For residents of Ambar village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Mohmand district, the evening before Eid-ul-Azha in September 2016 was as joyous as ever. For some, last minute purchase of sacrificial animals was ongoing, for others a desperate wait for family members. Many locals in the area find employment in various parts of the country — from Rawalpindi and Islamabad, to Lahore and Karachi — and come back home for Eid holidays.
Reunions were taking place after months, sometimes years. Everyone, young and old, stayed up till late ahead of Eid day, as cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces gathered together at one place, magnifying the happiness across the town.
Eid-ul-Azha, and the three days that followed, saw merriness across Mohmand. Among the families rejoicing together was 60-year-old Ranra Khan’s.
The two eldest of Ranra’s four sons had come home, taking time off from their work that involves selling mobile accessories. Ranra’s eldest son Fazal Wahab worked in Rawalpindi and had been married for seven months. The wedding preparations for Naeem, the second eldest, were underway with the date set a month after Eid. The two youngest, Mushtaq and Shahab, were teenagers.
On September 16, the fifth day of Eid, Ranra had to leave for work to a nearby village before Friday prayers. On his way out, he saw his son and nephew playing cricket in a nearby field.
During his meeting, Ranra was informed that a suicide attack had taken place at a mosque during Friday prayers in his village.
“The ground fell out from under my feet. I rushed towards my village, praying to Allah for the village’s safety,” Ranra recalls while talking to Naya Daur Media.
On his way home, Ranra saw hundreds of people, including security personnel. He was left shell-shocked when he reached his place and got out of his car. Four graves had been dug up in the field in front of his house.
“My whole family had been ruined. I couldn’t believe my eyes. When I entered the house, the bodies of three of my sons were lying on the beds in front of me. The body of my fourth son was brought a few moments later. Burying four sons is no less than facing doomsday – which is what fell on me that day,” he recalls.
A suicide bomber blew up the porch of the mosque, killing 37 people — including Ranra’s four sons and 14 other family members— and injuring dozens. Another local, Gulpur Khan was offering Friday prayers in the same mosque that day. He recalls the haunting moment when the explosion took place, narrating that he felt as though his time was up.
“I was praying in the front row inside the mosque while the youth and children were praying in the veranda. I was prostrating in the second raka’ah when someone shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and an explosion followed. Then came darkness…” he recalls.
Gulpur says all those in and around the mosque — children, young, and old — were screaming. There wasn’t anything visible, or comprehensible. After a while, when the dust and dirt settled, Gulpur saw scattered human organs and corpses everywhere. The roof of the veranda had collapsed.
“There was no ambulance. Some of the wounded were taken to the hospital in private vehicles. After about two hours, rescue teams and security forces started arriving,” Gulpur adds.
He continues: “It was doomsday, which we will never forget. Our innocent children were buried along with their dreams. They were punished for maintaining law and order in their area and forming peace committees.”
A Fly In Ambar
The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA), a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack. According to eyewitnesses, the suicide bomber was between 15 and 17 years of age. Before carrying out the bombing, the perpetrator had requested water at a house next door, and left for the mosque after drinking it. The residents said the young suicide bomber was nervous when he asked for water.
Mohmand, formerly an agency of the then Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), borders Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province to the west and Charsadda district to the east. Its area is 2,296 sq km and population about 500,000.
Militants began converging towards Mohmand after 9/11. On July 27, 2007, militants seized the shrine of Haji Sahib of Turangzai, a famous freedom fighter from Lakaro Bazaar area of Safi Tehsil, and renamed it Lal Masjid. Security forces then launched an operation in a bid to restore the government’s rule.
The capture of Haji Tarangzai’s shrine, and renaming it as Lal Masjid, came in response to the Lal Masjid Operation orchestrated by General Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad. It was the militants’ hat-tip to Lal Masjid’s anti-government narrative. The militants’ occupation of the shrine not only mustered the interest of global media, it also lured foreign militants to Mohmand, increasing its strategic importance.
