Last month 16 Shias were taken off a bus, lined up and killed in the Kohistan district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa while travelling to Gilgit-Baltistan. This horrific fact is well-known.
What has now emerged is that the number could easily have been 18, or more, but was not due to the quick-thinking, bravery and solidarity of anonymous passengers on two buses that day.
As the gunmen were singling out passengers on the basis of their sect before executing them one-by-one, at least two Shia passengers travelling in two separate buses escaped murder. They were saved by some of the Sunni passengers travelling alongside them in the buses which were part of the convoy reportedly stopped by the gunmen.
When the gunmen entered the buses after stopping the convoy, at first nobody knew who they were or their intentions. They had reportedly erected hurdles on the highway and numbered at least 20.
The awful reality of the situation gradually emerged. Realising that the slightest resistance or a perceived act of aggression could result in death, the passengers remained quiet in the tense environment, as each was asked by the masked men to prove his identity.
“He is our colleague and we are a Tabligee Jamaat going to Astore Valley,” said one of the Sunni passengers about a Shia seated next to him, after the masked men demanded all Shia passengers disembark.
The three other Shias in that bus – who had followed orders and got out of the bus – were shot dead outside. Names have been withheld for security reasons.
This was not the only act of impulsive heroism that day. In another bus, also a part of the convoy, a Gilgit resident saved a Shia passenger by telling the gunmen that the man was his brother. “The man who saved the Shia passenger was a Sunni and came from the Kashrote area,” said Shoaib and Aliyaar, the driver and his assistant who witnessed the incident and eventually told their story to a local newspaper.
According to other eyewitnesses, the assailants lobbed a hand grenade from some height after carrying out the execution.
Older residents of the Nagar Valley had set another example of inspiring humanity as they took at least 35 Sunni labourers working in the valley into protective custody soon after the Kohistan tragedy, and quietly shifted them to Gilgit, before a possible backlash could have cost them their lives.
With emotions still running high in G-B, these accounts of mutual trust and respect for other people’s beliefs have bolstered those who wish to fight the forces of sectarianism.
The terror of February 28 should never be forgotten. Neither, though, should the stories of those who stood up against the murderous fascists – and represented the more widespread spirit of those who live in G-B and indeed the whole of Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2012.