'Look at us, We Also Exist': Afghan Baloch
Baloch youngsters ride their motorbikes along the dry bed of the Helmand River.
ZARANJ, Afghanistan (IPS): Balochistan, divided by the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a vast swathe of land the size of France. It boasts enormous deposits of gas, gold and copper, untapped sources of oil and uranium, as well as a thousand kilometres of coastline near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.
Despite the wealth under their sandals, the Baloch people inhabit the most underdeveloped regions of their respective countries; Afghanistan is no exception.
Often overlooked, the Afghan Baloch count as just one among the many groups that make up the colourful ethnic mosaic of Afghanistan. And like the Pashtuns, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, they have also seen their land divided by the arbitrary boundaries in Central Asia.
Baloch historian and intellectual Abdul Sattar Purdely tells IPS there are “about two million of us in Afghanistan, but only those living in the southern provinces of Nimroz and Helmand speak Balochi.”
In his late sixties, this former MP during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah (1987-1992) is today a professor, writer, and a leading advocate for the preservation of the Baloch language and culture in Afghanistan.
In coordination with the Afghan Ministry of Education, Purdely has written textbooks in Balochi that go as far as the 8th grade, which are already being used in three schools.
The Baloch in Afghanistan make up just a tiny portion of a people scattered throughout the Iranian Plateau, but they are united by the experience of religious, linguistic and ethnic persecution in a region increasingly marked by Islamic extremism.
A shepherd and his family walk their cattle in Zaranj, capital of Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province. In the absence of comprehensive census data, the Baloch intellectual Abdul Sattar Purdely tells IPS that Afghan Balochs number about two million, though not all speak the Balochi language. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
The Baloch people, who hail from the Iranian plateau, have settled for centuries alongside the banks of the Helmand River in Afghanistan. But severe droughts and the excessive use of the river’s water for opium cultivation in Nimroz have lead to the collapse of agriculture in the province, affecting scores of Baloch families. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
The majority of the Baloch people are Sunni Muslims but their moderate vision of Islam has turned them into victims of growing Islamic extremism in the region. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
The neglected village of Haji Abdurrahman, in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, is a hub for Afghan and Pakistani Baloch people, the latter seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Dozens of families struggle to survive in this cluster of mud houses without electricity or running water.
Baloch youngsters ride their motorbikes along the dry bed of the Helmand River. The total lack of economic and social opportunities pushes them to illegally migrate to neighbouring Iran, seeking a better life. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
A Baloch teenager poses next to his portrait inside his house in Nasirabad, another mud-hut village in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province. Like the majority of the local population, he is also illiterate. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
In Pakistan, for instance, the Baloch people have long weathered a crackdown against what the government calls an insurgency, while “Tehran is constantly trying to quell any Baloch initiative in Nimroz [a province in southwest Afghanistan] as they consider it a potential threat to their security,” according to Mir Mohamad Baloch, a political and cultural activist.
This Afghan-born Baloch tells IPS that an independent Balochistan is a “life dream” for him – but under current political conditions in the region, this dream is a long way from reality.
Currently, Zaranj hosts the only TV programme in Balochi in Afghanistan for one hour a day between five and six pm. Although the first TV channel in Balochi was set up in 1978 preceding the printing of the community’s first books and newspapers, the fall of the Communist government led to a sharp cultural decline in Afghanistan.
Historically a nomadic group, the Baloch people have endured years of brutal repression for their moderate vision of Islam. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, even issued a fatwa, an Islamic edict, against the people of Nimroz, calling for the ethnic cleansing of the Baloch and Shia population.
“Against all odds, our national identity is [growing] bigger despite the ongoing chaos in the country,” proclaims Abdul Sattar Purdely from his office in downtown Kabul. “We just need the rest of the world to know about us.”
A Baloch family from the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar stand for a photograph. While millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan over the past four decades, Pakistani Balochs are taking the opposite route, fleeing to Afghanistan to avoid repression by the Pakistani government. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
This Pakistani Baloch elder and his two sons are today hiding in Afghanistan. Rights groups have criticised the Pakistan government’s crackdown on the Baloch people. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
Baloch fighters from the Balochistan Liberation Army crouch at an undisclosed location along the Afghan-Pakistan border. There are several Baloch insurgent groups fighting for independence in Pakistan. Some of their fighters often cross the border to evacuate the wounded and treat them in Afghan hospitals. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
Karim and Sharif Baloch, both of them from Pakistan, show the portraits of their lost brother and father at their current residence in Zaranj. They tell IPS their relatives were killed in 2011 during a Pakistani military operation. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
A truck travels down a lost road in Nimroz, the only Afghan province where the Baloch minority form a majority. In the country’s remote southwest, Nimroz shares a 500-kilometre border with both Iran and Pakistan. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
A truck pauses at the Afghan-Iranian border in Zaranj, the administrative capital of Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province. Pakistani writer Amhed Rashid tells IPS this province is a smuggling hub through which heroin goes out and weapons come in. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS