Driving in from the west, two cars are in a hurry to reach a hospital. In one of the vehicles, a pregnant woman appears to be in severe pain. The woman’s accompanying male relatives pull out some handwritten telephone numbers and make desperate calls, describing their painful situation to whoever is on the other end. In the other waiting vehicle, it appears there is a sick child – and he appears to be in a bad condition. Presently, two soldiers with torches in their hands came down and open the locked barrier, allowing through the cars carrying patients.
My host has already informed the check-post officials through the Political Agent’s office, and we are allowed to make the journey. For many, however, a simple crossing from east to west or vice versa is a difficult matter in these tense times. Some of the people ask me to help them, not realising, perhaps, that I too am at the mercy of others. One of the security officials gets busy on his phone, requesting permission from his superiors to allow the other people through.
“In the militants’ book, there can be no mercy for Shia. The killing of humans was for them much easier than slaughtering a hen”
Such is the scene as our car reaches Toor Pul check-post at 7 pm in the evening. This place is at the last corner of the Hangu District of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Our vehicle is heading towards Kurram Agency, a part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) which directly borders Afghanistan. All of the passengers have to show their identity cards and convince security officials of their identity before being allowed to proceed upwards past the check-post.
It is fully dark and about one dozen vehicles are standing on this side. Many are also waiting on the other side, coming in from Kurram Agency, travelling towards Hangu and further towards the Kohat district. Nobody, however, crosses without permission a wooden pole in the middle of the road, because a small metallic sign-board reads, “No Entry after 6:30 pm” is suspended from a cement block touching the front wall of the post. It has been here for years now. People are clear that they must follow the instructions “written on the wall” for them. Even at times when there is not a single soldier or security official nearby, people follow the orders as they would a traffic light.
The security forces keep watch from the top of a nearby mountain some 5-600 yards away from this check-post. Two telephone numbers are inscribed on a board, for use in cases of emergency.
I visited the place where terrorists burned convoys and killed dozens of Shia Muslims. This area is near the Chaphri check-post or Bab-e-Kurram – the gateway to Kurram and a point of entry for FATA.
A local, Shahid Khan, tells me that at only a small distance of 15 to 20 kilometres down the road, one of the terrifying massacres of Shias took place. Shahid points it out: a spot which is between two mountains, where vehicles couldn’t possibly take a U-turn because of the road being both narrow and uphill at that point. Shahid remarks that this is an ideal spot to set up an ambush – a fact that was clearly not lost on the Taliban militants who terrorised this region.
“At this point, the militants would stop vehicles and check the passengers’ names from their identity cards [looking for names more commonly associated with the Shia] and search for wounds on their bodies [signs of the ritual flagellation that sometimes accompanies Muharram mourning]” he describes some of the terrifying scenes of massacres that this spot has witnessed. “In the militants’ book, you see, there can be no mercy for Shia. The killing and cutting of humans was, for such men, much easier than slaughtering a hen.”
An official tells me on condition of anonymity – as he is not authorized to talk to the media – that while ‘official’ data says that 1,700 people have been killed in the conflict in this region, he believes the figure of deaths is more likely to be in the range of 2,700 to 3,000.
“The cruelty of the extremists on both ‘sides’ resulted in killings, but it also meant great misery for women who have married into the opposite sect”
Local journalist Anwar Shah tells me that on the 16th of November, 2007, at 2pm a grenade exploded in Parachinar city. He says some people belonging to the Sunni practice of Islam were killed. And it was the beginning of a long war between the two sects.
Take the case of villages like Ali Zai and Manduri Bangash – the first a Shia-majority village and the second predominantly Sunni. Residents tell me both the sects had very friendly and pleasant relations between themselves. There were some 90 to 100 houses in Manduri Bangash and the occupants seem to have got along just fine with the Shias of Ali Zai before 2007. But then in the last months of 2007, terrorists killed Shias in a brutal attack.
From that day onwards, an irreparable crack appeared in the centuries-old relations between the two sects, a retired school teacher in Ali Zai bazaar tells me on condition of anonymity. For centuries both tribes (the Turi and Bangash, Shia and Sunni) coexisted cordially in the picturesque Kurram Agency. Here in Kurram, the primary identity of the people was not based on religion or sects but only on tribal affiliation. The teacher adds in a low tone:
“I have hundreds of Sunni students in the vicinity but unfortunately due to the long sectarian war, I no longer have the same relations of mutual respect with them that I once had…”
Manduri Bangash Girls Primary School stands as a relatively new building, close to the entrance to the village. Before 2008, more than 100 girls were studying here. Since then, during a period of intense sectarian conflict and religious extremist violence, the School was totally demolished. It has reopened this year but only a few displaced families came back to their homes. So the number of students now returning to it is very small. Anwar Shah, the local journalist, puts things into a larger context for me: the infrastructure of many schools and hospitals was either demolished or set on fire during this time.