Immediately after the occupation of the Haji Tarangzai shrine, Mohmand became the centre of two major suicide attacks. On July 9, 2010, 104 people were killed when a suicide bomber struck the district headquarters in Ghalani where a jirga was being held. Among those killed were tribal elders, peace committee members, journalists and political activists. Then, at least 50 were killed on December 6, 2010, in a bombing near the district administration office.
Security forces conducted three operations in the area, including Operation Brekhna (Thunder), in response to the deteriorating law and order situation in Mohmand, pushing militants to neighbouring Afghanistan.
More than 50,000 people were displaced during military operations in Mohmand. The majority took refuge in Rawalpindi, Peshawar, and Charsadda. Militants damaged most of the educational institutions in Mohmand district. More than 130 local government schools were blown up.
In view of the rapidly changing security situation in Mohmand, and other parts of the then FATA, locals took up arms against the militants and set up peace committees. The committees were formalised following orders from the government and security forces. As a result, hundreds of peace committee volunteers in the tribal districts were targeted across the country. The Ambar peace committee had put up strong resistance against the militants.
Bullet With A Name
Lahaz Ali, a Peshawar-based investigative journalist who has been monitoring the security of the tribal districts for a long time, says the peace committees were set up by local administrations and security forces with the complete backing of the state. In addition to providing them with arms, the state had also announced a monthly salary for the volunteers.
Lahaz Ali says many objected to the formulation of these committees, asking how the state could arm its citizens. Others claimed that committee members were mostly recruited from people involved in drugs and other criminal activities
“It was the state’s job to fight the militants, but the responsibility fell on the people. The militant groups knew who was supporting the state against them. Once the militants found their targets, bombings and targeted killings were unleashed on peace committee volunteers,” Lahaz tells Naya Daur Media.
He adds that even when the committees were armed, they were being targeted by terrorists across the country. “But when under the PML-N’s [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] then KP governor Sardar Mehtab Abbasi the committees were disarmed, for reasons unknown, it became even easier for the militants to target them.”
After losing state patronage, the peace committee volunteers were left at the mercy of the militants and targeted wherever they went. Many members have been killed in tribal areas, across KP, and other parts of the country, wherever they’ve found refuge. Their targeted-killings are still ongoing. In Bajaur district, a memorial for the martyrs of the peace committees has also been set up.
The peace committees and their members were also accused of human rights violations. According to reports, after gaining power some committee members started targeting their personal opponents.
The Price Of A Dead Son
Ranra Khan, along with many families of the victims of the Ambar mosque bombing, claims that the government hasn’t followed through with its words.
“The state valued the lives of my children at a mere Rs1 million each. But I haven’t even completely received the Rs4 million I was supposed to be given. Various deductions were made on the amount,” recalls Ranra Khan.
He claims the families of the deceased had been promised one government job each, and safeguards for their children, but no vow has been fulfilled, and they have been left to fetch for themselves.
“What was the fault of my sons? What sin had they committed, that they had to leave this world? After burying those four bodies, I also died inside. It needs more than a miracle for a father to overcome the death of four sons,” Ranra says.
He adds: “Those who die in terrorism in Punjab get huge compensation, while in our province this compensation is Rs1 million. What is Rs4 million for the lives of four sons? How will I support my children and grandchildren in this old age?”
The mosque damaged by the blast was rebuilt by the Pakistan Army, and its administrators received compensation. But Ranra, and families of the 37 who died, continue to feel abandoned by the state.
60-year-old Zahida, who lost her 20-year-old son Basirullah in the suicide attack, also tells Naya Daur Media the government had promised jobs for families of those killed in the attack. “Those promises were buried along with my son’s body. Nobody asks how I, or the parents of the other victims, have been doing,” she says.
