Karima Baloch: Activist's family mourns a 'mountain of courage'

Supporters of the Baloch political activist Karima Baloch gathered in Quetta on Wednesday
Karima Baloch, a Pakistani human rights activist living in exile in Canada, was found dead on Sunday. Police say they have no reason to suspect a bad game, but Karima's family and supporters say her death at least warrants closer investigation. The BBC spoke to her family about a woman they called "a mountain of courage".
In 2008, Karima Mehrab - known as Karima Baloch - stood before a judge in a Pakistani court on charges of activism. The judge told her he was determined to give her a lighter sentence for being a woman.
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Karima refused.
"She said, 'If you want to punish me, you should do it on an equality basis - don't make that concession because of my gender,'" recalled her brother Sameer. It was just another example of an "extraordinary" woman's commitment to her faith, he said.
Karima was used to clashing with the Pakistani authorities. She had been a thorn in their side since her early twenties when she headed a rally for missing people in Balochistan, clutching a picture of one of her missing relatives.
At the time, the authorities did not know her name. In the years that followed, however, she rose to join the ranks of activists fighting for the independence of Balochistan - a resource-rich but troubled province in the southwest. In 2006, Karima joined the Central Committee of the Baloch Student Organization (BSO) - a group she would later lead.
Her family knew the dangers of such a role. When Karima was a child, her mother talked about the fight, Sameer said, and they had uncles on both sides who were involved in the movement. They also knew what could happen. The Pakistani Armed Forces have been accused of using violence to suppress the fight and "disappeared" activists - an indictment they have repeatedly denied. In the years to come, some of Karima's relatives would be missing and appear dead.
"I was afraid something would happen to her," said Sameer, who left Pakistan in 2006 and came to Canada with his sister in 2017. "I couldn't forgive myself if something happened. But that became pride because I saw what she was doing."
Karima Baloch was reported missing on Sunday
Karima continued to lead the front line after the BSO was banned in 2013, accused by the government of obtaining foreign funds to destabilize Pakistan.
"I would go with her to all protests and demonstrations in order to be there in case of problems," said her younger sister Mahganj Baloch. "I ran around like crazy looking for them when there was a tear gas fire or a baton load."
In 2015, two years after the BSO was banned, Karima was selected to lead - the first woman in her seven decades as an organization to hold this role.
"She not only made the movement something for Balochistan, she wanted equal rights for women," said Sameer. "She knew we couldn't change our society, which we couldn't do without first changing patriarchy."
But Karima had taken on a really dangerous role. The previous chairman was kidnapped; She watched a colleague go on a hunger strike to request his release. Terrorism charges were raised against her months after she became chairwoman of the BSO. It was decided that she should go.
"I can't forget that one November evening in 2015, when I was just finishing my evening prayers, she came and put her head on my lap and said she was going far away," her mother Jamila Baloch recalled. "I said why? You never liked going abroad. Why are you doing this now? She said it was a decision of your organization."
"A few years ago she had received a visa from a western country, but she had decided not to go. She said she could not imagine living away from Balochistan. This time, however, she only needed a few days to make preparations and to go.
"At the airport I told her to finish your training and come back soon. I fought my tears so she wouldn't change her plans. Now I wish I had cried."
News of Karima's death brought demonstrators to the streets in Balochistan
Karima started a new life in Toronto, Canada, but continued her struggle for human rights and against "disappearances and government operations" in her hometown, she said. The year after her relocation, she was listed on the BBC's annual list of 100 inspiring and influential women.
"I knew that what happened to my colleagues at home could have happened to me too," she told the BBC at the time. She didn't run away from her activism, she said, she spread it.
"I did not apply for asylum to protect my life. I am here to tell the world about the current situation in Balochistan. When we saw that the world was not coming to us, not listening to us, we decided to going in the direction of telling them what's happening to us at home. I think it's my responsibility. "
But even so far away, she could not avoid the threats from Pakistan. His uncle was kidnapped while she was in Canada, her sister Mahganj said, and the family received a message urging Karima to stop her activism. But Karima refused. Her uncle's body was returned to the family the day Karima appeared before a judge in Canada to apply for asylum, Mahganj said.
"The judge even told her you could procrastinate, but she said, 'No, I came here to tell my story,'" said Sameer.
In retrospect, Sameer wonders about the asylum case - why it took so long. Was Pakistan against it behind the scenes? There is no way of knowing. His head is full of questions.
They know someone was watching them. One day, Karima received a phone call asking her to return to Pakistan. The person on the phone detailed a trip they took with Sameer's three-year-old son to the local park in Toronto. "It looks like you are enjoying your life," said the person.
"It's really terrifying to a normal person. But I had a feeling she was never afraid. She was fearless," said Sameer.
Lateef Johar Baloch, a close friend and fellow activist who also lives in Toronto, told the BBC that Karima recently received anonymous threats warning her that someone would send her a "Christmas present" and "teach her a lesson".
"I don't remember ever seeing her worried or afraid," said her husband Hammal Baloch, a former member of the BSO. "I knew how in Balochistan her house had once been the target of a mortar attack and how there were repeated raids over her arrest while she continued her underground activities from the BSO platform. Cases have been filed against her."
None of that bothered her, he said. "She was a mountain of courage."
Pakistani rights activist found dead in Toronto
The BBC's 100 Women List 2016
Balochistan journalists "between stick and weapon"
The family is not sure what happened last Sunday. They know she left home to go for a walk. When she did not return, the family contacted the police. Her body was found the next morning. Police said her body was found near Lake Ontario, but no further details were given. Police said they did not believe there were any suspicious circumstances.
"The Toronto Police Service is aware of the increased public and media interest in investigating missing persons," a police statement said. "The circumstances have been investigated and the officers have determined that this is a non-criminal death and no foul is suspected."
Karima's mother didn't cry when she heard the news, she said. "Karima was a strong person and she wouldn't like it if I cry. When I heard the news, I felt like all seven heavens fell on me, but there are no tears," Jamila Baloch said.
"The path she chose was her deliberate decision. She did not live for herself, but fought for the lost youth in Baluch."
Sameer is less certain that his sister's death was nothing unusual, he said. Earlier this year, he watched the Swedish police explain that the death of his friend and fellow activist and colleague in exile Sajid Hussain, who went missing near the city of Uppsala on March 2, 2020 and who appeared to be apparently not a bad match on Found March 23 in the River Fyris. His death is said to have resulted from drowning.
"Cops are trying to get us to accept [her conclusion that she has committed suicide]," Sameer said. "She was depressed all her life. Now she finally had her permanent residence. She got her refugee status and things went better.
"I don't know what happened that day, but given our history - given your history - I think we have the right to take this with a pinch of salt," he said.
Sameer lost his childhood friend and "point of reference", he said. The Baloch rights movement had lost a "better leader than any other man".
Karima spoke to the BBC four years ago after being named on the list of 100 women to be inspired and influential, and said she never really left her homeland.
"It's with me," she said. "The decision to return to Balochistan at any time is mine. I will not allow Pakistan to make this decision for me."
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