The Khan of Kalat, Mir Suleiman Daud, is speeding. He’s a fast driver, but so expert a wheelman there’s no fear in the wide black Hummer. “Who drives American cars?” he says, mocking himself. “But when I saw this one, I knew it was my toy.” Handsome and charismatic, Khan Suleiman enjoys hiding his eyes behind Gucci shades, and prefers a ball cap to a turban.
Add in the traditional long baggy shirts and baggy pants of the region, what sounds like Pakistani hip-hop blasting, the carload of his men packing pistols and Kalashnikovs that rides behind us, and it feels like quite the posse. But considering Khan Suleiman once took four AK-47 bullets in the gut and chest in the tribal equivalent of a drive-by and lived, the bullet-resistant Hummer makes practical sense. Khan Suleiman’s survival of that shooting was considered so miraculous that there is a university doctor who teaches a class in the incident. As for all the guns and ammunition, Baluchistan is one of the tribal provinces of Pakistan, and in tribal regions, one needs protection. Especially the Khan of Kalat, which literally means King of the Fort, the chief of chiefs. But it’s not his own people he needs protection from.
Khan of Kalat Suleiman’s country is rich in resources that everyone wants to take and he doesn’t have the power to stop them. “We sit on a mountain of gold,” he says, “and the devil sits on us.” His people, the Baluch Nation, are being indiscriminately bombed, arrested, and kidnapped, and he’s powerless to stop it. Journalist Selig S. Harrison has called it a slow-motion genocide and human rights groups have called it an ethnic cleansing. “We have 700 miles of coast and oil and gas and gold,” says Khan Suleiman. “We try to do something to have rights to it, we get spanked. We resist every ten years and get spanked every ten years.” For the past few years, he has been in the middle of an unseen war that few beyond the regional press are reporting.
But then something horrible happened and it radicalized his people. In August 2006 the chief of the Bugti tribe, 79-year-old Nawab Akbar Bugti, was murdered by the Pakistan Army. “Bugti was buried with three locks on the coffin,” says Khan Suleiman. “They thought his soul might come back and make trouble. So the army put locks on it. None of his tribe was around to see his body. Still they’ve got a guard on his body.” The Baluch people were outraged by the murder, and Khan Suleiman had found his moment, the catalyst he needed. He called a national jirga, a meeting of the tribes, the first in 130 years. He wanted to find out if his sardars, his chiefs, the heads of tribes that have been, on and off, at war with each other for hundreds of years, could lay down personal disputes and unify for a common cause: an autonomous Baluchistan. Khan Suleiman’s allies would be his former enemies. In the way of tribes, his enemies are also his friends. He put out his call.
My first thought was: this man is a modern Sitting Bull. Which makes him a sitting duck. Which is why he travels in a Hummer and why his travel plans are never announced. What Khan Suleiman has just done is akin to Sitting Bull asking the Apache, the Cherokee, the Mohawks, all the major Native American warring tribes to smoke the peace pipe and unify against the migrating settlers that were stealing their land out from under them.
Khan Suleiman’s historic jirga was attended by 1,500, including 85 sardars and 300 tribal elders. The Baluch people have always protested the Punjabi-dominated military regime of Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf that has made rich off the Baluch province but gives so little back in terms of resources and tax revenues that the entire region still lacks the basic services that most consider human rights. The province is rich in natural gas, yet only 6 percent of the Baluch have gas connections, less than half the children get an education, and only 2 percent of the population have clean water.
The answer to Khan Suleiman’s call for unification and resistance against this state of affairs was a resounding yes. “When you make a call you get an answer,” says Khan Suleiman. “The answer means that Baluch is a nation. They have problems, but they have roots. I know them 700 years and they know me 700 years. I gave a call in the 21st century and 95 percent answered. Students and prime ministers agree. There are the rocket guys and the pen and paper guys, but we come together directly or indirectly.” The jirga was so inspirational that the Pashtuns, the Sindhi, and the Afghans have all decided to hold their own jirgas to unify their tribes. Even General Musharraf called a jirga of his own. “But nobody went,” laughs Khan Suleiman.
Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, is sparsely populated by people and overwhelmingly a land of rocks. Flatbed trucks pass carrying enormous marble hunks as big as cars. An old man sits by the side of the road, a mountain of rocks to his left, a pile of smaller rocks to his right, he in the middle with a hammer. A task for Sisyphus. But the more one looks at these majestic, dusty gray-brown mountains, the more one sees they are not at all dull, but coyly streaked in color. “Rubies, diamonds, lapis lazuli, gold, emeralds,” says Khan Suleiman. “We have it all. Oil and natural gas and minerals.” It is, of course, the enormous reserves of natural gas that have perked up the eyes and ears of those with a nose for such things. “All the ‘guys’ are around,” says Khan Suleiman with amusement, meaning the big powers. He lists the U.S., Iran, India, China, Russia.
