“These were kids I had played cricket with, people I had interviewed, younger reporters I had taught,” Malik, 28, said in an interview last week in Arlington County, where he now lives. The final straw came in early June, when one of his mentors, a poet and scholar, was gunned down in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, Malik’s native province.
On Aug. 19, Malik applied for political asylum in the United States. In his petition, he said that his work as a journalist and ethnic activist in Baluchistan, where he had exposed military abuses, made him likely to be arrested, tortured, abducted and “ultimately killed by the government” if he returned.
Two weeks ago, his petition was granted. It was a highly unusual decision by U.S. immigration officials, given Pakistan’s status: a strategic partner in Washington’s war against Islamic terrorism; a longtime recipient of U.S. aid; and a democracy with an elected civilian government and vibrant national news media.
“I never wanted to leave my country, but I don’t want to become a martyr, either,” said Malik, a soft-spoken but steely man who spends his days hunched over a laptop at coffee shops in Clarendon, checking with sources back home to update his online newspaper, whose name means “Baluch Truth.”
“What’s going on in Baluchistan is like the dirty war in Argentina,” he said. “I need to be telling the story, but I can’t afford to become the story.”
Baluchistan is the Wild West of Pakistan — a remote desert province, larger than France, that is home to a mix of radical Islamic groups, rival ethnic and refugee gangs, rebellious armed tribes, and security agencies that have long been reported to kidnap, torture and kill dissidents with impunity.
Living under constant threat
Yet this ongoing violence and skulduggery receives scant international attention. Foreign journalists are banned from visiting the region alone, while headlines about Pakistan are dominated by a separate, high-stakes border conflict in which American drones and Pakistani troops are battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
As a result, a handful of local journalists such as Malik have been left to investigate and report the news without big-city patrons or visiting foreign delegations to give them cover.
“The threat of disappearance was always lurking in the back of our minds,” Malik wrote in his asylum petition. “My friends, colleagues and I lived with the knowledge that yesterday it was him that disappeared; today it is someone else; tomorrow it could easily be me.”