Balochistan, The Unluckiest Corner Of The World

The earthquake that shook Iran and Pakistan last week has already been overshadowed by fatal tremors in Sichuan, China, a few days ago. Perhaps not surprising given that both places are in seismically active areas, but both of these disasters are repeats of far more deadly earthquakes that occurred in the last decade. In 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed almost 70,000 people, while a 2003 earthquake in the Balochistan area in Iran killed over 26,000.

That the death toll of such strong earthquakes this year is much lower (188 so far in China and 36 in Balochistan) is partly due to luck and partly due to building changes made in the wake of the last disasters. Iran was lucky that this year’s earthquake struck a less inhabited area, while China was lucky that the magnitude of the earthquake, though great, was still far less than in 2008 (6.6 vs. 7.9 is a huge difference on the logarithmic quake-measuring scale). In Iran, it’s certain that upgrades to buildings would have helped in this year’s disaster. Part of the reason the earthquake in 2003 was so devastating was due to mud brick buildings that didn’t comply with 1989 earthquake building codes. Two years ago when I visited Bam, the city devastated in 2003, almost all of the buildings were girded with steel support beams. It remains to be seen whether Chinese building integrity, which was lacking in 2008′s earthquake, will be to thank for the lower death toll this time around, but it seems likely.
The Iranian earthquake last week was actually almost directly on the border of Iran and Pakistan, in a murky and little-visited area known as Balochistan. Where Iranians and Chinese have enjoyed an immediate and effective response to the crises of the past week, the Pakistanis have not been so lucky. China has literally had to turn away volunteers from Sichuan. And Iran, which in case you’re not paying attention was just hit with its own 7.8 M earthquake, has offered earthquake aid to China. Meanwhile, Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province is suffering something of a humanitarian crisis.

Few people ever travel to Balochistan. It’s bleak and desolate and basically on the way to nowhere. Even the hippies, self-medicating their way to India along the hippie trail in the ’60s and ’70s, would divert through Afghanistan rather than going through the dusty deserts of Balochistan.

I traveled there in 2011, on my way overland to Southeast Asia. We (a convoy of travelers) were assigned armed guards along the way, who took regular naps as we trundled across the desert. The Baloch people, with their sun-beaten faces and piercing stares, often seemed sinister, but it turned out curiosity was simply mistaken for menace. Few Baloch see any Westerners except on TV, though the elder of them will remember a time pre-Partition when British were still garrisoned in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital.

I’m not naive. Balochistan is a dangerous place. Kidnappings perpetrated by al-Qaeda radicals are not uncommon (though they rarely target foreigners). Sectarian violence is a big problem. And there’s always the chance one might get in the crossfire between the Pakistan military and the stout and very armed advocates of an independent Balochistan.

But the regular Baloch, like everyone else on the planet, is just on his hustle, trying to eke out a living for himself and his family. He is abiding by ancient customs of hospitality in his native land. He is offering tea to the strange foreigner who wandered into his shop dressed in a moose toque and suede shoes in the middle of the desert. He is napping in the passenger seat of some foreigner’s car so they can safely transit his homeland. He is yelling at an idiot foreigner to turn off the bloody radio during the call to prayer, but then smiling to show he wasn’t being hostile or anything. And he is helping said sartorially inept foreigner navigate the hectic markets of Quetta to buy local dress that won’t make him stand out so damn much. So spare a thought for the Baloch and their homeland of Balochistan, a small, unlucky corner of the globe where you will probably never go.

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[Photo credit: Jae Pyl, Adam Hodge]