‘You cannot trust the weather and Kurram’s situation.’
This local idiom describes the volatility of the Kurram district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where those who fled the 2007 vortex of sectarian killings between Shia and Sunni Tribesmen still refuse to return as they fear conflict could break out again at any time.
As the sectarian strife intensified, 38 villages were either razed to the ground or their residents fled in fear and panic, leaving behind their homes and farms to divine providence.
Haji Abid Ullah, a resident of Upper Mandori village had a sleepless night on the fateful night of 13 August 2008. For the last two days, there were fights all around the town but his village had escaped their burnt. That night the fighting crept into his village and he saw nearby houses on fire. Gripped by panic, he woke up his children in little hours just before the Morning Prayer and rushed to find a nearby place to keep his family safe.
For a moment, he grappled with the possible consequences of taking his children and family out as he feared the streets and could possibly trust no one. At last, he decided to take the dust swept and weather-beaten track passing through the nearby mountains while death lurked on the roads dotted by checkpoints setup warring Shia and Sunni tribesmen, who felt no qualms in killing people from rival tribes.
“I cannot take out those moments of fleeing that fateful night out of my mind, they recur sometimes and I have nightmares,” Haji Abid reminiscences sitting in hujra with teary eyes He said that night was so uncertain, so frightful and so confusing that his four years daughter failed to put on slippers before rushing out to the safety a nearby village.
“That was like a day of Judgement for me and my family,” he said in a sad tone, adding when they got out, everybody else in the village was running helter-skelter, unaware of others.
In the panic, Haji Abid has tried to cram 13 children including some from other families into his car. When they were leaving the village, another distressing sight was awaiting them when they came across an ailing woman. She was suffering from blood pressure and hyperglycaemia and could have died on the road if they did not take her in their car. Now the issue was to adjust her into the car. They made the women lie inside and some of the children sat on top of her and thus they rushed to the Bagan, a relatively safe village at the end of dusty and bumpy track over the mountains.
People fled and got shattered in the country that even today they have no trust that they would be safe if they go back home. The situation of Kurram is such bad that despite many people returned to the district, they avoid crossing the rivels village if it is not too urgent and important. Many even avoid even talking about going back to Kurram because they believe the war will definitely break out again. They opine that the fate of those who are living in Kurram will be like the one they had in 2007. Munir, a labourer now, in Peshawar said that it is good to see your children and family alive even if it is too hard to live on wages in Peshawar. He said, “I can’t push my children in the lap of war for the sack of two relatively good food.” Adding that living in poverty is good than dying for food, shelter and clothing.
Background (about the conflict/why it happened)
The conflict reared its head in Parachinar town of Upper Kurram on Friday, April 6, 2007. Both the Sunni and Shia tribesmen opened fire on each other leading to over 40 deaths and more than 150 injured.
The issue was actually triggered as a reaction to a minor land dispute in the Bilyamin area of Kurram. Unfortunately, the issue turned into a full-blown fight as local jirga failed to resolve the dispute. The jirga system collapsed because similar incidents started to happen in different areas of Kurram which annoyed the rivel both the Shias and Sunnis against each other.
Jirga system is one of the strongest institutions of Pashtun culture, where elders from warring tribes sit together and made their decision called Teega. After a teega is agreed, both sides are strictly directed to follow jirga’s decision; otherwise, the violators are dealt with iron hands.
The Parachinar incident happened as a result of some other incidents of killing people in rival areas like the killing of Shias in Sunnis villages and Sunnis in the Shia’s villages. Thus, the whole story began to take revenge on each other and where there was Sunni’ dominance, there were Shias in trouble and vice versa.
The war spread at a galloping pace and in a matter of days took a large area in its spiral. The villages started to burn. Bilyamin was first to be put on fire. Then nearby Munda was raised to the ground followed by Muzaffar Kot, Makhizai, Sharqi Makhizai then Upper Mandori- the village of Haji Abid Ullah- and in a blink about 38 villages in total were razed and the entire Kurram district went up in the flame of sectarianism.
There is peace now but there are still ghost villages as some people didn’t want to go back
Throughout the war, there was no government in Kurram district. Black-clad personnel of the Levies Forces were never seen on roads while district administration shrunk to heavily fortified small enclaves of the administrative offices and residential colonies.
Life come to a grinding halt outside these enclaves as infrastructure was destroyed and roads were closed down, completely paralyzing the entire district.
The fleeing families dispersed to far and off areas. Some made to Peshawar, others settled in Mardan, Kohat, and others went to Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Munir was among those who fled to Peshawar from the conflict and never went back. Once he was in the city, he had nothing to do for a living. It took him years to settle in Peshawar and does not want to return to Kurram. He started for a small pharmacy and now has a well-established pharmacy. Now, as he owns a well-established business and children studying in Peshawar, has a relatively stable life and has developed relations in the city, he doesn’t want to go back to Kurram where the uncertainty prevails.
