Sayaad (name changed), 22 years old, from Turbat, Balochistan, Pakistan
“I am here now to show the world what is happening in Balochistan, and hope that the international community will step in to protect the Baloch people and support their struggle.”
Sayaad is 22 years old and fled Pakistan earlier this year fearing for his life. But before telling me about his personal story and his journey to Europe, he insists in sharing a brief history of his country, because, he says, Balochistan has it’s own, unique history, and not many people have heard about their struggle and the violence and killings his people are suffering.
“When the British rule ended in Pakistan in 1947, part of Balochistan was declared independent as a free nation, on the 11th of August 1947. But freedom only lasted 9 months, when at the end of March 1948, Pakistani troops moved into Balochistan and occupied our country. The Pakistani army has conducted several major military operations in occupied Balochistan since then, abducting, torturing and killing thousands of political activists, intellectuals, teachers, students, lawyers and even plain civilians. The most recent of these military operations started in late 2000 and is still ongoing, and they have killed several important political leaders.”
Sayaad remembers how he started to become conscious of the political situation in Balochistan at a young age. “In 2006, they killed Nawab Akbar Bugti, a great political leader for our people. I was about 10 years old at the time, and I was studying in Karachi (Pakistan’s largest city), living with my uncles and relatives. I remember people started protesting against the violence, and the Pakistani military arrested many demonstrators and other political activists. I started to attend rallies and speeches in Karachi. I remember a speech by one of our leaders, Ghulam Mohammed, who was president of the Baloch National Movement at the time. He was talking about freedom, human rights and Baloch independence. My uncles and I were fans.” Ghulam Mohammed was killed in 2009, and according to Sayaad, Pakistani forces threw acid on him, drilled holes threw his chest and left a note on the mutilated body reading “Long Live Pakistan”.
Sayaad explained that Pakistan invests very little in vital services in Balochistan such as education or health. He also spoke about how hard it was for Balochs to find a job, even with university degrees. “Pakistanis see us like criminals and they look at you like they are going to beat you up. We are not safe in Pakistan.”
Sayaad’s two uncles, whom he was living with during his schooling, were poets, and wrote poetry denouncing the violent repression in Balochistan. At the age of 15, Sayaad was joining protests and became active on social media to shed light on the Baloch situation online. “I created a fake Facebook page, with a fake name, and with a group of friends we started organising protest actions in our province. We used to distribute leaflets and put up posters at night, because darkness made it safer for us. We organised a demonstration for the 27th of March, which is the date Pakistan occupied us, as it represents a black day in the history of our nation.”
In 2012, Sayaad tried to join the Baloch National Movement (BNM), but they said he was too young, and encouraged him to go back to his studies, and finish his education. But when the situation intensified in Karachi, where Sayaad was studying, with more abductions and killings, he decided to return to Balochistan for safety.
“In 2014, one of my uncles who was a poet was killed by the Pakistani army. He was travelling to Turbat, in Balochistan, by car and was stopped by the military who opened fire. He didn’t die straight away. Two cousins of mine and his sister were with him, and they drove him to hospital, but at the hospital, they said they didn’t have the necessary facilities to save him; they had to go back to Karachi. They drove back in an ambulance as fast as they could but unfortunately, along the way, they got stopped at another military checkpoint and this time, they killed him and took my two cousins into custody. My aunt was left alone with my uncle’s body. My cousins stayed in prison for a few months, and upon their release, they told us they had been tortured and beaten, and the military had interrogated them about being members of the BNM, which they were not.”
“After my uncle was killed, I was more convinced than ever to join the BNM, and I helped organise demonstrations in my region. But on the 29th of January of this year, 2016, they killed my second uncle. This time, they blamed it on the Baloch Liberation Front, another, more violent liberation movement. At home, my mother took me aside and told me "You have to go, or they will come to kill you next”. And so, I packed a few things and left my country.“
“I was travelling with a friend, and we paid the agent about 4000 dollars each for the whole journey. It started with a motorbike to get to the border with Iran; then we crossed the sea into Iran on a small boat. After that, we spent 31 hours hidden in the baggage compartment underneath a bus to get to Tehran. They had made a space for us between the bags, just wide enough to lie down. At the checkpoints along the road, we could hear the boots of the soldiers searching the bus, but they didn’t find us. It was so cold in the baggage compartment that my friend thought we would die there. Just before getting to Tehran, the bus driver told us to get off because we were getting to a checkpoint that was notoriously difficult to pass. We were to take motorbikes around the hills and join the bus later on, when it had passed the checkpoint. The drivers of the motorbikes tried to mug us for our money, but we told them we had nothing left, and they stole our gloves.” Sayaad laughs recalling this incident.
After getting back on the bus, and reaching Tehran, the smugglers arranged for Sayaad and his friend to drive to the border with Turkey.
