Displaced by anti-Taliban military operation, Pakistani Pashtun poets revive their craft


Pakistani workers prepare relief supplies for distribution to internally displaced Pakistani civilians fleeing a military operation against Taliban militants. (A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

For more than five centuries, poets in remote northwestern Pakistan have recited verses about the area’s mountainous scenery, their tribal culture and love.

That all changed as Islamist militants tightened their hold on Pakistan’s tribal regions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Taliban and its allies quickly crushed the poets’ words and spirits. They were warned not to write phrases that referred to women or serenity and instead ordered to compose jihadist messages of war, brutality and conformity.

Now, about 50 poets are part of a mass migration of more than 700,000 Pakistanis who have been displaced from the North Waziristan region as the military seeks to dislodge Islamist militants there. And amid the chaos of refu­gee life, they are restoring tradition to their verses.

“It was so horrible for me, like a nightmare, when they approached me for the first time to make words about slaughtering innocent people part of my poetry,” said poet Saleem Khan, 38, who fled North Waziristan for the northwestern city of Bannu. “How could a poet who has very soft feelings for his land and people become a tool to spread terror?”

Many of the refugees in this northwestern city were abruptly forced to leave their homes and now must endure rationed food, overcrowded housing and uncertainty about the fate of their livestock. Yet despite those hardships, the refugees are also rediscovering a life free from the sway of radical Islamists who effectively ruled North Waziristan for the past decade.

Internally displaced Pakistani civilians fleeing a military operation against Taliban militants in the North Waziristan buy sandals at a shop. (Karim Ullah/AFP/Getty Images)

Under the control of the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgent groups, tribal elders had to shed their colorful turbans and instead don the black ones worn by the militants. Traditionally expansive Pashtun weddings were reduced to just a few guests, because the Taliban didn’t allow music and dancing. Residents who once swapped gossip outside under the stars were encouraged to remain indoors after sunset.

“The Taliban’s order was final and no one dared to oppose that,” said Muhammad, a 36-year-old shopkeeper who, like many Pashtuns, uses only one name. “You would have been kidnapped or killed to terrorize the others.”

For the poets, many of whom are now living with relatives here in the dusty city of Bannu, the Taliban rules meant many long years of grief. They had been carrying out a tradition passed down through generations of their Pashtun forefathers. Pashtuns, many of whom reside in northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, have a rich history of conveying stories through artful phrases.

Initially, the refu­gee poets said, they resisted their new rulers’ orders to abandon poetry by gathering in small groups inside darkened shops and homes to recite their words.

“It was a revolution of thought, related to peace,” said Shafiuddin, 28.

Eventually, however, all but a handful gave in to the pressure to use their skills to try to advance the cause of Islamist militancy, Shafiuddin and other poets said.

They were called upon to pen memorial messages to suicide bombers, record recruitment messages on audiocassettes and create slogans for Taliban commanders to recite on the battlefield. The cassettes sold briskly at local markets, in part because residents felt compelled to buy them out of fear.

Men fleeing from the military offensive against Pakistani militants in North Waziristan. (Khuram Parvez/Reuters)

When a Taliban commander approached Saleem Khan and asked him to write lyrics for jihadist songs, he said his first thought was, “I can’t become part of this dirty game.”

But “who could dare raise their voice before the Taliban?” he recalled wondering. “There was no government, no law and no court to contest the rights being kept away from me.”

Although poems have been recited orally in Pashtun culture for millennia, the first written Pashtun poets have been traced to about 1550, said Sarfraz Khan, an author and Central Asia expert at the University of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan.

Khan said Bayazid Ansari, a 15th-century preacher and author, was an early pioneer in developing the literature and poetry of the Pashtun culture.

One of his sons, Mirza Khan Ansari, also became a poet, and his work is still available in poetry magazines that have been published in North Waziristan for centuries, Khan said.

“It was so great to pen down feelings,” said Qalandar Khan, a 50-year-old poet from North Waziristan who wrote under the pen name Lewana e Wazir, which means “crazy guy from the Wazir tribe.”

“When I was a young guy, my poetry was all about the beautiful feelings that every human has in young age,” he said.

Now, however, Qalandar Khan is living in limbo in Bannu, in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Many North Waziristan refugees are sleeping here in vacant schools or with relatives while they wait for Pakistan’s army to conclude its operation against Taliban militants.

Following a strategy similar to the one it used against the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley from 2007 to 2009, the army evacuated nearly all North Waziristan residents to limit civilian casualties as they conduct a house-to-house search for militants.

Military leaders say their operation is progressing, and some government leaders hope the refugees can begin returning home within a few weeks. Yet, the United Nations and some humanitarian groups fear the displacement could last for months, perhaps leading to even more instability in the country.

“The success of this operation will not be on the battlefield. The success will be deciding how we handle the displaced persons issues,” said Shireen M. Mazari, a member of Pakistan’s Parliament. “If it’s not handled well, it could blow up in our faces.”

Qalandar Khan and other poets are torn by competing emotions.

They miss home, and like many of the refugees in Bannu, they angrily accuse the government of being ill-equipped to manage such a mass internal migration.

But, at least for now, they are also free from the Taliban. So within hours of arriving in Bannu, the poets once again began writing and reciting verses.

Saleem Khan used his rediscovered freedom to recount his new life as a refu­gee:

“Oh my Almighty, you made me a beggar and beg before those I never wished to meet. Tell me, time, what kind of Pashtun I am that I have become so ugly,” he wrote.

“My dignity, don’t allow me to beg. Oh my poverty, you made me fight with my soul. Tell me, time, what kind of Pashtun I am that I have become so ugly.

“My dignity, don’t allow me to beg before anybody. Oh my poverty, you made me fight with my soul.”

Craig reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.

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