A man and a woman are holding up balloons. They’re celebrating a birthday. A child’s cheerful voice is heard in the background. The woman pops one balloon and so does the man. They look lovingly at each other. Then the couple poses for the camera in a warm embrace. The woman rests her head on the man’s shoulder and puts an arm around her child. They’re the picture-perfect happy family.
To the unsuspecting viewer, the scene is playful, ordinary, unremarkable even.
But the woman in the video is Shari Baloch, who on April 26 killed four people in a suicide attack in Karachi city. Her husband tweeted the family balloon video after the attack.
CCTV footage from outside the University of Karachi’s Confucius Institute shows Shari detonating explosives in a bag she was holding, as a minivan carrying university staff members was approaching. The explosion killed three Chinese educators – language instructors Ding Mupeng and Chen Sai, and institute director Huang Guiping – and the van’s Pakistani driver Khalid Nawaz, a father of seven.
Police inspect a site around damaged vehicles following a suicide bombing near the Confucious Institute affiliated with the Karachi University, in Karachi on April 26, 2022. A woman suicide bomber from a Pakistan separatist group killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in an attack on a vehicle carrying staff from the Confucious Institute affiliated with the Karachi University. Rizwan TABASSUM / AFP
“I am devastated. They were guests in our country, they were our instructors and were like parents to us. Pakistan was like a second home to them,” Mustajab Hussain, a student at the Chinese language and cultural institute, told VICE World News. He was just 15 minutes away from the University gate when the attack took place. “They never thought that this would have happened to them here.”
“She was a wonderful teacher, if we found anything difficult she would go out of her way even outside of working hours to help us,” Hussain said of his instructor Chen Sai who was in her twenties. “She would text us on WhatsApp to answer all of our questions even at night. In fact all the teachers were amazing. They had created an environment of friendship and respect for us as part of our education.”
“Their hearts were settled in Pakistan,” he said. “The director once told us that whenever he entered the Pakistani airport he would feel as if he had come home.”
Rangers stand guard nearby the blast site a day after a suicide attack on a van near the Confucius institute which is the cultural programme that China operates at universities around the world at the Karachi University in Karachi on April 27, 2022 . Photo: Rizwan TABASSUM / AFP
The attack has been claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group fighting for independence for Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province, and listed as a terrorist organization by Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The group has been fighting Pakistan’s security forces for two decades in the country’s poorest yet mineral-rich province bordering Iran and Afghanistan.
In recent years however, the BLA has increasingly targeted Chinese citizens in resistance to Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative projects in Pakistan worth around $62 billion, which the group finds exploitative of the region’s resources and unfair to locals. The BLA claimed responsibility for the attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange in 2020 that killed seven, in 2019, BLA gunmen opened fire at a hotel in Gwadar city killing eight, and they claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the Chinese consulate in 2018 that killed four.
Despite its secular leanings, the BLA has recently resorted increasingly to suicide attacks more characteristic of Islamist militants. It warned of further attacks by “hundreds” of its “highly trained male and female members” if its demands of freedom from “Chinese exploitations” are not met.
Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies said they would press murder and terror charges against two BLA commanders for the latest attack. Police told the newspaper Dawn they believe the attack was meant to sabotage ties between Pakistan and China, and they suspect a “foreign hostile agency” is involved. Pakistan had previously accused its rival India of secretly funding and supporting the BLA, which India has denied.
Beijing says it will firmly support Pakistani counter-terrorism efforts and that the perpetrators "will be severely punished with justice and pay a heavy price." Since the incident, security measures have been increased at the university and students are being frisked at its entrance.
Rangers check motorcyclists at a security checkpoint set up near a university gate a day after a suicide attack on a van near the Confucius institute which is the cultural programme that China operates at universities around the world at the Karachi University in Karachi on April 27, 2022. Photo: Rizwan TABASSUM / AFP
The attack adds to a rising trend of educated professionals in Balochistan getting involved with the BLA. The group said Shari Baloch, a 30-year-old school teacher with a master’s degree in zoology pursuing a second degree in education, was its first female operative to carry out a suicide attack.
In an official statement, the BLA said Shari voluntarily joined its suicide bombing wing, the Majeed Brigade, two years ago, and signed herself up for a "self-sacrificing mission.” She was given time to reconsider, the group added, but she reaffirmed her willingness to carry out the attack six months ago.
Shari’s husband Habitan Bashir Baloch, a dentist and teacher, initially seemed to accept her fate. “Shari Jan, your selfless act has left me speechless but I am also beaming with pride today,” he tweeted a day after the attack, after which he also tweeted the video of Shari and the family celebrating a birthday. But when interrogated by investigators, Habitan allegedly claimed that his wife was “mentally ill” and was under medication.
Those who knew Shari, a doting mother to two children, find the incident surreal.
“We are all shocked, and her father is shocked. We could never have imagined that this would happen,” Shari’s uncle, prominent Baloch writer and activist Ghani Parvaaz, told VICE World News. “She was a sensitive, softhearted and intelligent individual. She was always happy, caring and loving. She never spoke about harming others or herself.”
But beyond the family’s shock, Parvaaz believes that the grim realities of life in Balochistan are what led to the radicalization of an educated young woman like Shari. “Balochistan’s conditions have gone wrong. As a result of this, both men and women have started fighting for their rights, but there has been nothing from the government to change things so far,” he said. “We have seen enforced disappearances, killings, bodies upon bodies and torture. Things need to change. Balochistan needs justice.”
Habitan Bashir Baloch shared a tweet on April 27 about his wife's attack.
Balochistan is Pakistan's largest province in terms of land area, but it is the least populous, least developed, and least educated. The country largely depends on the province’s coal and gas for power, yet many of Balochistan’s 14 million residents have limited electricity or running water. Opportunities for education and employment, and even access to healthcare are rare compared to the rest of Pakistan.
Analysts believe resentment of this cycle of economic deprivation, political alienation and violence has seeped into its educated middle class, making them more sympathetic to the separatist movement – a sentiment Shari embodied.
Over the years, clampdowns on separatists by Pakistan’s military forces have led to thousands of extrajudicial killings and abductions on mere suspicion of affiliation with separatists, activists or militants. Many activists, advocates and members of their families have been detained without trial or due process, some enduring torture for months or years, others never heard from again.
Following the Confucius Institute attack, two Baloch students were reportedly picked up by Pakistan’s secretive intelligence agencies from universities in the city of Lahore and in Karachi. Activists have denounced their abductions as ethnic profiling.
Parvaaz warns that this cycle is fomenting more trouble for Pakistan. “Enforced dispearrances and murder are bound to create a reaction in our society. This needs to end. It creates hatred. People want to take revenge, especially young people.”
Pakistan’s former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani echoes this warning. “Extreme nationalism has permeated to such an extent that educated women are willing to lay down their lives,” he said in a statement. “This means that the seeds of oppression, suppression, alienation and the sense of deprivation are so deep that it motivates violent reactions against the state and its strategic interests.”
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