AWARAN, Pakistan — The promise of an AK-47, money and a new motorcycle tipped Hammad into militancy at the age of 20.
“I was given three men, a motorbike, a Kalashnikov and 15,000 rupees [$150] per month,” the 23-year-old said.
This was a big deal for a middle-school dropout from a region with few jobs and even fewer roads. Hammad learned how to assemble bombs, which added to the thrill of fighting to carve out a separate state for his people, the Baloch.
“My task was easy. To destroy [military and paramilitary] vehicles…Just plant a mine or fire a rocket and zoom off," said Hammad, who asked to be identified by his first name only.
But fighting for independence from Pakistan soon turned sour.
“It was great, but I couldn’t keep doing it for that money,” he said from a military base in the desperately poor province of Balochistan. “My commander told me to figure out my own cash, and rob or extort if I had to. I wasn’t up for that.”
He isn’t the only Baloch militant to have lost his hunger for the fight. After being seduced by violent separatist groups fighting for independence, over the last three months some 500 fellow fighters have been beguiled by the government with gifts of cigarettes, perfume and the official promise of amnesty.Most say they are tired of fighting, and deeply disillusioned.
At a military base in the province, NBC News interviewed around 50 former fighters — some 40 foot soldiers and 10 commanders — about their war on the state. While all were under military supervision, they spoke candidly about why they decided to fight the government, and why they dropped out.
Their immediate reasons for joining one of the several separatist militant groups vary — the allure of power and excitement, a desire to honor their centuries-old tribal codes, gaining recognition for their region’s distinct ethnicity and even a belief in hard-line communism.
At the heart of every story is the region’s grinding poverty and brutality.
“We Baloch are a proud people, and for decades the state spat on our pride with its behavior"
Balochistan province in southern Pakistan is rich in natural gas and strategically located on the border with Iran and Afghanistan, and its coast overlooking the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Still, its 10 million inhabitants have been neglected by a series of governments, which has led to five insurgencies in six decades.
The latest one, which started in 2006 after a senior tribal separatist was killed by the Pakistani military, is now entering its tenth year.
Years of alleged disappearances and extrajudicial killings of Baloch militants and their sympathizers have fueled the fight.
Separatists have attacked government installations, camps for laborers, train lines, buses and power stations. Officials estimate that there are around 4,500 militants fighting in the hinterland who are not interested in its amnesty scheme.
Rights groups, like the International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, claim that the state continues to extra-judicially target the Baloch population, and that over 21,000 are unaccounted for.
The military’s top commander in the region, Lt. Gen. Nasser Khan Janjua, flatly rejected the numbers.
“The only missing persons in Balochistan are those militants who were killed in action or by their own organizations, slamming us with the blame," he said.
In 2012, the U.N.’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances concluded that "figures communicated to us range from less than a hundred to thousands."
"When you rape your own Baloch sisters, when you rob your own Baloch brothers, then the cause is finished"
Whatever the true numbers, men and boys are being lured to fight. When Hazar Khan joined the fight as a young man, he was following the local chief’s orders.
“In the tribal world, there is no God or country — that’s what I believed. The tribal chief always comes first,” said Khan, 40, dressed in black from his turban to his floppy Baloch sandals made of used tires.
“We Baloch are a proud people, and for decades the state spat on our pride with its behavior," he said to explain his eagerness to fight.
He became a senior commander in the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), but as he rose in the ranks began to think that his loyalty was misplaced. Khan said he laid down his weapons after he became disillusioned with his leader, Harbyar Marri, who lives in self-imposed exile in Switzerland and has never joined the struggle directly.
“When the tribal chief is nowhere to be seen for years, then your bones get old, and your blood becomes cold,” he said as his fingers worked through his black prayer beads.
Awaran, a district of 300,000 people, is a hotbed of the insurgency. The entire region lacks gas and electricity services. Some 110 of the district’s 165 schools sit empty, according to the local school administrator.
It also counts on just one 40-bed hospital, which is barely functional after being badly damaged in a 2013 earthquake. Most of its 11 doctors rarely bother to show up, according to staff and officials, and equipment and supplies sit rain-soaked and ruined in a courtyard. The closest operating room is in Karachi, around 370 miles and a nine-hour drive away.
When asked about the dismal services, poverty and violence, the province's chief minister Abdul Malik Baloch admitted that "there are layers upon layers of problems."
"Things are improving, but the politics and delicate tribalism of improving Balochistan demand patience,” he added.
For some Baloch, patience ran dry years ago. Seeing his countrymen suffer from neglect and abuse drove Obaidullah, who is from Turbat, the same area as the chief minister, to fight.
“We sold our houses and land to get university degrees,” said the 30-year-old, clean-shaven communist and former BLF subcommander. “We grew up believing we could study our way to achievement. It was a lie. We got no jobs — someone with army contacts always did.”
If a fight against injustice and impunity pushed him into the group’s arms, those convictions also drove him away from it.
Obaidullah’s tipping point came when he confronted fellow militants over targeting the local population. In response, they burned down his house. So what started as an idealistic political fight for his people's rights has deteriorated into gangs extorting, kidnapping and even raping locals, he said.
“We fought because the government didn’t give us schools and roads and hospitals. It was a good fight, a true fight,” said Obaidullah, who once commanded a contingent of around 90 men. “But when you rape your own Baloch sisters, when you rob your own Baloch brothers, then the cause is finished.”