Muzahir Hussain, a student of Medical Lab Technology at Shifa Medical College, was back at his village, Sra Galaa, when educational institutions were closed due to the Coronavirus outbreak. But he never rested, joining other members of his community in their efforts to contain the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. In the newly merged districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Kurram was the first where a death from Covid-19 was reported and has the second-highest number of confirmed cases after district Khyber.
Muzahir remained active in the campaign for spreading awareness about the disease and the safety measures needed to avoid it. His background in healthcare services helped in taking care of the people who were quarantined after they returned from the pilgrimage sites in Iraq and Iran.
But his assistance towards the community was never enough. He had to undergo another test: this time showing loyalty to his family and the tribe. A dispute between Sra Gelai and Azikhel, two branches of the Turi tribe, over a piece of communal land, led to a direct armed face-off. He was asked by his father to join his fellow tribesmen and reach the site of the dispute.
“Entangled in the complex web of allegiances, with the family and the tribe, no one can defy the call from an elder to join his brethren, even if he has never carried arms, and has never shot a single bullet,” explains Kashif, a cousin of Muzahir.
And so, on that fateful day, Muzahir was invited for lunch at his in-laws’ house. It was the first time after his engagement that he was visiting there – and had a chance to see his fiancée. He met her and handed over a present to her. But the meet-up was interrupted by the call from his father and he had to rush to the place of the dispute where others were gathered. Heated arguments had led to a violent clash.
Muzahir, who had helped others to outlive the pandemic, could not survive when caught in the crossfire. A fatal shot on the head added his name to the long list of the victims killed in land disputes.
“The curse of violence in the name of tribal honour that is tied to owning lands and killing others or getting killed while defending land holdings, it has ravaged us. It has taken hundreds of lives in the past decades!” Kashif laments.
Muzahir, who had helped others to outlive the pandemic, could not survive when caught in the crossfire
Violent incidents which are linked to land disputes involving individuals, families, clans, or tribes take place across Pakistan.
But in the merged districts of KP, these disputes can take on a particularly worrying significance, since the region is marred by militant violence which reached its peak during the violent campaign of the Pakistani Taliban for the imposition of their worldview. The security situation has changed over the past few years, but there always are fears that any incident could result in a conflict on a broader scale that would add to the sufferings of the people there.
Take Kurram for instance. In the past four decades, tribal disputes on land got worse and culminated in sectarian conflict. The district is home to the Turi and Bangash tribes, who belong to the Shia sect, while other tribes like Mangal and Parachamkani are Sunni.
The presence of sectarian organizations with links to militant networks and their influence that had engulfed the whole region had resulted in a siege in 2010 for the local population – when roads were blocked and thousands had to leave their native places to move to other cities.
In a more recent clash between the Balishkhel and Parachamkani tribes, in district Kurram, heavy weapons were used and nine people were killed. Unofficial sources report a higher death toll, saying that thirty people were killed from both sides and buried quietly. “This is the nature of tribal feuds culminating in violent conflicts: hardly a house in Kurram is left which has not, at some point, mourned the loss of a family member, be it an elder or a younger one,” sighs Hasrat Ali Turi, a political activist who lives in Rawalpindi.
“The situation has improved, now. The militancy is over, attempts of some elements to turn a dispute over land into a sectarian conflict are resisted by the locals, as happened in the recent case of a clash between the Balishkhel, a Turi subtribe, and the Parachamkani tribe. Protests held in Peshawar and Islamabad were joined by students and activists from both sides, demanding action from the authorities.” adds Hasrat. “But for us, who had left their homes for other cities, there is little incentive to get back to our native places. The lands over which we share ownership with our kin and fellow tribesmen, have little to offer in terms of income and earnings for us.”
The integration of the merged districts with the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa brought with it a new set of administrative, legal and political challenges. Until recently known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and governed based on British colonial politico-legal assumptions about tribal Pashtun populations, the merged districts are only now emerging into the mainstream – after many decades of having been deprived of the legal system operating in the rest of the country. One of the most important changes taking place has been the replacement of the old tribal modes of conflict resolution, based on the Jirga, with the formal legal system and courts that the rest of the country uses.
“After the merger of the region with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa followed by legal and developmental packages, there is room for optimism. Government officials and the Chief Minister himself keep saying that uplift of the merged districts remains their top priority. We hope that all these plans come along with arrangements that could help us resolve decades’ old disputes peacefully,” notes Bilal Yasir, a journalist from Bajaur. “Not a single day passes without us hearing about a dispute from different parts of Bajaur, or the other merged districts. The police department presently comprises Levies and Khasadar personnel. They lack legal acumen, professional training and the necessary expertise to be able to deal with these matters and take swift action to prevent situations from getting worse.”
Talking about dealing these matters through the courts, Javed Khan Safi, a lawyer from district Mohmand says, “With the integration of the merged districts, the legal system was extended to these districts and courts have been established. With this came a storm of litigations regarding land disputes. It’s clogging the system.”