We pass walls scrawled with graffiti, written in delicate Urdu script: “Azad Baluchistan, Baluchistan Zindebad”—Free Baluchistan, Long Live Baluchistan. We pull into a gas station, and the Khan is met by a group of men that somehow knew he’d be stopping here. They pay respect, ask him advice on property disputes. A day in the life of a Khan. One man asks Khan Suleiman if he thinks the Baluch people are unified. The Khan answers in Baluch, then translates for me. “I asked them, will they come out and protest on a certain day? Will they join the protest march this month? If they do, then that is my answer and that is their answer.”
Back out on the highway, my tinted window slides up automatically, and I look ahead to see an open black jeep coming the other way loaded with armed men staring at the Hummer. I wonder, has Khan Suleiman just closed my window to keep the dust out, or did he see that car coming and decide it best to not let them glance in and see the obviously foreign woman with the large video camera whose protective veil of her dupata (the headscarf worn by women in this mostly Muslim country), is constantly slipping off her head. As it is with many things a foreigner sees and hears when stepping fresh into a new culture, it’s hard to know.
Drive 60 miles out of Karachi, Pakistan, and into Baluchistan, and you drive 600 years back in time. As the roadside mosques lit up at night like discos fade, there are more goats and donkeys; fewer buildings, more huts. Women spend all day walking deserts for one bucket of water. Our convoy of SUVs often pass caravans of camels loaded with sticks of firewood, men riding mule carts loaded with hay. “The poor shepherd’s barefoot son herds his sheep over mountains full of riches,” says Suleiman. Or as Suleiman’s uncle, Yahya Baloch, Prince of Kalat, said to me the day before, “The shepherd has his goats and makes his cheese and his butter. He sits in the mountains and is his own boss but belongs to a tribe. But every ordinary person has a small radio. And they may be listening to Air America, not the lies of Pakistan radio.” Prince Yahya, like most of the older men we’ve met, has survived many wars in Baluchistan. He shows me the bullet holes in his home to prove it, from the times his brother, the previous Khan of Kalat, was attacked. He then shows off his astounding collection of antique guns, from muskets to guns hidden in canes like something out of James Bond. He speaks in moderate tones but it is easy to feel how much he loves his country. “Asia is the belt,” he smiles, “Pakistan the buckle, but the pin is Baluch. The pin opens, your pants will fall.”
Meanwhile, General Musharraf has brought in Chinese engineers to develop a strategic port in Gwadar and build a road to the border, and gave a ten-year lease to China which has been over-mining the copper and gold in the Chaghi district. The Baluch resistance, angry at the lack of economic return to the Baluch for these developments, periodically responds by blowing up power lines, pipelines, and other infrastructures. And there is widespread fear among locals that a major pipeline will be built that drains their main resource, natural gas, without any return. As one Baluchi Nationalist said to me, “The road is coming. The pipeline is coming. It’s not here yet, but it’s coming. The Americans are coming. One day they will just walk in. Under every mountain you’ll see a G.I. Write it down in your heart. You’ll see.”
Or, as the eternally unruffled Khan Suleiman puts it, with one of his sly smiles, “Where there is chaos, there is investment.”
While Islamabad fattens its coffers and others dream of wealth to come, the people of this resource-rich province are so impoverished and economically discriminated against that I’ve heard Baluchistan referred to as “the whore of everyone.” Pakistan has long controlled the area by playing the feuding tribes off one another in order to keep the Baluch resistance from unifying, which is why Khan Suleiman’s jirga is so important. Islamabad spins the actions of the freedom fighters into actions of “terrorists,” and disclaims any official power of the Khan of Kalat. General Musharraf charges that the feudal system of sardar rule is the problem, but to the Baluch this has long been their way of life. Islamabad also uses the presence of the Taliban as a cover for military actions against the Baluch.
