Balochistan Diary: A kiss of luck and fate of locals
By Saeed Minhas
Flying in the PAF’s C-130 and escorted by our friends from the ISPR, a couple of days in Quetta, Ziarat and Chamalang with lots of adventurous heli-rides – one of which was from Chamalang towards Sui which almost dried the life out of the entire entourage – not only helped us get an idea about the vastness of the province, but also the dryness, wilderness and resourcefulness, in which over seven million Baloch are living. This media-military alliance for two nights bore testimony to the fact that when civilians collaborate with the comparatively-better synchronised military officials, neither time nor space remains the sole domain of the Khakis, and exigencies just happen.
A word about the kiss of fortune we all had on this tour. Flying from the Chamalang coalmines towards Sui, an unexpected rainstorm made the chopper dangle into zero-visibility for about two minutes. With spear-like barren peaks poking skywards – 5,000 to 7,000 feet high – and due to the extra load of reporters and their equipment, the chopper was not flying higher than 5,000 feet from the ground, carrying people with dropped jaws, wide-open eyes and frozen bodies. Gen Athar Abbas, Haroon Rashid, Saafi, Bokhari, Saabir, Hanfi, Chinese broadcaster Musarat, the CNN crew and I, were all trying to look through the side windows to see if we could find anything beyond the thick clouds. A drowsy Malik felt the jerks, but preferred to keep dozing, perhaps understanding that there was hardly anything anyone of us could do except pray for safety.
The thought crossing everyone’s mind was that the other two helis, carrying the remaining media entourage, might be somewhere around us, and if the spiky, rugged mountains were one adversary, they could be another. Nevertheless, after two minutes or so, the pilots managed to pull back from the stormy-zone to bring us all back to the Chamalang coalmines. What followed is not hard to predict, as the jaded faces just kept expressing indifference to all that had happened, and the courageous pilots didn’t spare a moment to seek a photograph with all the survivors, because all of them were potential front-page news item or a breaking news for at least a few hours.
Starting from the Chaklala airbase and after landing at the Samungli airbase, the choppers took us to Kan Depot – in Ziarat District, a restive area inhibited mainly by Pashtuns – where a reconstructed high school, a basic health unit (BHU) and a mosque were awaiting us. Our Khaki friends were showing us the extraordinary work of rebuilding the earthquake-affected structures, which they have developed partly with over Rs 114 million in donations – equivalent to the one-day salary of the entire army – and partly with federal and provincial government contributions. Local officials briefed the media and praised the army for leading the reconstruction efforts, while several local politicians and federal minister Kakar also tried to prove their utility, but basic problems in these areas were just begging to be addressed, or at least understood. A doctor, who claimed to have left the US to serve in Balochistan, and who was responsible for running two BHUs in the area, had praises for the army and was boasting about the services rendered to the sparsely-populated area, when he finally broke out before the media with a list of the problems mentioned above.
Electricity hardly visits them, meaning that life-saving drugs, claimed to have been dispensed through this BHU, could not be kept there, and it merely serves as a health consultative centre. The nearest hospital is more than 150km away and there is no ambulance to take a patient to the hospital. Knowing the area’s conservative nature, the unit doesn’t have any female doctors or even a lady paramedic, thus local females continue to suffer at the hands of local quacks.
Drinking water is not available there and an area, mainly dependent on apple orchards and other agricultural produce, remains dependant on rains for crops and drinking water. Rain has evaded this area for almost one and a half years.
The doctor at the BHU further stunned the visitors by saying, "Whenever I visit this unit, it’s hard for me to stay here for long because there is no toilet here."
One wonders, where is the provincial government and what has Housing Minister Kakar, who inaugurated one of these reconstructed buildings named after him, done in the past two years while the army was busy reconstructing? Since the army has helped rebuild this BHU and others, it’s now for the provincial government to provide all logistics, but provincial Health Minister Samad Khan, along with his brother, just smiled back instead of responding to such queries. Ziarat, the residency of the founder of Pakistan, was at display, where a towering portrait of Quaid-e-Azam stood at the entrance, saluting all the visitors. Inside the residency, a lot has been changed. One of the local senior officials said, "Archaeological restoration is considered a highly skilled and scientific job, but when that is done by the army, what should we expect?"
The natural flow of gardens has been reshaped by paving cemented pathways and huge staircases, even the mosaic tiles decorating the roofs of the inner structure have been replaced with locally-available wood. It certainly was not this way when I came here in 1994, when the residency was being used as a guesthouse for the then CM, Nawab Magsi, and his friends, and we were given the privilege to sleep in the same room where the father of the nation used to sleep.