They call it Mutasareen Bazaar (or market of the war-affected people). Dozens of makeshift, thatched-roof shops line the main road – dotted with fortified security checkpoints – leading to the Bara sub-division of the Khyber tribal agency. Located along the bank of the Bara River in the Batatal area, it’s like a market in the wilderness.
These shopkeepers had roaring businesses in Bara Bazaar until September 2009 when thousands of paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) troops moved into the region to flush out fighters of the dreaded Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) extremist group. Curfew was imposed which has been in place ever since.
“When the operation began we were not allowed time to collect our stocks. Our shops remained shuttered for a year. The stocks rotted and we suffered millions of rupees in losses,” said Syed Ayaz, president of the Anjuman Tajraan-e-Bara. “There were close to 9,000 shops in Bara Bazaar and around 200 small industrial units in and around Bara. Now, it’s a ghost town,” he told The Express Tribune.
Ayaz, in his mid-40s, and his family had fled the fighting to take shelter in Peshawar. Ayaz is not alone. Almost 80 per cent of Bara’s population has moved out. “Those still there are living in hell,” Ayaz said.
He blamed Tanzeemono – a reference to extremist groups Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI), Ansarul Islam (AI) and Amer Bil-maroof wa Nahi Anil-Muker – for the sufferings of the Afridi tribesmen in Bara.
“Mangal Bagh (LeI’s chief) had unleashed a reign of terror in Bara. His men, armed with heavy weapons, used to roam around freely in SUVs, extorting money from shopkeepers, kidnapping traders for ransom and doing all bad things,” Ayaz said.
Another shopkeeper, Muhammad Amin Afridi, himself a member of Amer Bil-maroof, sought to defend his group. “We’re not bad people. Our group is working for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice,” said Amin.
Ayaz said that Mangal Bagh’s campaign was not for ridding the region of the ‘draconian, anti-Islamic laws’ as was promised by him. “His was a gang of criminals and outlaws,” he added.
Several local tribes formed militias, lashkars, which patrol their village in the night to stave off attacks from marauding LeI fighters. “He (Mangal Bagh) is a very, very dangerous man,” Amin said advising against speaking to people in Mutasareen Bazaar about him. And he was right. Few shopkeepers were forthcoming when asked about their tormentor.
“What can I say,” said Raham Syed, grinning sheepishly when asked about the group/groups responsible for their troubles. When pressed hard, he said, “I can offer you a cup of qehwa (green tea) — which means you can go now.”
Shopkeepers from the minority Sikh community were even more hesitant. When asked about their problems, Amerjeet Singh, a dry fruit seller, declined to comment and instead recommended Deedar Singh, President of the Sikh Merchant Union Bara, for interview. But Deedar Singh, too, was reluctant to say anything.
The Sikh shopkeepers’ reluctance was understandable. Mangal Bagh had imposed Jizya (Islamic minority tax) on the Sikh community living in Bara. And those who refused to pay were kidnapped and subsequently put to death.
Lashkar-e-Islam was founded in 2004 by Mufti Munir Shakir and Mangal Bagh was made its regional chief for Bara. He rose to prominence due to his firebrand speeches on his FM Radio station and by early 2008 he was virtually ruling the entire Bara and parts of Landikotal and Jamrud sub-divisions. And soon his group started threatening Peshawar where his men kidnapped rich traders and Christians and Sikhs for ransom.
Alarmed by LeI’s increasing activities, security forces launched four major operations in Khyber Agency since June 2008 – codenamed Sirat-e-Mustaqeem (Right Path), Daraghlam (Here I come), Biya Daraghlam (Here I come again) and Khawakh Ba desham (I’ll teach you a lesson). But still Bara is as insure as ever.
But security forces don’t agree. “As a result of these operations, we pushed back LeI fighters to Tirah Valley. We’ve secured the area up to Tirah,” a paramilitary official told The Express Tribune requesting not to be named.
He would not say when the curfew would be lifted from Bara. “The situation hasn’t normalised yet. On and off, LeI militants carry out attacks to make their presence felt,” he added.
Hameedullah Jan, a tribal lawmaker from Khyber Agency, said that the situation was pushing local tribesmen into the hands of militants. “There is no economic activity. People have lost their businesses and farmlands. For them, the only way to feed their families is to join the militants,” Jan told The Express Tribune.
He claimed that several innocent people tribesmen, especially the elderly, have been killed for violating the curfew unwittingly. “Curfew is something new for them. They don’t know the repercussions of its violation,” he added.
Hameedullah Jan, former federal minister for housing, also claimed that he had convened a jirga in 2005 to the issue amicably but the “initiative was sabotaged by the political authorities.” He opposed the security operation and said that the use of force would further complicate the situation and pile more sufferings on the local population.
Analysts blame the government for the situation. “Lashkar-e-Islam and Ansarul Islam were not created overnight. The process of radicalisation and regimentation has been going on for long, but the government opted to remain oblivious,” security analyst Khadim Hussain told The Express Tribune.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2011.