Hyrbyair Marri is the leader of the Free Baloch Movement (FBM) that advocates for an independent homeland for the Baloch community from Pakistan. Hyrbyair comes from the Marri tribal family of Baloch nationalist leaders, who were initially a part of Pakistan’s mainstream politics. However, as Pakistan played divisive politics with the Baloch and the army made attempts to weaken the tribal systems, the family felt disillusioned and betrayed.
Hyrbyair’s father and popular leader, Khair Bakhsh Marri continually won elections from Balochistan and was part of the democratic fabric of his community and the country.
In the seventies, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became the Prime Minister and made attempts to wean away the powerful leaders from Baloch politics. Bhutto got a golden opportunity when in a sudden and stunning development, weapons were recovered from the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad and the Baloch leadership was implicated. The Balochistan assembly was dissolved and the Baloch leadership along with nearly 5,000-8,000 students and activists was jailed.
In Pakistan’s topsy-turvy world of democratic politics, General Zia-ul-Haq usurped power and put Bhutto behind bars. The general simultaneously released the Baloch leaders from jail, including Khair Bakhsh Marri and asked them to make peace with Islamabad.
However, the Marri leader decided to leave Pakistan for Afghanistan.
India Narrative picks up the story from here with the charismatic Hyrbyair Marri at a Persian restaurant in Ealing, London, over rounds of black tea. The Shah of Iran, embossed over blue and white pottery, hovers over the conversation as we travel from Afghanistan to Russia to Pakistan.
Excerpts from the interview with FBM leader-in-exile Hyrbyair Marri.
IN: You have lived in many countries. Tell us about your life in exile.
HM: Once my father out of jail in 1978, courtesy Zia-ul-Haq, the general like previous Pakistani military and political leaders, asked us to make peace. My father, instead, decided to go to Afghanistan. He also travelled to the UK and France.
It was natural that we also went with him to Afghanistan, where we saw a lot. All the time that we were there, it was all about fighting. The Soviet Army had entered Afghanistan, and though we were young, we understood.
We understood because even in Balochistan we were used to seeing people with bullet wounds. There were many rooms for such people in our house, and we used to get lots of such guests. They would see us and say, ‘pray for me and I will heal’. So, even before we went to Afghanistan, we knew what wars were.
Soon enough me and my brothers were packed off to Moscow for studies. But we would keep visiting Afghanistan, and also Balochistan.
There were activities I didn’t understand as a young boy. My brothers would take bags of wheat flour from home and put it near the road. I didn’t know what was going on. I used to wonder ‘why is flour being dropped near the road?’ Later I came to know that Baloch ‘fighters’ would pick it up at night.
In Kabul, our house was in the diplomatic area near the embassies and UN offices. As the Soviets were in Afghanistan, we could frequently hear gunfire. Rockets were falling 5-8 miles from our house, which was not far from the king’s palace. Sometimes our guards got hit in the firing and shelling. We were close to the Japanese embassy and there was a vacant plot of land nearby, but we were largely safe.
Then General Tanai, the Defence Minister of Afghanistan, who was also the head of the Afghan National Army, began strafing Kabul. He also targeted our house. However, the pilots mistook our house and instead attacked Bacha Khan’s house, which was next door. I think General Tanai thought that by attacking us, he would get a big welcome in Pakistan. In fact Najibullah [the President of Afghanistan] once said in a speech that ‘General Tanai took out our house to make his masters happy’.
General Tanai did eventually flee to Pakistan.
At the age of 16, I went to Helmand province in Afghanistan. Historically, it is Baloch land and the Afghans also acknowledge it. There I saw the misery of our people. There was lots of disease, children were dying and it had no health facilities. The Afghans were themselves fighting so whatever little they could do for our people they did. And, for that I am grateful. It was not a good time for the Baloch people.
I spent much time between Moscow and Helmand. Between these trips I would often quietly cross over to Balochistan. It wasn’t difficult, despite the risks, because both sides of the border have Baloch settlements. I was studying journalism at the Moscow State University. My brothers also were also studying in Moscow In 1990, I finished university in Moscow. Now that my studies were over, I had an agreement with my family that I will be free to do what I wanted to do. I decided to go back to Balochistan.
In Afghanistan, we were caught between the Mujahideen and the Russians firing rockets over us. We were located between the Mujahideen and the river on one side, and the airport and the Russians on the other side. Both were firing rockets at each other over us. But in the case of misfirings, many innocent Baloch people died just like that.
With Russia being a super power, it fired a lot of rockets. The helicopters were constantly landing and taking off – bringing weapons. That gave me an idea of what a super power is. The Russians also threw away a lot of ammunition and rockets as these had expired or were defective. It was like mountains of ammunition. But our [Baloch] people went there, picked up a rocket and fired. It worked perfectly well. For us, the weapons turned out fine.
IN: You were a minister in Balochistan. What was your experience there and what led to the fallout with the Pakistan government?
HM: At home, there was a lot of debate about my participation in elections. I decided to go forward with it as I thought I could do something good for the Baloch people. And so, I became the Minister of Construction and Works (CNW). But, soon after, I realised that the whole system was a factory in making people corrupt.
After an earthquake in Balochistan, the Japanese government offered to help us, but the government in Islamabad said that it would deal with the Japanese and oversee foreign aid, and that the government of Balochistan had no say in it, let alone the right to access it… We used to think that we will join the parliament and do something for the people, but I soon realised that it did not work that way. The unwritten pact with the Baloch leaders and Islamabad was that you remain corrupt but don’t do anything for the people. This was not just not acceptable to us.
