Pakistani Villagers Pay a Price for Defying Rebels Along Afghan Border
Sunday, March 22, 2009
BAZITKHEL, Pakistan -- This tiny village in northwestern Pakistan has paid a high price for its defiance.
The health clinic lies in ruins, blasted to rubble by a car bomb that exploded outside three weeks ago. The mayor's compound next door is full of jagged holes. Five residents are dead, including a shopkeeper's small son and daughter. More than 20 were injured, including a young man whose right hand was severed.
But while most inhabitants of this violence-plagued region near the Afghan border have been cowed by the growing tide of Islamist and criminal violence, those in a handful of communities like Bazitkhel -- where tribal bonds are especially strong -- are determined to arm themselves and fight back.
Any vehicle that approaches Bazitkhel on the winding road from Peshawar, the provincial capital about 20 miles away, is quickly surrounded by men of all ages, each carrying a rifle and many loaded with grenade vests, ammo belts or military weapons. None wears a uniform or a badge.
"I am an educated and peaceful man. I would rather be carrying a book than a gun," said Hizar Amin Shah, 22, leaning on a rocket launcher. Shah said he spent the past decade studying and working in the capital, Islamabad, but has answered the call to return and defend his home. "These terrorists want to destroy the peace of Pakistan. It is up to us to finish them," he said.
The government of Pakistan, facing pressure from the West and increasing concern among its own citizens, has been struggling for months to contain an epidemic of religiously cloaked mayhem that is spreading from tribal havens along the Afghan border into the surrounding belt of "settled" areas that are theoretically protected by the state.
Authorities have tried various methods, first using the army to attempt to quash the rebels, and more recently negotiating truces with individual militia groups. Thousands of conflict-zone inhabitants, terrified by government bombing and insurgent brutality, have fled their homes. Few local officials dare visit their constituencies without military escorts.
A few tribal leaders, however, have refused to budge and are urging others to do the same. One of the first was Anwar Kamal Marwat, a former member of Parliament, who decided to organize a self-defense force in 2007 after Taliban militias began kidnapping and threatening people in his native Lakki Marwat district, demanding their support for a holy war.
"We are Muslims, and we know what holy war is. What they were doing was committing crimes," Marwat, 60, said last week in Peshawar. "They kept threatening us, but our tribe is very united and every village went on alert. We wanted to stop them before the cancer spread. It took many months, but now all their camps are gone, and they have not been back."
Marwat's success has been both an inspiration to other vulnerable communities and an embarrassment to the government, whose police are supposed to keep order and whose army is supposed to fight extremists.
One problem, according to experts and tribal leaders, is the divided loyalties and limited capacity of the security forces. Police are easily corrupted, tribal constabularies are ill-equipped and soldiers are often reluctant to shoot fellow Muslims. It is also widely believed here, though the government denies it, that Pakistani intelligence agencies covertly aid the insurgents in order to create trouble for next-door Afghanistan.
A second problem is that malefactors of all types benefit from a peculiar administrative arrangement, instituted by British colonial rulers, in which Pakistan's seven tribal zones are overseen by a federal agency and are off-limits to provincial or state security forces. As a result, they have become sanctuaries for both Islamist militias and criminal mafias, a distinction that local leaders said is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
"Some of the tribal agencies are totally controlled by the militants, and we are surrounded on three sides," said Afrasiab Khattak, a senior official in the party that rules North-West Frontier Province. Khattak has been a key promoter of the recent peace agreement with Taliban commanders in the Swat Valley, a tourist region in the province just outside the tribal belt.
The agreement has been criticized as creating a launching pad for a fundamentalist sweep through Pakistan. Last week, Islamic law courts began operating in Swat under the agreement, but Taliban commanders have not yet laid down their weapons. Still, Khattak said he believes the deal will hold.
"We have morally disarmed the militants in Swat. Now we have to create the conditions for physically disarming them," he said. "Swat is in a transition stage, and there is some confusion. The Taliban have no knowledge of law, and a few of them are addicted to violence, but 90 percent are behaving well."
But even in Peshawar, a city of several million, the chilling effects of Talibanization are everywhere. Half the movie theaters have shut down for lack of attendance at Bollywood action films deemed un-Islamic. Wedding parties have stopped hiring musicians, and only one craftsman who carves traditional instruments has remained in Dabgari Garden, a famous alley that once hummed with nightlife.
Gulzar Alam, an ethnic Pashto singer, has not performed at a single event since two gunmen ambushed him in a cemetery several months ago. As a further precaution, he has grown a beard and carries prayer beads.
"There is no more music in this city, not even in the public buses," Alam said, adding that most of his fellow entertainers have moved away or joined religious minstrel groups. The new provincial government hoped to spark a cultural revival, he added, "but now they've forgotten about it. The militancy problem has taken over everything."
In rural districts closer to the tribal zones, people are even more vulnerable to the predations of outlaw militias that roam freely just a few miles away. Bazitkhel, for example, is very near the Khyber Agency, a relatively prosperous tribal area that bustles with cross-border commerce but is also the stronghold of Mangal Bagh, a former bus driver who heads an Islamist militia-turned-criminal gang.
Leaders in Bazitkhel said most of their troubles originated with Bagh's followers, whom they allege enjoy the tacit acceptance of federal tribal officers. They said they had given authorities specific evidence about numerous attacks and their perpetrators, including cellphone records linking them to gang leaders in Khyber, but that nothing had come of it.
The village council head, Fahim ur Rahman, is now guarded around the clock by a small army of tribal members. He recounted half a dozen recent attacks and tribal retaliations, including a decisive battle last month in which hundreds of villagers encircled a group of militiamen in a three-hour gunfight, killing nine. Two weeks later came a message of gruesome revenge.
A pickup pulled into the village square in mid-afternoon and the driver walked into a shop, asking for cigarettes. The shopkeeper's children were outside munching on candy when the truck exploded, spraying deadly shrapnel in all directions. Two children died on the spot, and a third was rushed to a hospital in Peshawar with her stomach in shreds.
"These people call themselves Taliban, but they are nothing but criminals," Rahman said over rice and meat in his shrapnel-pocked compound. "We ask the security forces to crush them, but the police are afraid to take action, and other authorities protect them. If our tribe were not so united, we would have no hope of defending ourselves. We do not have permission to do this, but we have no choice."