Usman Bangash talks to me as I report for the The Friday Times. “In this region there are many cases of intermarriages amongst both the sects” he points out. “That was a time of trust, love and harmony. I miss that fabulous and memorable time!” he says wistfully. Bangash wishes he could see that time come back, just once in his life before he dies.
It was the 13th of August, 2008, when the rest of the country was singing and dancing on the eve of Independence Day celebrations, the inhabitants of this unfortunate village were packing their belongings with tearful eyes as they saw their last sunset of peace. The same sun appeared with miseries and difficulties the next day. Usman’s son is working in peaceful Islamabad and he won’t allow him to live here again. “I had spent my savings from 35 years of employment on the construction of my home, but now it is razed. Debris from what was once worth four million rupees is lying shattered on the ground!”
He shows me one of the demolished houses sadly.
“Out of these demolished villages, some 36 belong to Sunnis while another 5 belonged to the Shia”, he believes.
The facts of the brutal sectarian conflict are clear, at least to residents – both Shia and Sunni – of the area. They say that during this time hundreds of Shias have been massacred by the intensely sectarian Taliban and their allies. Revenge was in much the same coin – dozens of Sunnis were massacred in retaliation – and some 41 predominantly Sunni villages have been wrecked, allegedly by Shia fighters.
An official of the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) confirms to me that 36 Sunni and 5 Shia villages have been demolished in sectarian war. He further says that the government has announced some US $ 3,000 per family to help rebuild their lives, but many are yet to receive such assistance. The official admits that even among those who do receive this amount, there are justified complaints that it is a meagre sum – people have lost millions in destroyed properties.
“We [Turi and Bangash] tribes are living on this soil for thousands years” Izhar Hassan tells me. “But some external powers made this scenic, green, mountainous area a battlefield and the seeds of hatred won’t be eliminated in the near future now. In fact, I fear that trust will take decades to be established again between communities.” Before 2007, he believes, the environment was ‘excellent’. He remembers that at wedding ceremonies, Shia and Sunni youth would dance the famous, energetic Pakhtun dance, the Attan, in each other’s villages for the entire night – without any fear.
Gul Baba, venerable and white-bearded elderly resident of Manduri, further emphasises the catastrophic nature of the sectarian conflict. He says that his (Sunni) community in the area had strong ties with the Shia residents.
”Even our sisters and daughters have been married into other sects. The cruel approach of the extremists and fundamentalists ruined and often ended lives, but it also meant great misery especially for those women who have married into the opposite sect.” The white-bearded Gul Baba literally cries at this point. He cleans his tearful eyes with his chadar and adds, as if by way of explanation, “It hurts when I recall the days of peace and love.” Then his voice picks up and he continues: “Who is kafir (infidel) or momin (righteous)? Only God knows. Neither the mosque’s mullah nor the Imambargah’s mutawali have the right to decide it!”
Professor Khadim Hussain offers his opinion on the conflict. He reminds me that decades ago, famed leader Bacha Khan said that the Pakhtuns are victims of their geographical location. And this would be as true for the Kurram Agency as it is for any other part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The peace and harmony that my interlocutors on my journey into Kurram describe was shattered during the 1980s as Islamic fundamentalist mujahideen rebels taking on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan used Kurram as a launching pad. Then the Arab countries and the Iranians invested in madrassahs (religious seminaries) which disseminated a highly-charged sectarian religious discourse in some parts of the Kurram region. All this added up to ignite sectarian violence. Centuries-old disagreements and grudges took on a deadly new aspect and this region became one of the most dangerous in the world.
Imran Bangash was living with his well-established family in Manduri Bangash village. The signboard on the main road of the Thall tehsil (subdivision), leading from the Hangu district to Parachinar, states that this village was established in 1876. Bangash shares his own tale of sorrow – from that fateful eve of Independence Day (the 13th of August) 2008, when alleged Shia fighters attacked as part of the worsening sectarian conflict.
