Gilgit-Baltistan:Blood in the Valleys

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Karachi (Dawn):I HAVE ‘normal’ sectarian prejudices and tell Shia jokes to friends and colleagues. Also, I do occasionally listen to firebrand Shia ulema, who like their Sunni counterparts keep their audience spellbound, block traffic and contribute to noise pollution.

Beyond that, my ‘prejudices’ end. How strange, then, that there are Pakistanis who have time to board buses, demand to see passengers’ identity cards, guess their sects from their names, and slaughter them.

I wonder how many Pakistanis have visited the paradise once called the Northern Areas, now Gilgit-Baltistan. Until ‘civilised’ people from the south and warriors from the west intruded in to this Shangri-La, this area nestling in the foothills of some of the world’s mightiest mountains had known no violence.

They are a humble and pacifist people, and, more important, they flaunt their Pakistani-ness, because they take pains to emphasise they are not Kashmiris and that the GB people had revolted against the Dogra regime, thrown it out and joined Pakistan.These hardworking and remarkably handsome Pakistanis are divided into three sects — Shia, Sunni and Ismaili. But the commonality of interests in fighting a harsh climate and giving a better life to their people had, until recently, made them indifferent to sects.

Situated in a bowl, and hemmed in by towers of white granite that would pose a challenge to the most accomplished of climbers, the area was cut off from the rest of the country in winter for months and depended on airdrops by Pakistan Air Force for essential supplies. The area also had a high maternal and child mortality rate; literacy was low, but tourism was a major sector of the economy.

Three developments turned out to be the catalyst. The all-weather Karakoram Highway was built, land reforms were carried out during the Bhutto years, and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme took education and healthcare to the remotest of valleys.

Women have joined the medical profession in a big way, standards of living on the whole have gone up, the literacy rate has risen to 90 per cent — the highest in Pakistan for any administrative unit — and maternal and child mortality has gone down.

The rural support programme cost the government no money because the funds came from the Aga Khan Foundation, which encouraged people to rely on self-help to fight nature and give a better life to themselves.

The programme also led to the construction of channels by chipping away at the mountains and making use of glacial water.

This way water began flowing into homes and orchards and transformed the agricultural scene. A GB person can never go hungry, because the little plot of land in front of every home has fruit-laden trees — citrus, grapes, cherry, pears, apples and
apricots.

More important, the GB people have a Swiss-style direct democracy where development projects and other issues are decided by a show of hands. From the point of view of national integration, it is interesting to know that minutes of all meetings are maintained in Urdu as far as the Khunjerab Pass on the Chinese border.

The idyll has not lasted. The wave of religious militancy that America encouraged as part of its anti-Soviet ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan gripped GB, too. The situation deteriorated when non-Ismaili ulema from the south suddenly found their religion threatened and rushed to the north to begin a campaign against what was a valuable, non-governmental development programme bringing education and healthcare to all GB people. As arms and militants from the south and west began their own mission, the green valleys and singing brooks became red with blood.

Until 9/11, mountaineering teams from all over the world used to descend on GB to scale some of the world’s highest peaks. Now the area’s thriving tourism industry has fallen victim to sectarian violence, guides are jobless, the hotel industry is struggling to survive, and even domestic tourism has taken a major blow.

On Feb 28, murderers wearing police uniform boarded two buses carrying innocent people — men, women and children — to their enchanting snow-draped valleys. The ‘policemen’ checked the passengers’ ID cards and shot those who belonged to the wrong sect.

Jandallah claimed responsibility for the slaughter, which in their opinion will take the killers to paradise. Jandallah is part of the Pakistani Taliban, and they are supposed to be fanatically anti-American. But all the victims of their anti-US ‘jihad’ are Pakistani.

Strange jihad!

The GB people used to constitute the mainstay of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI), and killed and got killed in the wars with India. It was a paramilitary force, but because of its brilliant performance in the Kargil conflict it was made part of the army.

However, there has been a gradual change in their attitude. They still form part of the NLI, but many young men refuse to wear uniform and make a simple statement: “either we can stay home and protect our families or we can join the NLI. We cannot do both”.

Here I would recommend to my readers a wonderful book Three Cups of Tea, co-authored by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson. It is about Mortensen’s mountaineering expeditions, his successes and failures as a climber, his love affair with the GB people and how he built schools for them against all odds, including his own poverty. Mortensen later got into trouble for reasons that do not concern us here. But there is one quote worth reproducing. He says, “In times of war, you often hear leaders — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — saying, ‘God is on our side’. But that isn’t true. In war, God is on the side of refugees, widows and orphans”.

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