Electioneering in volatile Parachinar
27 February, 2008
By Dr. Ghayur Ayub
The caller from a nearby Mosque was calling for morning prayers. I turned in my bed, opened my eyes and looked out of the window. It was still dark. Feeling tired, I closed my eyes and started thinking about a conversation I had had the night before, with a gentleman named Iqbal. He was a retired Subedar from Kurrum Militia working as a coordinator supervising a Levy-led convoy between Parachinar and Peshawar. It might seem strange that it needed the cover of Levy for a Pakistani to travel between two points in the country. But after a fierce fight between Shias and Sunnis in Kurrum Agency, which lasted for two months leaving hundreds of dead and injured, it became clear that members of opposite sects risked beheading if they passed through an area of other sect.
Iqbal told me to get to Imam-Bargah in the city centre of old Peshawar at 6 am. This was the starting point for visitors who wished to visit Parachinar with comparative safety. He also told me that the traveling facilities were available on alternate days and the day in question was the ‘lucky day’. I rubbed my eyes and got up slowly to pray. Half an hour later, I was passing through the empty, narrow and dark lanes of Peshawar. The musty smell, littered lanes and dusty air took me back to my childhood where I grew up in those very lanes. I looked around and found nothing much had changed in the old city. Avoiding encroachments, the driver carefully maneuvered the curves and reached the destination. Now, all we had to do was wait. The stink from a nearby open drain was not pleasant on any account. One by one, the cars and coaches started arriving and waited for the green signal from the Levy officials. I noted an old man lying in the backseat of a car. On enquiry, I discovered he had undergone surgery for cancer. The anguish on his face was painfully apparent. His son told me he was denied an ambulance as this was not considered safe.
I forgot to mention that I was journeying to Parachinar to take part in the elections there as candidate from NA 37. After some hustle and bustle, the convoy started moving at 7.45 am. I breathed a sigh of relief. The feeling of relief was short-lived however, as at the Matni Gate which separates Dera Adam Khail of Khyber agency from Peshawar district, we ended up in a terrible traffic jam. All one could see were haphazardly stranded Lorries with heavy containers blocking the narrow road. The reason? After the recent occupation of the Kohat Tunnel, the Taliban partially destroyed the tunnel and blew up the bridges. I was told it was only partially opened and thus the traffic jam. A distance which should have taken half an hour to cross, took us three and a half hours. It was reported that in this area the Taliban randomly beheaded Shias coming from Parachinar, when they heard that Sunnis were killed in Kurrum Agency.
The convoy moved on. Three hours later, we passed the town of Tall and entered the no man zone of the Black Mountains (Tor Ghar)- another stronghold of the Taliban. In this area, which is not part of the tribal belt, the Taliban regularly shoot at vehicles from the mountain peaks. Luckily, we passed the ten kilometer distance without being shot at. After crossing a few acute and obtuse turns, we reached the Kurrum Gate, beyond which the tribal belt starts. It was guarded by smartly dressed officials from Kurrum Militia who checked our vehicles and let us enter the tribal region; a region where hundreds of innocents have lost their lives in the name of Islam. The custodians of one sect stir the sentiments of ordinary people and use it effectively against the followers of the other sect with poisonous results.
Generally speaking, Kurrum agency is divided between two major sects of Islam; the Upper Kurrum is dominated by Shias and Lower by Sunnis. One could feel the division, the way people watched us while passing through the Sunni areas. Every now and again, we passed through barricades erected by the Pakistan army. It was all for the safety of those who were supposed to be locals. We were told to stay low in our seats while passing through the thickly populated town of Sunni Sadda. After crossing the town and going through another barricade we were told to relax as we were in Shia dominated Upper Kurrum. I took a sad sigh of relief. I remember the town as a young man, when we used to come and enjoy chicken balti in a local restaurant known for its delicacy. I turned my head to look at the receding Sadda. Gone were the days of free flow of locals in our own hometowns; such were the changed political dynamics from where I was going to take part in elections. Thanks to General Musharaf’s Afghan policy which put Muslim against Muslim to safeguards the interests of foreign powers. From thereon, the barricades came and went without fear of being ambushed. At last, I reached Parachinar.
