GADANI, Pakistan – Fifteen year-old Sammi Baluch has been walking for nearly a month through southern Pakistan's parched, mountainous landscape in the hope of finding her father, who disappeared four years ago after being taken by security forces.
She is part of a group of around two dozen activists making the 700-kilometer (400-mile) journey on foot from Quetta, the capital of their home province of Baluchistan, to the southern port city of Karachi in a march to protest the government's failure to determine the fate of thousands of people who have gone missing over the years as Pakistani authorities battle a separatist insurgency in Baluchistan, heartland of the country's ethnic Baluch minority.
Pakistani human rights organizations and Baluchistan residents have long accused law enforcement and intelligence agencies of snatching citizens suspected of Baluch nationalist activity and holding them without charges or killing them. Officials deny the allegations, and while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has promised to resolve the issue of the missing as part of a still nascent peace effort in the province, so far commissions set up by the government and Supreme Court have made little progress.
The marchers, who are all missing loved ones, left Quetta on Oct. 27 and are about 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside Karachi. Along the way, they say they have experienced the generosity of strangers who fed and housed them, but also faced threats from Pakistani security forces warning them to stop their march.
"I have travelled 600 kilometers (370 miles) by foot without caring about my blistered feet," said Baluch. Her father, a doctor, was a member of a Baluch nationalist party. He has vanished since he was picked up security forces at the government hospital where he works one night in June 2009.
"Please have mercy and help me recover my missing father," Baluch said.
Earlier this week, the band of marchers — most of them women and young girls — made their way down a road snaking between arid mountains outside Karachi. Many carried photos of their missing loved ones with their names and the dates they disappeared. They shouted slogans, such as "Stop killing political workers." At the head of the group, a young boy pushed a wheelbarrow decorated with flowers and hung with a sign explaining the march. The march has a police escort, and two ambulances trail them in case of emergencies.
"We chose a very difficult way to protest to awaken the international community. We appeal to them to pressure Pakistani authorities," said Farzana Majeed, whose brother has been missing for over four years. Her brother was a member of the Baluch Students Organization (Azad), which is reportedly linked to separatists.
Baluch nationalists have been waging a low-level insurgency for decades, demanding greater autonomy and a larger share of Baluchistan's natural resources. Even though the province has vast amounts of coal, minerals and natural gas, it is one of the poorest areas of Pakistan.
The protest march was organized by Mama Qadeer Baluch, chairman of the Voice for Baluch Missing Persons. The 70-year-old has walked the entire way with the group. He said the group had received threats from security forces along the way, and he and a colleague were almost run down by a small car — an incident he said was an attack, though he wouldn't elaborate on who he believed was behind it.
"We barely managed to escape," he said.
The group expects to reach Karachi late Thursday and plans to hold a press conference to announce the next step in its campaign.
The disappearances began swelling in the mid-2000s, when then-President Pervez Musharraf's government was cracking down hard on the Baluchistan insurgency. Two years ago, the Voice for Baluch Missing Persons handed the U.N. a list of 12,000 missing people, and the group's leader, Baluch — a common name in the province — said the number had grown to 18,000 since then. He said the bodies of some 1,500 missing have been found dumped around the province in recent years.
Provincial government authorities insist the number of missing who are potentially in the hands of security forces is much smaller. Some government officials have downplayed the issue, saying many of the missing were criminals in hiding, had joined militant groups or had been abducted by non-state actors.
The government and the Supreme Court have set up commissions to investigate missing persons, but relatives of victims complain that many of the cases remain unsolved and alleged perpetrators are rarely convicted. A U.N. working group that visited Pakistan last year to investigate the issue said it had received no information related to convictions of state agents in relation to disappearances, despite repeated requests.
As the activists have made their way to Karachi, residents of towns on their path have at times walked with them for a few hours, even for a full day, as a show of solidarity.
"I am marching with these women and girls because they are victimized," said Muhammad Nawaz, a young student who joined the group as it marched past his town, Gadani. "I am giving them my moral support, at least in the limits of my town."
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report from Islamabad.