“Sooray Sooray of golo rashi Da bi nangay awaz di ramasha maina”
[You may get your body riddled with bullets, but I should not see your head hang down!]
This Pashto tapa encourages soldiers in the battlefield. White-bearded Hussain Shah, 70, sings it dozens of times to his sons in the police.
Shah was the father of five educated sons, living a happy life in Mardan. He is famous as ‘Haji sahib’ – since 1960 he is a newspaper distributor in his district. But as religious fundamentalist militancy exploded in the region over the past few years, two of his sons insisted on joining the police. It was a terrible time for the police force in the northern and north-western part of the country: beheadings, target killings, blowing up of police vans with remote-detonated devices and suicide attacks were routine news.
Hussain Shah and his wife never wanted to send their sons into the line of fire and live in permanent fear. And yet Syed Kamal Shah and Syed Inayat Ali Shah compelled their parents to acquiesce and joined Mardan police.
The police was operating as a front-line force against the unknown, unseen enemy in all plain and hilly areas. It was a brutal war.
It cost Hussain Shah too.
The mention of his son Syed Kamal Shah, who lost his life in the line of duty, makes tears roll down his grey facial hair. “Kamal was my third son. He was brave like a lion. I never saw him scared while fighting against the Taliban, nor did he discuss any difficulties involved in being a policeman in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.”
After completing his elite course Kamal was transferred to D.I. Khan. The area is adjacent to the tribal belt. He was living in a private house in D.I. Khan city. He took an avid interest in pet animals and birds.
“After Kamal’s martyrdom we brought his pigeons and other birds to Mardan,” Shah recalls.
He then goes on to narrate the story of how his son fell in the fight against the Taliban, as narrated by Kamal’s friends. “On confirmed information, the D.I. Khan police was conducting raids against terrorists in the tribal border area of Waziristan. Before the raid, the terrorists fled the scene and left a motorcycle, a suicide jacket and an AK47, taking with them only a pistol.”
One of the police officers ordered Kamal to take the motorcycle to Kulachai Police Station.
On his way to the police station with the seized motorcycle, Kamal saw someone running towards the tribal area. He began to pursue him on the motorcycle. As Kamal caught up with the man, he opened fire on him and he fell from the bike. The terrorist then proceeded to take the motorcycle from him and crossed the tribal area, making good his escape.
Syed Kamal was taken by helicopter to Islamabad but he succumbed to his wounds on his way to the Military Hospital and was then brought back to Peshawar for funeral prayers. He was then buried in his ancestral graveyard in Mardan.
He was 25 at the time.
The story of the sacrifices of the Syed family did not end here. Their contribution to the struggle against the Taliban continues. Now younger brother Syed Ali Shah has joined the police force and taken the place of his brother Syed Kamal Shah in the ranks. Syed Ali Shah is now in training and soon he will be on the road to join the fight.
“Life and death is written for a specific day and no one can change it!” Hussain Shah is convinced. As the father of a martyr, he proudly shrugs his aged shoulders.
As Kamal caught up with the man, he opened fire on him and he fell from the bike
According to police data more than 1,350 Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa policemen have given their lives in the war against the terrorists and hundreds have been injured. Dozens of them are paralyzed now and many are spending their days missing parts of their bodies, on beds and in wheelchairs.
In Peshawar 454, in Mardan 284, in Malakand division 282, in Bannu 201, in Kohat 166 and in D.I. Khan 158 police operatives have given their lives in the line of duty.
A living legend and symbol of heroism in this war is a low-ranking police officer. Bukhari Shah joined the KP police in the late 1980s, in district Charsadda. He is known as “sher dil” amongst the residents of Frontier Region (FR) Peshawar. His colleagues and subordinates hold him in the highest regard, due to his courage and bravery in the last 10 years: Bukhari has operated in some of the toughest spots. He became known as “Breet” (Moustache)!
