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Don’t let Parachinar burn?

By Dr Ghayur Ayub

During the exile in London,one day Mr Nawaz Sharif asked me to brief him about Parachinar. I did. After listening to me with keen interest he looked at me and said, “Dr Sahib, I would like to visit Parachinar and see the situation myself when we go back to Pakistan” That was an encouraging remark by my chief.

Time passed. On September 10th 2007, I joined him with the group and landed at Islamabad airport. The rest is history.

In 2008, I took part in the election from NA 37. In those days, the road between Parachinar and Peshawar was closed for Shia individuals because of lethal attacks on them. Only convoys accompanied with Paramilitary force were allowed. I joined one of the convoys. As we reached near Kohat Tunnel we were stopped. It was partially closed because, the day before, a Shia group was attacked which was travelling to Parachinar. I realised then, how unsafe it was for people living in Parachinar to travel in their own homeland. Anyway, the tunnel crossing took three hours instead of 25 minutes because of traffic jam. Later I was told that some of the captured Shias were beheaded by their captives.

If we look at the map of Kurrum Agency, it is divided into three parts; upper, lower and FR Kurrum. Upper Kurrum is primarily inhabited by Shias influenced by Iran and the other two by Sunnis influenced by Saudis. Its capital Parachinar is located in upper Kurrum and the second biggest town Sadda is located in lower Kurrum. The only road which links Parachinar with the rest of mainland Pakistan passes through Sadda. Despite having office of assistant political agent, Sadda is the most dangerous part for Shias passing through to and from Parachinar.

We were told to stay low on our seats as the convoy moved in the town. Shivers went through my spine as we drove through. I remember the town as a young boy, when we used to come and enjoy chicken Balti in a local restaurant known for its delicacy. Such were the changed political dynamics of the region from where I was going to take part in elections.

The electioneering started and a few days later, a suicide bomber blasted himself near my election office. At the time of blast, I was just a few hundred yards away. What I saw was beyond description. Among thick smoke, crumbling buildings and burning fire I saw two young men sitting on the roof of a nearby building thrown in the air like injured birds and fell in the inferno of burning vehicles. Here I was in the middle of a frightening scene filled with heart-wrecking screams, irrepressible-panic, eyes-burning dust, and breath-choking smoke. The nerve-wrecking and soul-tormenting smell of burning human flesh represented a hell scene.

This was not the town I grew up in. A town where fresh and cool air from nearby White Mountain (Koh- e- Safaid) would hit my face while walking in Punjabi Bazzar enthralling my soul. Where Shias and Sunnis greeted each other with open arms showing Pashtun culture of frank cordiality. And where the Muslims from the two brethren sects shared their happiness and grief as part of familial requirement. It was a happy and peaceful town. A town Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto fell in love with and wanted to turn it in the image of Switzerland. Not anymore. Standing dazed, I was in the same town but now filled with the smoke, dust, fire and terrifying shrieks of burning and dying bodies. A heavenly town was turned into a hell by ill-advised politicians which brought sectarian hate into the core of tribal social life.

After the elections were postponed as I was crossing the Sadda town on my way back to Peshawar, it reminded me of divided Berlin, when locals took risks to cross the artificially created border. That was 1945, this was 2008. That was political divide this was religious divide. I thought, the Berliners must have felt the same way crossing the line as I did. 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 as I looked at the angry looking faces staring at us.

Parachinar suffered the most after Soviets took over Afghanistan and after they were thrown out and Taliban took the country back, and still later after 9/11. Unfortunately, it was not highlighted by the media the way it highlighted other similar areas. The conditions in Parachinar after Soviet invasion were like a see-saw; frequently facing bad times; and less frequently not so bad times. There were never good times. In bad times people were killed in the verandas of their homes by snipers sitting at the nearby hilltops. Or men like Sarwan Ali from village Malana in desperation shooting himself because he couldn’t find medicine for his wife who suffered from Malaria as chemist shops were empty as a result of the siege of upper Kurrum by the Talibanised fanatics. That was the time when the frustrated Shia youth decided to create a Hizbullah type paramilitary force to counter the Sunni fanatics. I was told that they were approached by Panjsheri Afghans, Hazaras, Afghan Agencies and Iranian clerics to arm and train them.

In not so bad times, the Shia students travelling to Peshawar had to cross Nangrahar in Afghanistan and re-enter Pakistan through Tourkham border because the road from Parachinar to Peshawar was not safe for them.

Gen Raheel Sharif brought some sanity in the situation through Zarb e Azb initiating good times. It seemed to be short lived as after his departure the bad times are returning. The latest bomb blast could be the first warning shot, which killed over two dozen innocent Shia Muslims and injured many more. Luckily, the army chief responded quickly by visiting the injured and airlifting the seriously wounded to hospitals in Peshawar. I know the prime minister will be hurting by the news. I remember the keen interest he showed at Duke Street when I gave him the brief. He must have spoken to the governor of Peshawar, who is one of the kindest persons I have ever known. I hope he doesn’t rely on the MNA from the upper Kurrum who, unlike his father and grandfather, is the most incompetent and corrupt individual known for his shady practices.

If proper steps are not taken now, Kurrum Agency could fall back into the era of bad times, when in desperation the Shia youth prepared a Hizbullah type military force. It will be disastrous keeping the current global politics in mind which is muddled by Donald Trump of America, Narindra Modi of India, pro-Indian hierarchy in Afghanistan and not very happy Iran.

I hope the prime minister pays a visit to Parachinar and get the first-hand knowledge about the situation. In doing so he would be fulfilling his promise made at Duke Street.

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