Anwar Orakzai also migrated to Peshawar at the same time; however, unlike an educated and financially stable Munir, he had nothing on him. He started working as labour to earn a living. He lives in a small rented house in the Board area of Peshawar and has two daughters and a son. He said that his house has been destroyed in Kurram and could not go there. He was a farmer before 2007 and has no hold on his land in Kurram now.
There are many reasons owing to which people do not want to go back to Kurram. Nabi Jan, a journalist from Kurram said that the majority of the people who spread across the country either settled in their adopted home. “You can’t believe in the weather and situation of Kurram”, as the local idiom suggests, adding that locals fear anything could happen at any instant yet again the outbreak of a new conflict.
Among the major reason, Nabi Jan suspected was the education of children. He said that those who left the villages are grown up now and they don’t want to come back to Kurram because the region doesn’t have an excellent education system.
Nabi said that no trust prevails among the communities. They fear and try to avoid movements to the rival village. Small scale skirmishes happen and people take weapons against each other.
Those who have returned to the villages have taken strong measures to guard their villages from the rival groups. They surrounded their villages with mud and stones walls called Paskha in their native language. Now, some have even managed to surround entire villages with concrete walls.
“The biggest loss of this war is the hate among the friends and locals who have lived together for ages.” Nabi Jan said. He added that friends who lived, studied and played together in a multi-ethnic society have now either become enemies or feel worried about each other.
Migration and Causalities
More than 100,000 people migrated from Kurram. According to the Shia community, around 4500 of their people were killed while on the other hand, Sunnis claim 2000 deaths and 3000 injuries on their side. These figures do not include a number of fighters from banned outfits like TTP and Mehdi Militia who were also killed in large numbers. Among such a huge scale migration, only a few hundreds have returned back to the 38 villages.
Lack of govt support for the affectees
The majority of the people who fled into homelessness from Kurram were dependent on their farms for a living. But when they were compelled to migrate, they were not given even the IDP’s status by the government.
Shahid Kazmi a representative from the Shia community said that Shias have a strong societal bond and support their community. When this war started and people were in the rush to evacuate their families, the members of communities from Islamabad, Gilgit, Peshawar and other places welcomed the Shias of Kurram to their houses like the immigration of Sahabas from Makkah to Medina in the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
On the other hand, Sunnis dispersed to the country without any support. Salah Uddin, a representative of the Sunni community at Parachinar, said that there was nothing to eat because of poverty and troubles. He said that there was no one they could have turned to in the new places and people were forced to do labour to
manage their expenses.
Some people like Haji Abid Ullah have returned to their villages
Those who went back to their villages live a life full of hurdles and fears. Some who have no other option due to poverty have returned to their villages. There were many who returned to their villages but have kept safe sites in the form of rented flats or houses in cities like Peshawar and Rawalpindi so as to return in case of a new wave of violence breaks out.
Haji Abid Ullah returned to his village in 2013 and was among the first resettle in his native village. He said that when he returned, there was nothing in his village. “There was nothing left of his home and even the trees were gone in their absence,” he said. His village had around 60 houses when they fled in panic and found only 15 ramshakcled structures upon their return.
Many villages like Makai, Khewas, and Selozan Tangai are still ghost villages while very few have started living in hamlets like Bagzai, Makhizai and Munda. However, in some only 10-15 pc resettlement has taken place like Muzafarkot, Marokhail, Jelamay, Chardewar and Syedan and SharqiMakhezai.
People from around 22 villages in Belyamin area had migrated to other areas and most of them are still ghost towns. Before the conflict, these villages boasted a population of 1200 households but only 100 returned back in 2018.
Reconciliation, resettlement and the Murree Accord:
For its failure in reconciliation and resettlement of the people in the homes, the people of Kurram are not happy with the government. However, an accord has been signed by the prominent elders of the nearby region, Kurram and notables from Shia and Sunni sects in Murree which is famous as the Murree accord. This accord was signed after the Jirga held in Murree, Rawalpindi.
In the accord, it was decided that the members from both sects can return to their lands without any hurdle from the rivel. Second, no one will sell and buy properties and land in the villages from which the weak rival has fled. Third, local or in-person fights shall not be taken to the ethnic level. Lastly, there will be no Lashkar Kashi at any cost against each other.
However, years have passed since the Murree accord, but the reconciliation has not been done at the pace it needed and the locals expected. Representatives of both the Shia and Sunni communities said that the local elders were playing a little role in the reconciliation process, however, they were not happy with the government and said that it was not giving proper attention to the issue of resettlement.
Haji Abid Ullah abd Munir anxiously awaits the return of real peace in their areas. Those who have returned to their houses have sleepless nights due to the fear that the war could erupt again, disturbing their lives again. Haji recalling his past said that he wants to see his children playing, fighting, dancing and going to school with the children of the rivel community as he did in his childhood. But it seemed almost impossible to him.
The writer is a journalist and a staff member at Peshawar. He tweets at @Wasim_Chashmato