The Mohmand district administration, however, has denied the allegations leveled against it. According to one of its officers, the families of all the martyrs have been given the complete martyr package without any deductions. The officer says jobs are supposed to be given to family members of those victims who were part of a government service and died during service. None of those who died in the mosque was a government officer, so their families were not given jobs.
One Last Glimpse
Zahida, who lives in a 25 square metre mud-house, recalls how the day that shattered her forever, had begun like any other.
“Basirullah was wearing clean clothes after getting ready for Friday prayers. I was looking at Basirullah more than usual that day. I wanted to keep looking at him. I did not know I was seeing my son for the last time,” she says.
Zahida was still preparing to offer her prayers when she heard a loud explosion accompanied by echoing screams. She ran out barefooted towards the mosque, which had been engulfed by heavy smoke. When she reached the mosque, she saw people taking dead bodies out.
“I completely lost my senses. I did not understand what was happening,” Zahida says narrating her shock. Then she saw her son’s burnt corpse being placed on a bed in front of her.
“I asked my eldest son whose body it was. ‘This is Basirullah’s body,’ he replied. I refused to believe him. It could not be his body. ‘All the bodies are badly burnt. This is the body of Basirullah,’ my son said. I later identified him with the vest he was wearing.”
Zahida continues: “The past five years have been like five centuries. They’ve weighed an inexplicable burden on my life. Doomsday fell on me on Eid day. And the pain resurfaces every year, every day. He was the apple of my eye, and was snatched from me.”
A letter issued by the banned JA at the time said that a large number of peace committee volunteers were present at the mosque in Ambar and were the target of the attack. The JA said local peace committee volunteers were killing its members and handing some of them over to the government. The militant outfit warned that those who joined peace committees and supported the government would meet the same fate in the future as well.
However, locals say many peace committee volunteers were praying in the room inside the mosque and survived the blast. Panicked and rushed, the suicide bomber had blown himself up on the porch where a large number of youngsters and children had been praying.
An Unfinished Cricket Match
Many of these hardworking youngsters were among those returning home from the cities. Some of the youths had formed cricket teams and organised a tournament during Eid holidays. An ongoing cricket match had a session break for Friday prayers, with many young cricketers going to the mosque to offer Friday prayers. Instead of returning to the ground for the next session, many were buried underground.
A participant of the tournament Noorzada describes the fateful day while talking to Naya Daur Media. “Some of my teammates went straight to the mosque, while I went home. There was a loud explosion and the mosque was surrounded by smoke and dust.”
Noorzada ran straight to the mosque where he saw heads, hands, feet and other parts severed from bodies. “It was doomsday. I carried my friends in my arms. Some were already dead, others died in my arms. I felt that I too suffered a mental death and was merely left breathing,” he says.
Over a dozen cricketers participating in the local tournament were killed in the blast, five from Noorzada’s team. They included Qari Noorullah, Zar Wali, Muhammad Zeb, Luqman and Rasool Khan.
Wiping tears from his eyes, Noorzada says the day was agonising, like no other. “It was excruciatingly difficult to shoulder my friends’ funerals.”
Graves for youngsters were being prepared all over the village. 45-year-old Dil Afroza also lost three of her sons, Luqman, Saad and Irfan — the former, a Hafiz-e-Quran. For Dil Afroza, Eid-ul-Azha sees an annual recurrence of despair. She expresses her agony and says that she goes to her sons’ graves every day to alleviate her pain. “I talk to those graves but they do not respond. They remain silent.”
Dil Afroza wipes away her tears and says when the moon rises every night, she looks out from the window and points to each of their graves saying, ‘look, Luqman is sleeping there, Saad is sleeping there, and Irfan is sleeping there.’ When she wakes up in the morning, the first thing Dil Afroza does is look at the graves again from the window.
“But I do not find peace. I pray that Allah empty the home of the oppressors, just like they destroyed our happy homes,” she says.
“Funerals of three young boys left my house. Their absence will haunt me for the rest of my life. The homes of those who killed my sons should be doomed as well.”