He continues: “But it doesn’t live up to the expectations. The legal process is time-consuming and requires patience. The people of the merged districts are familiar with the traditional Jirga system that would decide matters in a few days or weeks. Now they get impatient and resort to violence. Hence, a delay in court matters can pave the way for criminal offenses.”
In the years of violence by militants, mutual trust was replaced by skepticism and suspicion of each other
Noor Islam Safi, a political worker of the Awami National Party (ANP) from tehsil Safi, district Mohmand, adds another dimension to the issue of courts which got flooded with claims of land titles and ownership. He explains:
“Jirga decisions were based on the traditional tribal codes and customs in which offenders would be excommunicated and punished. Their houses were razed to the ground, and properties seized, and they would lose their share in communal lands. With the introduction of the legal system, these Jirgas and their decisions have no legal backing: they could no longer continue with these sorts of penalties. Those who lost their right to land ownership in the past as a result of Jirga decisions now approach the courts to claim ownership. For the courts, it is hard to decide due to the absence of proper land records in the region. And disputes are referred, once again to Jirgas constituted by the district administration.”
In the merged districts, tribal families or communities have collective ownership rights on most of the lands. The very idea of land settlement and maintaining records by an administration is alien to them. These lands have neither been surveyed nor settled with clear proprietary titles. Claims of ownership come through generational memory and are based on mutual understanding and arrangements among the tribes. In some cases, these understandings are in a written form. But in the majority of the cases, these are verbal agreements.
In the years of militancy and the subsequent violence, tribal elders and heads of jirgas were targeted by the armed groups seeking power. It also affected intra-tribe relationships, as well as mutual understandings with other tribes. In these years, mutual trust was replaced by skepticism and suspicion of each other. With the relationships changed, generations-old mutual arrangements and verbal agreements were denied and disregarded.
Rivals begin resorting to strong-arm tactics when the ability to exercise violence becomes the decisive factor.
In the whole region, the Tochi area, which is located on the boundary of South and North Waziristan districts and two tehsils of district Kurram, is the exception. Here a partial Land Settlement was carried out in the colonial period. In Lower and Upper Kurram, it was carried out in 1905. The record was further updated in 1943/44. This decades-old exercise provided the local population of these tehsils with a considerable understanding of the land management system.
But collective ownership of the lands, hills and forests, known as Shamilat (commons), remains unresolved. And claims on the Shamilat become a major reason for violence among the clans and tribes.
After the integration of the merged districts, when the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government developed a legal and developmental package for the region, it includes a comprehensive plan for land settlement and creation of land records to improve land governance mechanisms.
Starting from scratch, the plan includes computerization of land records and their efficient management through the use of GIS/ICT technology for ensuring transparency and authenticity of all land-related transactions.
Government efforts are supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is providing technical assistance to the Board of Revenue as part of their Merged Area Governance Project (MAGP).
Zafar Ali Habib, who works as Delivery Associate in the provincial government’s Land Settlement Project in district Kurram comments:
“Disputes over unsettled communal lands are a major reason for violence among the tribes. Conflicting ownership claims and lack of boundary determination among the tribes result in people taking up arms and resorting to violence. The first step for us was public engagement. It would help them in getting familiar with the whole concept of Land Settlement and addressing their concerns about it.”
On the apprehensions of the people regarding the government’s Land Settlement exercise, he adds:
“The government has amended the Land Acquisition Act, recently, to address the concerns of the people from merged districts. It ensures that the valuation of lands acquired by the government for administrative purposes and for providing amenities to the residents of those areas would be made after consultation with local communities and tribes.”
Saifullah Mehsud, president FATA Research Center (FRC) opines:
“Matters of land ownership within a tribe and among the various tribes are rooted in local customs and traditions. Any plans for settlements of the common lands should be accompanied by measures to provide dispute resolution mechanisms that are in harmony with local customs.”
He refers to the recent efforts by the district administration in South Waziristan, in which various Mehsud and Wazir subtribes picked arms and had taken up positions against each other, but the potential conflict was averted through mediation between them. He expresses hope that with the civilian administration taking hold of matters, consolidating its footprint in the region, engaging with the locals, hearing them and considering their views, such conflict resolution exercises could be held successfully.
Noreen Naseer is an academic from the University of Peshawar. She hails from district Kurram. On the recent disputes in merged districts, she says, “We need to have vigilant officers in the district administration. It was these skirmishes on land and property that led to the emergence of militants in the tribal area. These were ungoverned spaces. It was the government’s inadequate response, and not reaching out to the aggrieved parties, which resulted in chaos and militancy.”
For efficient administration, a land settlement and distribution of the Shamilat is required. There is some documentation available with the tribes, too. Distribution of land collectively owned by the tribes can be codified based on the set of informal, customary arrangements already in place in many areas – known historically as Malikana Haqooq (Ownership Rights) of the tribes and people.
In the context of tribal norms and culture that can keep women deprived of land ownership rights, she says, “Tribal norms can be easily challenged on the grounds of the Islamic Shariah law. Decisions can be taken on both Riwaj/Dastoor (customs) and Shariah. Under the Quran and Sharia like the rest of Pakistan, inheritance rights can be guaranteed to women and the weak.”