An apparent air of calm hangs over the sleepy city of Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's largest province, Balochistan, lying to the southwest and bordering Iran and Afghanistan.
Along the dusty, wind-swept streets, where temperatures plummet each night to below 10 degrees centigrade throughout much of the winter, vendors in woven woollen caps and heavy shawls sell dried fruit, blankets, mittens and other items on the pavements.
The 700,000 people of the city go about business as usual – noisy trucks blare their horns almost constantly, pedestrians keeping hands tucked firmly in jacket pockets as a defence against the biting cold.
Only the occasional damaged building, or a shallow crater by a roadside, gives away the fact that Quetta has experienced at least 100 bomb blasts and rocket attacks in 2005 alone, according to figures provided by Pakistan's interior minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao to the country's Senate at the end of December 2005. He added that there had been 187 bomb blasts, 275 rocket attacks and eight attacks on gas pipelines in Balochistan in 2005.
In the Kohlu and Dera Bugti districts of Balochistan, lying southeast of Quetta, simmering violence between tribal militias and security forces has flared up recently. Since the middle of December 2005, the sound of gunfire, and of military planes flying overhead, has been heard day after day. In early January, tension spread to the adjacent Dera Bugti district – with the Frontier Constabulary (FC), a paramilitary force, locked in fierce battles with armed militants, consisting mainly of tribesmen.
The people of the province have long felt a sense of deprivation and alienation from Islamabad, and have repeatedly demanded greater power to determine their own affairs. Balochis are also demanding greater control over the rich natural resources of the province. These include vast fields of natural gas at Sui, in Dera Bugti.
NEED FOR REGIONAL AUTONOMY
Analysts stress the need for more self-determination for the region. "As far as possible resolutions [to the current conflict] go, in the first place the 1973 constitution of Pakistan should be implemented, especially in regard to provincial autonomy,” leading regional observer Ahmed Rashid, told IRIN.
He also spoke of the need to "alter the corrupt mechanisms through which development aid is currently distributed in the province, with a system possibly involving neutral monitors… so that the development demands of Balochistan could be met."
Since early 2005, tensions have been running high between Nawab Akbar Bugti, the chief of the Bugti tribe, and the government of Pakistan. A dispute over royalties payable for the mining of gas in Dera Bugti, is thought by some to lie at the heart of the conflict, observers say.
However, increased attacks in Balochistan on military installations, government buildings and other targets, apparently by Baloch separatists, have added fuel to the fire. So too has the controversial case of Dr Shazia Khalid, a young female doctor posted to Sui, who early last year made accusations that an army officer had raped her. Angered by this, tribal militias surrounded the gas fields, leading to a stand-off with state forces, which continued for several months before arbitration by some government members restored temporary calm.
The latest violence began after eight rockets were fired on 14 December 2005 at a paramilitary base on the outskirts of the town of Kohlu, a stronghold of the Marri tribe, while President Pervez Musharraf was visiting it. The Marri tribe's leader, Sardar Khairbaksh Marri, is regarded as a close ally of Nawab Akbar Bugti and authorities saw the attack as having been planned by tribal leaders. Nawab Marri has maintained it was in fact staged by the military.
Three days later, paramilitary forces began what local people describe as an aerial bombardment of Kohlu town and surrounding areas. The government has consistently denied any army action and insists that the problems of Balochistan are created only by a few 'miscreants' encouraged by the province's rebellious tribal leaders.
In mid-January, three soldiers were killed and three others wounded when their vehicle struck a landmine in the town of Pir Koh, 400 km east of Quetta. After the blast, suspected militants launched an attack on a gas field in which 12 of them died, police said.
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION GATHERS DATA
Fact-finding missions, sent by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) to the Kohlu area and to Sui and Dera Bugti in December 2005 and January 2006, under the leadership of HRCP's chairperson Asma Jahangir, have found a troubling picture. The fighting has caused widespread damage to buildings, and 85 percent of the 25,000 or so people of Dera Bugti have been forced to flee the town, the commission maintains.
In the Dera Bugti area, schools have been closed for the last month. HRCP says children have not been attending them since March 2005, due to armed skirmishes between tribal militias and paramilitary troops in the area. "How can the children go to school? There is a sound of gunfire all the time here, the kids are terrified and there is a real danger of getting caught in the crossfire," Jan Muhammad, 40, a father of four, told IRIN in Quetta. He had fled to the Balochistan capital after leaving Dera Bugti, along with hundreds of other families, in mid-January.
"Life there is not possible. Homes have been hit. No one is safe. We can see planes with bombs flying overhead," added his wife, Kaushan Jehan.
The HRCP team, on its visit, found what looked like a ghost town at Dera Bugti. Almost the entire population, their belongings tied atop trucks, vans, lorries or donkey carts, had left the town and shops had been closed for over a month. On the roads leading out of Dera Bugti, caravans of people could be spotted leaving, watched by security forces manning road blocks.
IMPACT ON CIVILIANS
Meanwhile, the town of Kohlu remains under a state of siege. Entry to the area is barred, and the 12,000 or so people of the town have remained virtually cut off from the outside world since the middle of December. There have been complaints of food shortages, acute problems in taking the sick or injured to hospitals and normal life has come to a standstill. From towns near Kohlu, such as Kahan, hundreds have fled. The fact that much of the population of the area is nomadic makes it difficult to ascertain the precise number of displaced people.
"There is a war-like situation, ordinary people are suffering greatly, children have been unable to go to school for months and we were told some school buildings have been hit," Asma Jahangir told IRIN. She added: "People told us their children had gone crazy with fear."
HRCP has, in a detailed report on Balochistan released last Sunday, called for an immediate ceasefire and warned that development plans in the troubled region must be focused on building civil society, including establishing press clubs, bar associations and community radio and television networks, which would help connect the population of Balochistan with the rest of the country.
The fact that many roads in the province have been mined by tribal militias adds to the danger many civilians face. On Wednesday, six members of a family, including two women and three children, were killed when a landmine exploded as their van was travelling along a road near Dera Bugti.
Other roads have been closed due to the fighting and people are sometimes forced to travel many hours along alternative routes, some consisting only of dirt tracks, to reach destinations lying just a few kilometres away.
As people continue to flee troubled areas, rights activists are also demanding camps be set up for them and other assistance provided. "These people have nowhere to go. They need help," Quetta-based lawyer and activist Zahoor Ahmed Shawani, said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.