We used to get invitations to attend Pakistani Army functions and other celebrations, but it was to co-opt us. This is how efforts were made to turn us into puppets for the army and the political leaders in Punjab. Once, an army general told me that he used to serve in Balochistan protecting the ‘kharar,’ the quiet ones, from the ‘parar,’ the fighters. I made it known to the general that I was in fact a ‘parar‘ – a fighter and not a ‘kharar‘ – a quiet one.
IN: How does the current state of Pakistan which is very unstable, impact Baloch struggle? Does it strengthen your resolve to fight harder for an independent state?
HM: It will reflect positively on Balochistan if the enemy is weak. Apart from Makran, where China has been spending money, Pakistan is weak in Balochistan. The Pakistani Army has retreated from the Marri and other tribal areas. There were 40-50 military camps which the security forces have vacated for other areas. In mountains it is difficult to sustain and there was a constant threat to the army from the Baloch fighters.
Our brothers are sacrificing themselves every day. People are being picked-up, tortured and dumped on a daily basis.
In an alternate reality, we always thought that India would help us. But that has been wishful thinking. India has not understood the problems of the Baloch people. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about Balochistan from the Lal Quila, Pakistani security personnel have killed many shephards and common people and called them agents of India. I also think that India has miscalculated their adversaries – Pakistan and also China.
IN: How has the Afghan war impacted the Baloch?
HM: See, the Afghans were religious but not radical. When the world poured weapons into Pakistan and Afghanistan, madrasas were built. Pakistan used the various border crossings from Balochistan to Afghanistan to carry the weapons but the Baloch did not become radicalised, unlike many other communities.
Initially, the dollars and the weapons did not change the Baloch people. Only in the last 20 years has Pakistan succeeded in radicalising some of the Baloch people. Going back to 1992, when I came from Moscow to Afghanistan, and then into Balochistan, I read in the newspapers that Baloch youth were being sent to the border with India. For years I saw that Baloch youth were getting killed in Kashmir. I began to think that while we were supposed to be fighting for our independence, here our youth were fighting someone else’s battle.
Pakistan was killing two birds with one stone – send the Baloch to Kashmir to kill the Indians, thus killing either the Indians or the Baloch. Then we began to speak to our youth about this. After the year 2000, the Baloch youth stopped going to Kashmir, as they knew they had a war to fight at home.
I see the whole Afghan war as a lesson, and prime example of Western double standards. Once the West’s radicalisation of the people no longer served them, they switched up and started attacking those very people. Now the Pakistanis are attempting to radicalise the Baloch in that same manner, as having extremist baloch will give them the perfect excuse to openly wage war on us with the support of the West.
The international community ignores the suffering of such people, until they are radicalised and pose a threat to them, and then, after the problem has snowballed, they attempt to solve it with more violence.
IN: Pakistan has promised big investments for foreign investors in Balochistan. How do you see these?
HM: I see this as blatant aggression against us, but I also do not see it materialise. Many Muslim nations think that they are helping Pakistan because of Islam. If that is true, why don’t they help us on the same Islamic values. I think Pakistan will stay with China even after stealing from the West because it knows that both Beijing and Islamabad have a common enemy in the neighbourhood – India. On the other hand as India rises, the West is likely to support India.
IN: The situation in Pakistan is fragile. In case the Pashtuns assert themselves against the Pakistan Army in the north, do you think the Baloch freedom fighters will seize the moment? Also, how do you foresee the reaction of the Gulf nations in such a situation?
HM: We have never missed a single opportunity to promote our cause in the past seven decades. Our goal is independence.
I know one thing, the moment we become independent, all of the Gulf nations will come to our support. When they see that Pakistan is not likely to survive, many countries in the Arab world will support us. But, I have a feeling that even before this happens, many in the Western world will acknowledge us.
Also, we do not strike out China. We will talk to China once it gives us our due recognition and respect. Beijing has to recognize us, the Baloch, as the masters of our own land, and stop talking to Pakistan and Iran regarding our land.
We will talk to anyone in the global community except our occupiers – Pakistan and Iran. To them we talk for the independence of Balochistan. Once we gain independence, we will talk to them as neighbours.
IN: Can you give an overview of what an independent Balochistan will be like?
HM: We will not occupy other lands, but will not give up our land either. The British changed the contours of Balochistan. Pashtun areas were included into Balochistan. For example, areas north of Quetta are Pashtun lands or Afghan lands. We have no claim over that land. Baloch are living there the way Pashtuns are living in Balochistan.
Provinces like Helmand and Nimroz are part of the Baloch areas but the British gave these away to Afghanistan under the Durand land, which was drawn up without the consent of the Baloch or the Afghans. We consider people surrounding this region to be our friends. We have no quarrel with the Taliban. We think that the Taliban preach Islam their way, and we preach Islam our way.
Economically, we are self-sufficient. We have trillions of dollars of gas in Marri areas and near Kalat. We have the largest gold reserves. We have as much petroleum as the Saudis and we have uranium on the border with Punjab. Moreover, we are not landlocked. We have the ocean and then the world through the ocean. An independent Balochistan would mean a corridor to Afghanistan for India or any other country. We are open to trade and we are a tolerant people.