A few nights back, we sat in Khan Suleiman’s home in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan. It is located on Syriab Street, street of chiefs, and we met in in a simple room with banks of low couches, over a spread of nuts, pomegranate seeds, overripe bananas, and cardamom tea. “Have you seen any Taliban yet?” Khan Suleiman likes to tease. I had told him that there was nothing much in the mainstream press about Baluchistan other than claims that Quetta was now thick with Taliban. When we’d flown into Quetta the day before, as the pilot flew like a cowboy, taking dizzy dips over the red hills that surround Quetta, I looked down and saw what reminded me of an old Wild West American outpost. Sand rolls off the desert, rock dust off the mountains, giving the whole town a shimmering, ghostly air. At the airport, the first man to help with my bags said: “I am Baluch, not Taliban.” The presence of Taliban in Quetta seems to be some kind of inside joke that’s probably not that funny. It’s not that the Taliban aren’t here in Quetta, a town not far from the Afghanistan border, but they are not messing with Baluch business, I’m told. “They cross the border, and they are with us.”
But there is unquestionably an ominous feeling in Quetta. Leaving and entering our hotel, a mirror on wheels is rolled under the car chassis to look for bombs. The first day we go to the Russian bazaar, we are followed by Pakistan’s Military Intelligence and photographed. As we shop for headscarves, the MI follows us and Khan Suleiman’s men follow the MI. It feels more Graham Greene ironic than dangerous, yet the implication is there. Khan Suleiman’s men confront the MI. “You do your job, we’ll do ours,” they are told. The day after we leave Quetta, three missiles hit the Parliament building. No one takes responsibility for it.
While in Quetta, Khan Suleiman has arranged some interviews with several tribal chiefs. It is important to the Khan that we understand this is not “his” call, but the call of all Baluch, and he wants us to hear it confirmed from other chiefs. The first is Chief of Sarawan Nawab Mohammad Aslam Raisani. We drive into a walled and gated courtyard, where tribesmen mill about with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders as casually as women sling their purses. As I get out of the car, I hear the Mission Impossible theme song. It’s Abdullah’s cell phone. Abdullah is one of Suleiman’s men assigned to this trip, and he’s also got another cell phone that rings with the theme to The Godfather. Inside we meet Nawab Raisani, a distinguished chief with a raspy voice that I imagine is the result of an old war wound. He is gracious, gentle, and gestures towards a large plastic mat on the floor covered in food. He confirms his support for the Khan and that the tribes have “set aside our conflicts and disputes so that we can raise a collective voice.” He stresses the importance of identity; “The Pakistan government wants to finish our national identity,” he says. I ask if the tribes will be able to stay unified, and he answers that pressure is being put on the heads of tribes to do so. I ask if he would compromise on the question of autonomy for Baluchistan. “We will not go for any type of compromise,” says Nawab Raisani. “We want total autonomy.”
There is a problem with autonomy for Baluchistan. As it was with the Native Americans, there are broken treaties involved. The current troubles in Baluchistan date back to the 1947 agreement between Britain and India that created Pakistan. Six million Baluch were forced to become part of the newly created country. But a 1948 treaty, in which the current Khan of Kalat (Khan Suleiman’s grandfather) acceded to Pakistan, delineates that accession in only four areas: defense, foreign affairs, currency, and communications. Resource and autonomy rights were not given up, but there is an ambiguity to the language of the treaty that has been exploited by Islamabad. There is also an older controversy around the 1893 “Durand Line” agreement between British India and Afghanistan, which divided the Pashtun and Baluch tribes into Afghanistan, sections of Iran, and what was to become, in 1947, Pakistan—slicing up a nomadic culture with arbitrary lines in the sand. The Baluch, a culture that dates back over a thousand years, ended up living under colonialist-style rule by Pakistan, a nation that at the time was one year old.
Revered author and historian Agha Mir Naseer Khan Ahmadzai Baloch is the keeper of Baluch history. “We founded the Baluch Nation in 1410. We Baluch made a kingdom. And we told the superpower at the time that they should confirm our kingdom. We were told: ‘You Baluch are sheep herders and on this condition I accept your kingdom. You should agree that annually you should give me ten thousand sheep.’ And in this way,” laughs Naseer Baloch, “our Baluch Kingdom came into existence. From this time right up to Khan Suleiman, 35 Khans have passed. The British conquered Baluchistan and annexed us to India. When they formed Pakistan in 1947, we were told, if you don’t join Pakistan we will attack you.”
Khan Suleiman’s next step will be to appeal to the World Court in Hague, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), claiming that Pakistan has violated the 1948 treaty as well as the 1973 Constitution that promised provincial autonomy. Violations include the plundering of resources, and the non-payment of royalties on fisheries, gas, minerals and overflights, and the building of cantonments. But the question is whether or not the ICJ can give fair hearing to Baluchistan, a tribal province without clear sovereign status, now that Pakistan has become a nation of international standing. Which is why it is imperative that such a move is backed in the press. The alternative, if an appeal to the ICJ fails, is likely to be armed struggle.
