A visit to Balochistan’s capital, Quetta

Quetta is the capital of Balochistan; Pakistan’s largest province in terms of geographical area. It is one of those parts of the country that has been facing turmoil for years. And somehow, in Punjab there is a perception that the people of Balochistan abhor the people of Punjab.

Outside Balochsitan, we often hear that if someone wants to visit Quetta, they must dress up in a completely local/eastern attire and must avoid western clothing, such as jeans, so as to not stand out as a non-resident because perhaps in Balochistan wearing pants or jeans is a very rare thing and if someone (from either gender) wears it, they can immediately be recognized as outsiders.

For me being someone who had heard all these remarks, visiting Quetta for the first time was a lot about curiosity as well as excitement. And it ultimately turned out really pleasant due to the hospitality of the people of Quetta. They were extremely welcoming towards us, the people of Punjab.

The vast majority of Quetta’s population comprises of Pashtuns. Women are not very often seen outside homes unlike other big cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Surrounded by sandy mountains and having little presence of greenery, the city presents a very brownish look. According to one of my friends, “Quetta looks like a dry fruit.” I agree.

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Aerial view – Photo by: Kiran Wali

The entire city goes dark after the sunset. Business activities come to a halt and markets close down as soon as the call for Maghrib prayer is heard. Hence, there is no night life in the city as such partly due to the closed environment and partly due to the vulnerable security situation; one of the reasons being proximity to the Afghan border. For the same reason, many check posts can be seen across the city.

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Outskirts of the city – Photo by: Kiran Wali

Religious parties in general and Jamiyat-e-Ulema-e-Islam in particular seem to huge influence and following in Quetta which is apparent from the party flags that can be found fluttering to a great extent in the city. Also frequent wall chalking in favor of these parties can be seen at various places.

One of the most interesting parts of my visit was interactions with the Hazara community. Hazaras mainly live in confined areas due to repeated targeted attacks on this peaceful community. They have their schools, markets and mosques inside the same locality where they live due to which they feel isolated from the rest of the city. It is very unfortunate that these people cannot move around in their own city because of constant life threats apparently due to religious differences. Hazaras are easily recognized due to their features making it hard for them to keep their identity hidden.

But religion may be just one out of many reasons of the unrest in Quetta. According to one of the city’s residents, there are some hidden forces involved in creating a divide between the Baloch and Pathans of Balochistan to add to the conflict and chaos in the region. He fears that the results are getting apparent gradually with the rising conflicts between the two races.

I asked one of the locals about his thoughts on the common perception of India’s backing of militants disguised as Baloch separatists and his response was:

“Of course India is supporting them! Who else is providing them with funds and weapons while they hide inside faraway mountains?”

Quetta is steadily progressing in the field of female education. Though it is not at par with the progress that other big cities of Pakistan have made so far, but there is a growing passion amongst young girls to seek education and shine in their respective fields of interest. The girls, along with holding on to their religious values, want their own space in the outside world – a level of freedom where they can pursue their dreams through education and by exploring new horizons.

Another interesting aspect was that every school that I visited had pictures of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah either hanging or painted on the walls of the schools. Further, all the schools had Pakistani flags hoisted on their buildings. Generally, these are common practices but considering what we keep hearing from the media about Balochistan, witnessing all this came as a real surprise.

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Jinnah painted on the wall of a school in Quetta – Photo by: Kiran Wali

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Inside a classroom, Pakistan’s map & people of all 4 provinces drawn by students – Photo by: Kiran Wali

Besides, one can see a great number of Pakistani flags fluttering over rooftops in Quetta which is amazing because flags are usually displayed on national days only but here, that was not the case. On seeing a Pakistani flag at rooftop of a friend’s home, I said to her mother, “It’s nice to see the flag fluttering on your rooftop.”

To which she replied:

This flag has been there for the past 20 years. Some militants had been trying to threaten us saying that we will have to face consequences if we didn’t take it off but we never gave in to their demands. After sometime, other people in our neighborhood also got over the fear and hoisted flags on their rooftops as a gesture of their love for Pakistan.”

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Pak flag on a rooftop in Quetta – Photo by: Kiran Wali

Quetta is known for producing exceptionally tasty apples. Usually anyone who visits the city takes back apples with them as a specialty of the city. Dry fruits are another popular thing. Also, due to the extremely cold weather, blankets are traded in huge quantities there in winters including varieties from all over the world. Thus, people visiting the city often purchase and take back blankets with them as well.

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Dry fruit shops in one of the famous markets of Quetta – Photo by: Kiran Wali

As far as development in concerned, it is severely lacking in the city which cannot be blamed entirely on the federal government. One of the residents shared that Baluchistan’s politicians and ministers have been returning development funds back to the federal government simply because they do not want to develop the province. Later, they exploit the lack of development issue as a propaganda tool against the state and cry about the unjust treatment by the central governments, the local said. Listening to all this made me feel that perhaps the people on the top have certain evil intentions. They don’t really care about the people. They have their own agendas to pursue and capitalize on. The general public is thus misguided and their sentiments are turned against the state through false propaganda by these very influential people. This can also be validated by the fact that when the militants and Ferraris willingly surrender before the state, they also reiterate the same thing: “We have been misguided by the people on the top. This Azad Balochistan thing is a hoax.”

The visit to Quetta debunked many myths and misconceptions about Balochistan. Even though Quetta may not be considered as representative of the entire province, still, being the provincial capital it does hold importance and the ground facts that have been observed speak volumes. There are definite (and maybe even deliberate) flaws in what the media – specially the international media – keeps portraying about the province; the same media that hardly sheds light on how several foreign forces are actively involved in destabilization of Balochistan.

There is no denying that this highly significant province of Pakistan needs immediate attention for its development and the demands of its people need to be addressed. But the situation on ground is far more complex than what keeps surfacing in the media. Hence, generalizing things based on selectively highlighted issues would be extremely unfair.


PS: A slightly different version of this article appeared in Tribune Blogs
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