“To get to Turkey, we had to climb a mountain, at night so the border guards wouldn’t see us. I didn’t have the right shoes to be climbing mountains, and you have to picture it; at some point we were knee deep in snow! I had really bad blisters all the way up. It was very steep and took many hours to climb in the night.” Sayaad draws a diagram of a mountain to show me how steep it was and the way they had to take to avoid the border controls. On one side is Iran, and on the other is Turkey, he explains.
“When we got almost to the top, something went wrong and the smugglers told us we had to go back. We rushed back down on the same side we had gone up, but I was so tired I was lagging behind. The smugglers pulled out a gun and told me that if I didn’t go faster he would have to kill me. I was so tired, honestly at that point I thought ‘You can just kill me.’”
“We rested for three days before attempting the climb again. This time, instead of making zigzags up the mountain, we went straight up. My feet were killing me, and my blisters had turned black. My friend almost gave up. We both forked out some more dollars to get horses to carry us to the top. When we finally reached the top, the smuggler told us to go straight down on the other side, as fast as we could, and that someone would pick us up at the bottom. He turned around and left. We started to head down the mountain, this time on the Turkish side. My friend was ahead of me, and as we got to the bottom, I saw him stepping out on an asphalt road. But as soon as he had set foot on that road, I saw someone punch him in the face. I tried to turn around and run, but someone grabbed me by the collar and dragged me to where my friend was sitting. They were Turkish soldiers, and arrested everyone who came down the mountain that night. We sat long hours on the road, with soldiers beating us and watching over us with guns. I remembered what the smuggler had told us: “If you run, they are not allowed to shoot, so they won’t kill you”. I whispered to my friend that maybe we should try to run for it, but he said “Are you crazy? There are soldiers everywhere! They will catch us and beat us for sure.“
"So we were held in an army base for several days. When we were in Turkish custody, they used us for manual labour. They made us fill in bags of sand that are used in combat for example, or clear the road of ice. They didn’t give us any food, just bread and water. One of the soldiers wanted me to give him my phone and threatened me with his gun. But during my time in custody, I found my cousin! He had also fled Balochistan a couple of days before me, and we met again in this jail. Finally, our agents paid the military to get us out. When we finally left, we travelled at the back of a small van, about 30 men all pressed together, we could hardly breathe. But they took us to a safe place, where we could rest and take showers. I hadn’t taken a shower in more than two weeks, can you imagine!”
"Finally, we were taken to Ismir, for the crossing to Europe. It was March this year. We travelled at night, and on the shore, seven men stood around us with guns and told us we had to pump air into the inflatable boat. They gave us fake life jackets and forced us all to get on the boat, threatening those who hesitated with their guns. We were 64 passengers on a boat that was about 9 meters long, with a very weak motor. We were going so slowly, it took us three hours just to get to the Greek waters. When the sun started to rise, water was coming into the boat and people started crying and praying. We had called the rescue number but no one was picking up. People started to panic, but miraculously, we were found by a Greek rescue boat. They picked up three other boats that night. By the time we got back to Lesvos, and arrived at Moria Camp, it was late afternoon. We had spent all night and most of the day on the sea, and we were so cold and tired. That night, I called home to tell my parents I was in Europe. My mother was happy to hear from me, but she also told me that two of my close friends had been abducted by the Pakistani military.”
“In Greece, they told us that because we were Pakistani, we wouldn’t get asylum, because Pakistan is considered a safe country. They don’t have Baloch translators; during my interview, the interpreter was Pakistani. I didn’t trust him to translate correctly what I was saying, and I was scared he might be working with the Pakistani state, so I did not tell the real story. My case was rejected. Here in Europe, they don’t know that the Baloch people are being killed and repressed by the Pakistani state.”
“We did get registration cards that allowed us to get to Athens. We tried to smuggle ourselves to Germany through the northern borders but we were caught by the police. I need to get to Germany or the UK because there are many Baloch there who could help me. But it costs more than 5000 euros for smugglers to take you and it’s a very difficult journey.”
Sayaad fiddles with the Baloch flag on his lap. His vision of the future is grim. “Right now, I have little hope. If they deport me back to Pakistan, they will kill me for sure. We have heard of many Balochs who are deported, and when they get to Karachi airport, they just disappear. Europe must stop deporting Baloch back to Pakistan, it is not safe for us there. The UN and the international community should take action to support human rights in Balochistan, and protect the civilians in the region. More than 20 000 Balochs have been abducted, where are these people? They should be released.”
“I made a mistake to come to Europe. In Balochistan, I was not safe but I had friends and family who could have helped me hide. In Europe, they have the possibility of deporting us, handing us over directly to the Pakistani military. I just signed my death sentence coming here.”
Photo & Story: Clara Veale, Voices of Refugees