Khan Suleiman is slyly hopeful of U.S. help. Without U.S. or other foreign support, Baluchistan does not have the wealth nor military might to sustain a long insurgency. It is a hope that is touching, fragile, and ornery all at once. “We’ll see,” he says with a sideways grin, “if the Americans are as moral as they say they are. The elephant has different kinds of teeth. The ones the elephant shows, and ones he eats with. They are not the same teeth.”
We drive from Quetta to Kalat, where the Khan has his palace and his mosque, and Khan Suleiman casually tells us we are to meet Sardar Ataullah Mengal next, in a town called Wadh. I expect an interview similar to the one we had with Nawab Raisani, but that’s not the case.
As soon as we are on the road to Wadh, the air is electric. The convoy of cars and guns is longer this time. There are tribals that have come out of the hills to see Khan Suleiman off. The closer we get to Wadh, the more men we see on the sides of the roads. They raise guns in salute, or join the convoy on motorbikes. Some carry the flag of Kalat. The convoy gets larger and larger, until, when we pull in for gas, there is a swarm of followers. Khan Suleiman gets out of the car and the reverence for the man from his people is stunning. Islamabad may think Khan Suleiman has no official power, but neither did many a charismatic leader throughout history.
We arrive at Sardar Mengal’s compound. A huge fluttering tent is set up, laid out with gorgeous Persian carpets, light streams in from above and the tent flutters, as if Allah is announcing his presence. As we enter, a sea of men turns and stands. As soon as Khan Suleiman and Sardar Mengal are seated, everyone else sits. They speak for a while, as Sardar Mengal confirms his support of the alliance of tribes. “We want to use the tribal way to unify,” says Mengal, “then move on to democracy and the modern ways.” Khan Suleiman has said that the example to think of is Britain, with its combination of Parliament-style democracy and monarchy. And as Khan Suleiman says about his role in this model, “I’d rather be Queen Elizabeth than Tony Blair.” The gathering itself, with its open invitation to the people to attend, its transparent nature in that the people can listen to their chiefs talk and ask direct questions, does have the feeling of a Parliament-style meeting.
Later, as we speak of current U.S. policy in Iraq and the Middle East, Ataullah Mengal asks me, with a certain belligerence, “Why are Americans so dumb?” As if to prove it, I have no satisfactory answer.
The next day, we meet with Prince Musa and his son Noroz, a gentle young man ready to step up for his tribe. Prince Musa speaks of his love of flowers and weapons, his soft spot against the killing of animals. He dresses in camouflage clothes and dark sunglasses, and as he takes a whiff of the narcissus he grows, he reminds us of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. He describes his support for Khan Suleiman. “We are a traditional people,” says Prince Musa. “Tradition is that the elder son become Khan. We have a saying in Baluch: If one person sits on a horse it looks nice. Two people sitting on a horse it doesn’t look nice. They will laugh at you. A horse is made for only one person.”
Prince Musa’s tongue is for peace, but the sense one gets is that he is very ready to fight for it. No one we interviewed was shy about their readiness to go to war for their rights. And they believe their inferior weaponry and manpower are more than made up for by their superior guerrilla tactics and knowledge of their own land. “You Americans are worthless on the ground,” I am told more than once. As Khan Suleiman puts it: “When you’re eyeball to eyeball the first one that blinks is gone. So you have to be strong and not blink.” Later he says, speaking both of Iraq and Afghanistan, “The U.S. gets in quicksand and turns the wheels and gets in deeper.”
The Baluch Liberation Front and the Baluch Liberation Army, along with the more official Baluch National Party are increasingly made up of not just moderate to extreme tribals or politicians, but intelligentsia, merchants, laborers, out-of-work engineers, lawyers, and the new Baluch middle class. The Baluch Student Organization actively stages demonstrations, roadblocks, and rallies. Rumor has it the BLF and the BLA are paid in dollars, but others contend India or Russia finances the opposition. Wherever the backing comes from, because of the geographic position and potential resource wealth of Baluchistan, and this new bid for autonomy, many have an interest and a hand in keeping the region unstable. At the same time, it is U.S. aid to Islamabad and U.S. weaponry that is being used against the Baluch opposition. But perhaps that is politics in the desert, the sands ever-shifting.
As this story goes to press, there is a 13-day protest march in progress, despite the house arrests of key players and other governmental attempts to stop it. It seems that, as I’ve been told, “All Baluch want independence. Even the birds want independence.” It also seems that calls to resistance are most effective when written on the wind.
Annie Nocenti is a journalist and screenwriter.