The next day, I went to my election office and was updated by my secretary Shahid Hussain. He took me around the streets of Parachinar and showed me the rubbles of burnt shops when Shias and Sunnis had fought pitched battles while administrators watched the carnage quietly. The timid policy of government was written on the smoked walls of each shop I passed by. It was a depressing start to my campaign. I tried to contact the Political Agent to get firsthand political knowledge of the area which I was hoping to serve as MNA. The virtual walls created around a grade 18/19 bureaucrat were too tall and thick to cross. Cursing the century-old British system, I left without having a meeting with him. Later, I was told, he was once a blue eyed buddy of Q league. That would explain his non-factual, above-average superiority complex. His weak administration became clear the next day, when despite a ban on any display of weapons, I saw the party workers of various candidates roaming around with all sorts of weapons.
I started electioneering from the remotest areas adjoining the border villages and in no time I realized the political dynamics were different from the ones operative in the rest of Pakistan. It was a mixture of local cultures, tribalism and sectarian theology. The latter played a major role as its custodians controlled a large number of votes. It meant that the rules made by the Election Commission for the purpose were no more practiced. Soon I adapted myself to the norms and started doing what other candidates did with one difference; I was not filling my pocket or the pockets of others. Instead, I announced in one of the meetings with 22 candidates (yes there were 26 candidates contesting the election- 22 Shias and 4 Sunnis) that we should put aside a handsome amount to help the ‘Qaum’. That didn’t go down well with the candidates but was appreciated by the public. Soon, I became the talk of the town and I started getting anonymous calls threatening me with dire consequences.
The society seemed to be divided on four lines; Mian Murid Syeds; Derwandi Syeds; Shia Pakhtuns; and Sunni Pakhtuns. While the tensions were gearing up, a suicide bomber blasted himself near the office of a Derwandi Syed candidate. At the time of the blast, I left my office and was just a few hundred yards away. What I saw was beyond description. Among thick smoke, crumbling buildings and burning fire I could see human body parts flying in the air. I can’t forget two young men sitting on the roof of a nearby building flown up in the air like injured birds and falling in the inferno of burning vehicles on the road. I found myself in the middle of terror, screams, panic, smoke, dust and the smell of burning flesh. Sectarian hate struck the core of tribal politics. Two hours later, the shouting mob advanced towards the major Sunni mosque with the aim of torching it. The army was quick to react and using firearms stopped the mob. The whole Kurrum valley would have turned into a burning inferno had the mob been successful in their aims. Such is the delicate balance between religion and politics in that valley. Again, thanks to the unwise Afghan policy of Pervez Musharaf. I contacted Mr. Shehbaz Sharif and Mr. Pervaiz Rashid-political secretary to Mr Nawaz Sharif and updated them on the situation.
The next day, government decided to postpone elections after imposing curfew and closing all the roads leading to Parachinar. Kurrum valley was once again under siege. It was cut off from rest of the country. The terrorists were successful in their aims. After visiting the injured, it was time for me to go to mainland Pakistan and report to my leadership. The question was how? All the roads were sealed in Shia and Sunni areas. We contacted a Sunni friend from Sadda to arrange a camouflaged safe passage through Sunni dominated area. How did I cross the area, reminded me of the history of divided Berlin, when locals took risks to cross the artificially created border. That was 1945, this is 2008. That was political divide this is religious divide. At one stage, while changing cars in Sadda, I noted bearded Talibanised passersby staring at me with curious expression. Feeling vulnerable, I felt rapid thumps in my chest. ‘The Berliners must have felt the same way crossing the line’, I thought. It took over sixty years for Berlin Wall to come down. How long would it take for this Wall to fall? The question flickered in my mind. Islam believes in hope; let us hope that proper democracy will bring a positive change in this strife-struck vale, which in good old days, was known for its beauty, peace and tranquility. Some even called it the Switzerland of Pakistan.