“They were shelling on mud-brick houses and that forced all of us to leave the village. I won’t forget the pain of that day when our family was in a hurry to find shelter” he recalls. “On that day I wished I should die instead of living here or there as an Internally Displaced Person (IDP)!” His disappointment in life is evident from his tone, as he continues: “The war has broken us. It will take decades to build the same house in this village.”
Professor Khadim Hussain helps put such violence into its context. He explains that historically, in the Kurram Agency, there were already disputes around land, mountains and water among elements of the Turi and Bangash tribes. In such an environment, it proved easier for non-state actors to manipulate the people’s sentiments and divert their disputes towards a religious sectarian war.
“Those who were once my protectors and teammates are now chasing me, trying to kill me!”
“In the 1980s, state policy itself was focused on the war in Afghanistan. At that time, policy-makers sought to influence Afghanistan and even the Central Asian states in the future. For that purpose a ‘warrior factory’ was needed” he believes. And this unfortunate region became just that – virulently anti-Shia elements of the anti-Soviet resistance forces began to set off new flames on the Pakistani side of the border – a sectarian conflict framed in increasingly apocalyptic terms.
Imran Bangash’s own experience serves to illustrate how sectarian conflict seeped into the lives of ordinary people in the region, poisoning relations between communities:
“The ugly images are still fresh in my mind. Some of my school and college friends suddenly became my foes and I was laughing at my cruel fate.” he says. “Those who were once my protectors and teammates are now chasing me, trying to kill me!”
Imran and his family now live in Rawalpinidi – far from his original home, but a much safer place. He pays visits to his native area twice or thrice annually. This time he was here to attend a relative’s wedding – and to see the debris of his own house and inspect his fields lying fallow. “My grandmother, mother and aunties live by recalling better days. Back then, it was customary for women to sit on the banks of the river when the sun was at its peak in winters. In the summers, they would go out to enjoy the scenic sunset of the Kurram valley. Today they miss all of this, and most of the time they weep.”
“My grandmother often says ‘Har cha ta khpal watan Jannat day’ – that everyone adores their own abode or homeland.And on Eid days, when all the locals customarily visit the graves of their dearly departed relatives, but we can no longer do so, it breaks our hearts.”
Geographically, hilly Kurram Agency has wings that stretch towards Afghanistan’s border provinces – therefore the area was an easy sanctuary for terrorists. It is hard to miss the external hand in the internal affairs of this region.
For the Shia community, it is the Imam Hussain (r.a.)’s chehlum, a commemoration marked all over the world. Seeing one banner that hangs on the Bab-e-Kurram, the entrance to the region, one can easily see that peace is still far from these lands. It says that “heavy vehicles are strictly banned on the 20th and 21st of this month due to Chehlum.” It tells the whole story of the mistrust and palpable fear between members of the two major sects of Islam.
Zahid Hussain hails from Upper Kurram and was a student at the University of Peshawar from 2009 to 2011. “It wasn’t possible for me to pass my beloved home territory to reach Peshawar the provincial capital of KP province. I have had to travel to the Torkham border and then proceed via Paktia (in Afghanistan) to Parachinar (in Pakistan)”he explains.
Once you obtain admission in a university in the “settled areas” of the KP province, it means that you have to stay in Peshawar until you obtain your degree – because of the dangerous, expensive and long journey home. “I have celebrated my Eid and other festivities in Sunni friends’ homes in Peshawar and in other cities during my two years at the University” he tells me.
A glance at a map of the area, with some knowledge of its sectarian demographic, soon reveals that the Shia and Sunni communities are not living in one place. In fact, people from each of the sects dominate various towns, villages and even cities. In such a situation, it is difficult to envision what a long-lasting peace would look like.
This correspondent, for The Friday Times, repeatedly called and sent emails to the Political Agent of Kurram Agency and he promised to answer all of the queries sent to him. Until the time of filing this report, the Political Agent has not responded or commented on the ongoing situation in that territory.
Professor Khadim Hussain, though, believes it is possible to alleviate the terrifying, suffocating atmosphere of mistrust between Shia and Sunni. He believes policy-makers have the ‘golden era’ of the past to go by for inspiration. He insists that the authorities need to arrange for theatre plays, singing competitions, Attan dance events, literary sessions and above all, joint peace-keeping committees. And, he reminds me, there is always the possibility of laying out the physical infrastructure of peace – roads, bridges and canals.
Turi and Bangash, Shia and Sunni, have lived here in peace before. It remains to be seen how long it will be before they are permitted to do so again.
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for the Friday Times. He tweets at @raufabdur and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org