our children, young and even women are getting killed, therefore we can’t sit at home and watch.”

On 11 October she resorted to staging a protest in the Balochistan city of Turbat, where she joined a family who had brought out in public the bodies of two young children allegedly killed in a mortar attack by the Pakistan security forces. The Pakistan military has denied involvement in the attack.

To further add insult to Hussain’s grief, when the deputy commissioner came to negotiate with the family, he was dismissive of Hussain, telling her: “We men are negotiating here. Please keep quiet for a while.”

Mahnaz Mohammed Hussain at a protest in Quetta.
Mahnaz Mohammed Hussain at a protest in Quetta.

Despite promises by the government to end enforced disappearances – Pakistan’s security forces and agencies have denied claims of abducting civilians, and its media director said in a 2019 tweet: “Our hearts beat with [the] families of every missing person” – it is a problem that is not going away.

According to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, at least 6,000 people are still missing. Since 2018 an increasing number of female students and women protesting against enforced disappearances have been beaten by the police.

Long-promised legislation to make enforced disappearances illegal has still not been passed, and indeed recent amendments to the draft bill would “violate international human rights law and would allow state actors to behave with impunity”, Amnesty International said last week.

The UN working group on enforced disappearances also expressed grave concerns at the proposed amendments to the bill, including clauses that harshly penalise relatives for reporting alleged cases of enforced disappearances.

Mahrang Baloch, a renowned activist and a trainee medical doctor whose father was the victim of an extrajudicial killing about a decade ago, began protesting after her brother was abducted four years ago. “It was the moment I decided to protest for everyone,” she said. “And I removed my veil and showed my face to everyone.”

In response, she said, the security forces had begun threatening and abducting the male family members of those leading the protest movement.

“A few months ago they picked up the brother of Dr Sabiha Baloch, the first female chairperson of the Baloch Student Action Committee, a student organisation, just because she has been protesting against enforced disappearances,” said Baloch.

Yet despite the societal pressure and threats from the powerful security agencies, many of the women say they will persist in their fight for justice. Sammi Baloch, 23, not related to Mahrang, along with 10 families walked more than 1,250 miles (2,000km) from Quetta to Karachi and then to Islamabad in 2012 for the release of her father and other missing persons, and continues to be at the forefront of the protests.

She also met the prime minister of Pakistan in March and was assured that the issue of enforced disappearances would be resolved and no one would go missing.

“It has been over a decade, I am on the road for the release of my father. I won’t stop protesting unless they bring back my father,” she said. “Rather than bringing back missing persons, the government is bent on punishing us for protesting and asking for our brothers and fathers. The prime minister must fulfil his promise.”