WHEN a sea of 5,000 men send out a sonic wave of “YA ALI!” something stops in the blood. Speaker after speaker calls on them. They call back. Again and again and again and again. And each time it is a decibel higher.
This was the dharna in Parachinar, a place that was impossible to fathom, right at the tip of Pakistan, a mere hour away from Kabul, which is so close pregnant women prefer the obgyn Dr Zainab Ashiq here. The ground beneath your feet doesn’t feel like Fata, that Fata you had so many strange ideas about.
A group of us arrived on Wednesday: social activist Jibran Nasir, Elaj Trust’s Dr Talha Rehman, development worker Meena Gabeena and Saad Edhi with three ambulances. When we crossed into Kurram Agency, there was no new country to arrive in. A sign greeted us: Eid Mubarak, no firing.
After an eight-hour drive from Islamabad, we headed straight to the dharna. It stretched from Nazarband Chowk to the cordoned-off Political Agent’s office in a street lined by ancient maple leaf or chinar trees. Three tiers of voluntary security pat arrivals down. “We all know each other but we still frisk,” medical student B. Hussain tells me later.
The city was closed up for the sit-in since June 23 when a double-tap bombing killed close to 85 people (some bodies have not been found). One of the victims was a child who went to scavenge for the fruit and vegetables that roll off carts when being offloaded into the market.
Life will not go on until their demands were met. The gripe was that no one had come to visit them until Friday, when the protest was called off. There is terrorism fatigue in Pakistan. “We are simply not a political vote bank,” says Q. Ali, a resident. Reaching Parachinar seems impossible for the average outsider journalist. The ones who do work here cannot always tell it like it is.
What was difficult to say is what happened after the blasts that day. Incensed men rushed to the Political Agent’s office to protest. They say that fire was opened on them. H. Abbas is nursing a gunshot wound at the Agency Headquarters Hospital. “We were not armed,” he says. You can’t just run around Parachinar with a gun.
Parachinar is being attacked for many reasons. What stands out is the year 2007 when the Taliban tried to muscle their way in to Kurram Agency with their own form of Shariat. They wrested control from Tall to Sada in lower Kurram but the people of upper Kurram or Parachinar fended them off. It was hellish till 2012. The Taliban cut off the road to Parachinar so you had to go all the way round through Kabul to re-enter Pakistan from the other side. They were cut off; 3G stopped working last year. There is virtually no internet. An Afghan SIM will work better. It was in these years that the men started leaving to seek asylum in Australia and Canada. Virtually every house has one who left. Their remittances keep Parachinar afloat.
Parachinar is made up of the Turis, who are all Shia, and the Bangash who can be both. The Taliban would brook no Shias, and the Sunnis who lived in Kurram came under pressure to side with them.
“They had no choice,” explains Basharat. The Sunnis fled. With them gone, it was just the Shia Turis who were left. And so, if you sent in a suicide bomber, you would most certainly get a high Shia death toll. “We were hemmed in,” says Hidayat Pasdar, a journalist with Mashriq TV. “It was like being closed up in a sandook.” The Turis were left to fight for themselves.
They fought, but Parachinar had been rendered vulnerable, they say, by the FC. Indeed, the key demand for the dharna was that locals be part of the FC as it used to be up till the 1980s. But then there was a policy shift and outsiders, or tribals from Waziristan etc, were posted here and the Turi FC men would be posted elsewhere. Parachinar argues that locals recognise each other, will have a responsibility to their own people and it will be difficult for them to take their duties lightly compared to outsiders who may not be that invested in protecting the area. Examples of laxity include allowing cars to come in unchecked from the border. They could be carrying bomb-making equipment for all anyone knows. The suicide bombers have so far been all outsiders. This is why Parachinar wants to protect itself now.
By day 8, Friday, after a delegation headed out with demands, COAS General Qamar Bajwa came to the city. As the helicopters passed overhead, the buzz grew more palpable. Something had to give this time. Something has to stop this from happening: Haidery Bloodbank’s Liaquat Bangash’s six-year-old daughter asked him why they were not having Eid this year. He replied that they had a bomb blast. Her response was swift and logical: “So can we have Eid when the bomb blast ends?”