Balochistan at a Crossroads: Beauty and brutality

Both Marx and Wattrelot were drawn to this scenically beautiful and troubled region for their own reasons, deciding to work together after meeting in the province’s capital, Quetta, at the press club.

Marx conveyed to the audience his own observations of the complicated, dynamic political and social relationships between families, authorities, local tribal leadership and foreigners who move through the area – some as part of daily life, some as part of infrastructure or development projects, and some with motives that make authorities extremely nervous when journalists come around asking questions.

Marx found that staying with locals was preferable to hotels. Hotels would register his passport and after one or two days, intelligence services would start to make inquiries about his presence.

“[The insurgency] wasn’t something that the authorities in Pakistan wanted to receive any attention because their view was, quite reasonably, that giving oxygen to these groups was going to embolden them to continue attacks on government and military infrastructure and personnel.”

Marx added that this translated into anxiety about seeking to understand why people would be so angry and disenfranchised as to “go to the mountains” and fight against the government in the first place.

The talk was illustrated with Wattrelot’s photography. Speaking after Marx, Wattrelot chose to present the photos in black and white because it was a “more elegant” and timeless way to portray the experiences. His images captured the barren landscapes in contrast with the sprawling cityscapes he visited, tribal leaders past and present, bureaucratic absurdities, and the dichotomy of people working and living around heavy industry and mining alongside traditional fishing practices – all aspects of life that few outsiders will get to see because of restricted access.

Audience questions varied widely, covering topics from the implications of shifting demographics for stability in the region, to whether untapped mineral wealth is a viable investment, along with where insurgent funding comes from and educational or vocational opportunities for youth.

In ending, Walsh asked Marx to consider whether influential groups calling for Balochistan to separate from Pakistan will ever succeed. It seems unlikely, Marx replied, but the spectre of Bangladesh (what used to be East Pakistan before separation in 1971) looms large in Pakistan’s consciousness.

“One of the main driving forces that allowed international support for that separation was the brutality of the counterinsurgency campaign in Bangladesh. . . . If Pakistan overreaches so much and it becomes something that really the world can’t ignore, then that might be one way that [Baloch separatists] would get a form of partition but I don’t think realistically it is going to happen,” he said.

Watch and listen to the full event here: