Tuesday, June 4, 2013

From Quetta to Turbat

I was all packed and ready when PIA suddenly decided to cancel its flight from Quetta to Turbat, which I was supposed to take to attend a family wedding the very next day. I panicked and called my uncle in Turbat to inform him that I couldn’t make it. But he was persistent and insisted that I had to come. So I decided to take a bus for Turbat the same evening.

As the bus left the station, I realised that I was wearing black clothes and that my surname was Hussain – enough reason to get killed on my journey to simply see two cousins tie the knot. Details of massacres of bus passengers who had taken similar bus journeys were quite vivid in my mind.

According to reports, passengers had been offloaded from the buses, their identity cards checked, and those with names that sounded ‘Shia’ – lined up and executed by a firing squad on the very road I was travelling on.

During September 2011, 26 Shias with names resembling mine were murdered in Mastung – 30 kilometres from Quetta. Mastung is the stronghold of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ); this is probably the most dangerous 30 kilometres for Shias and Sunnis with ‘Shia’ names.

I quickly scanned the other passengers to assess the number of potential Shias aboard because the more Shias a bus carried the more likely it would be targeted. I could spot just one person whose Mongoloid features made him a suitable Hazara suspect. He was restless, constantly looking out the front and side windows. Poor man, I thought.

I could at least argue with the LeJ guys, if given a chance, that since I was a Baloch, and the majority of Baloch are Sunnis, I should not be simply murdered for my parents’ short-sightedness for not foreseeing that 30 years later this name could get their child killed. But what argument could this man, with ‘Shia’ written all over his face, have at his disposal to change the mind of his assassins?

However both of us, me and the Hazara suspect, eventually passed those longest of 30 kilometres without our identity cards being checked. Hours later, I got off the bus at zero-point near Vinder to catch another bus for Turbat. But this journey was going to be as anxious for me as the one before it. And it didn’t help that my overzealous journalistic memory came into action and the details of Declan Walsh’s report for The Guardian, titled ‘Pakistan’s dirty secret war’ surfaced in my mind. Walsh had mentioned how the Baloch youth are routinely offloaded from buses on this particular route and their mutilated bodies found dumped somewhere days later.

I was once again counting my chances of getting killed on this lap of the journey – a Baloch, a journalist, nephew of a Baloch nationalist leader murdered much in the same fashion described by Walsh. All these identities had the potential to get me killed.

I recalled quoting a human rights group’s report in one of my articles that said 230 Baloch had been killed and dumped since June 2010 and how Balochistan was the most dangerous region for journalists. I had personally known three who were killed in recent months. Then I remembered a cousin my age being whisked away, tortured, killed and dumped just for being the nephew of a Baloch nationalist leader.

But Lady Luck was on my side that day, and I made it to Turbat safe and sound. I didn’t question my parents on choosing a Shia-sounding name for me. I realised that whatever your identity is, there could be something in your name, your identity card, your past or simply on your face that could get you killed in Balochistan.

This article was originally published in The News on January 13, 2013.

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