Bukhari was stationed in Matni and Spaid Sang. This area was working as something of a wall between Peshawar city and the militants. “I have remained for almost one decade in this area” Bukhari says. “I, along with a few constables fought the war against the notorious splinter group from the Pakistani Taliban, the Tariq Afridi Group of Dara Adam Khel, and against Mangal Bagh, chief of the Khyber Agency militants.”
He continues: “It was like playing with fire and all of us would have to be ready to face an attack all 24 hours.”
Bukhari has survived three suicide attacks and dozens of ambushes, missiles and other assaults from the Dara Adam Khel and Khyber Agency militants.
“Having survived all this, it only further cemented my belief that no one can harm me! Only the Creator can take me up!” Bukhari grins. “When I survived in more than 50 attacks, I became famous among the militants. They thought that I have performed some mysterious magic and therefore bullets couldn’t touch me.”
The dangers, of course, are very real – even for someone seemingly invincible.
“I have received bullets in most parts of my body.” Bukhari shows that on his head and foot, the marks left by bullets are still visible. “I am convinced that I have an oath to the motherland – to keep it protect from all evil. All I have done is my duty!”
According to a report, since 1970 (i.e. in 47 years), the year 2009 was the bloodiest year of the KP police. During that year, more than 200 police officials lost their lives to the terrorist offensive.
As for Bukhari himself, the militant commander Mangal Bagh has personally called him some 20 times, and threatened him with beheading. “He told me he would make of me an example for the rest of the country and particularly for the police force. My conversation would get tapped by the intelligence agencies and later high officials would ask me to be careful at the police station.”
As a policeman, Bukhari Shah also appreciates the role of civilians from the local population who took up arms and stood like a rock with government forces, having rendered many sacrifices in defeating the militants’ offensive. The anti-Taliban civil militia was formed during the Awami National Party (ANP) era and two late elders of the area (Abdul Malik and Haji Dilawar) led them with much zeal and determination.
Bukhari Shah recalls an encounter with Dara Adam Khel militants.
“I was on leave with my family in Charsadda. After dinner, late in the night, when my family members were preparing for bed, I received a call telling me of an attack on the Matni police station. I asked wife to pack my bag. That was a terrible time and all my kids really stood against me going off to join that fight. But young constables were in a very tough situation and they were calling me. I refused my family’s requests that I stay and started my journey to FR Peshawar. As I reached the area, a merciless fight was going on between the militants and the police. It was midnight and visibility was poor: it was hard to see what was happening few yards away.”
Bukhari goes back to that action. “My superiors said that there was no need for me to go into the firing. But I sneaked in and as I reached the police station, when the young constables saw me, I can’t forget the happiness on their faces. My arrival raised their morale significantly. And for a further three hours we fought back, and at the end, the police succeeded. Actually, the militants were looking to capture the police station building and the police constables within it!”
Bukhari Shah is very aware of Pashtun history and traditions in his fight against the Taliban.
“Once Mangal Bagh threatened me in his thundering tone: ‘We will capture you alive and then behead you!’ And I replied in the same tone: ‘I am the grandson of Haji Turangzai who had fought the Angrez (the British) and I will replay history and drive you from Pakistan!’”
Yet for all his courage and achievements in the fighting, Bukhari is now a disheartened police officer, after a long decade spent being a frontline fighter. No rewards have been given to him. Serving since 1986, he has only reached the post of sub-inspector by now. When he received bullets in his head, it was an expensive treatment and he spent more than Rs. 2 million from his own pocket.
Once in Matani bazaar his vehicle was attacked by a suicide bomber. The vehicle was damaged but Bukhari Shah crawled from his seat, alive and well like the others. Bukhari Shah has killed dozens of militants in this long war.
Since the war began, he has not slept at night.
“Ka da watan pa nang shaheed shwe
Pa taar da zulfo ba kafan darla gandama”
[If you embraced martyrdom while defending the motherland,
I will stitch your shroud with the locks of my hair!”\]
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for The Friday Times from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at email@example.com and tweets at @raufabdur