My friend Zarteef Afridi had known they would get him; only he did not know when. So many times he had made light of the terrorists. Always I had marvelled at his courage and equanimity in the face of a threat clear and present. Always he had vowed to continue his work.
Born in Jamrud, Zarteef was as red-blooded an Afridi as they could ever have made. But there was one essential difference between this good man and many others of his tribe: he stood for the liberation of the human soul through education and enlightenment. And for him, we were all human regardless of our gender, colour, tribe or creed.
Prevented by maternal pressure from going to Soviet Russia to study engineering in 1982, Zarteef became a school teacher. The jihad funded by the short-sighted West was in full flow and, from all across the province, impressionable young men headed out to Afghanistan either to die without a cause or be radically criminalised. Not one of the boys who passed under the tutelage of the idealist Zarteef, however, turned to that so-called holy war. From their mentor they had learned its reality. Many of his wards went on to acquire higher education.
If he had dreamed of an Afghanistan where Soviet-funded school would educate every single Afghan, the Soviet withdrawal and eventual collapse disillusioned him. In 1989, Zarteef joined the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) to become a vocal advocate for equal rights for minorities, women and children. His crusade from the HRCP platform single-handedly won the release of dozens of persons rotting in jail under the outdated Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).
The daytime teacher Zarteef, was now an activist afterhours. Going from hujra to hujra where men discussed the mujahideen crisis of Afghanistan, his harangues on the reality of the opportunists abusing religion to attain power did not win him any favour.
In 1996, Zarteef established his own NGO called Fata Education and Welfare Society. When one day in the future, FCR is abolished, some may still be around to remember the impassioned discussions led by Zarteef in the hujras and on street corners. Meanwhile, with the rise of obscurantism in Afghanistan, Zarteef foresaw the recidivism that was likely to grip his own country. He spearheaded a campaign to educate schoolteachers on the importance of secular education, as opposed to pure madrassa teaching. Zarteef Afridi was treading on treacherous ground now.
This fearless man only added to the growing opposition towards him by his public condemnation of the Pakhtun tradition of ‘vulver’ — the purchase of a bride. Zarteef was doing everything wrong. He now advocated the right of franchise for tribal women and ran an underground campaign for it. Trained as an electrician, he was frequently called into local homes to fix or install electrical fittings. There, alone with the women of the house, he lectured them on their rights and shamed them for their illiteracy.
In December 2009, it was not a stranger I was seeing for the first time. Zarteef Afridi was a friend I had somehow not known until then. His earnestness, equanimity, raw courage and commitment to the just and true cause of education and emancipation were remarkable. I cautioned him and he said, “They might kill me, but they will never be able to kill my work”.
We spoke regularly on the phone thereafter. He would never fail to renew his invitation for me to visit Jamrud and I always said I was a coward and would never come. Earlier this year, he called again. He had fled to Murree with his family for fear of his life. Jokingly he added that Murree was safe even for a coward. That was the last time I heard his voice.
On December 8, as he walked to his school, this good and decent man, who had never raised his voice in anger, was laid low by demons whose souls are dead. The hundreds, if not thousands, of young women and men who were touched by his passion are his legacy. His work will truly never die.
Rest in peace, Zarteef Afridi, dear friend.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2011.