Last month, I had the privilege of visiting the tribal areas for the first time. I say privilege because it is not an easy task to go to the tribal areas if you are an ‘outsider’ and come back alive; and so my reporting trip to Khyber Agency had many twists and turns that you may not have felt while reading my five series report published recently.
For example, when I sent out a detailed email to my editor for coverage in Khyber Agency, I expected him to jump at the idea. But he immediately replied with a single concern –– “what is the guarantee that you will not get kidnapped?”
But journalists have an irrational itch to report information to the public, so after giving several reassurances to my superiors, I got the approval. Little did I know, this was only the beginning of my fear and loathing on the road to Afghanistan.
I stopped in Peshawar where a friend, Irfan Afridi, from Khyber Agency, took the responsibility to be my lifeguard. Another man accompanying us was Ahmed Choudry, who was exploring business opportunities to Afghanistan.
We spent the night with Irfan’s family in Peshawar and when his family found out about our plans, they also said “you will get killed”.
At this point, I thought to humour myself with these nerve-wracking premonitions. We started to joke about bartering Ahmed for our lives because of his American nationality. Humour helped calm my nerves with all the perceived death warnings.
The next morning, I was advised to wear shalwar qameez and a mosque cap. I had also been growing a beard as some locals who I had spoken to earlier said it will be ‘safer’ that way. Looking in the mirror that day, I barely recognised myself but at least I would stay alive, I thought.
With an eerie feeling, the trip started with lots of tense, silent moments and slowly we made our way to Khyber Agency. We were stopped at many check points but since Irfan was driving with another local sitting in the front, again as a safety measure, it was not a problem.
I met with people in Jamrud, Landi Kotal and Torkham but returned that same evening to Peshawar since the locals we met said it would be dangerous to stay in the Agency. But dangerous from whom?
Some say it is the Lashkar-i-Islam and when I tried to meet them, I was again reminded that I might endanger myself. But when I interviewed them over the phone, they warmly invited me to visit. The spokesperson said that he would guarantee my safety but added there were ‘other’ forces that may kill me.
Who are these unknown men? Talking to stakeholders, it has become difficult to say who is behind the killings since everyone has their own versions of truth. And worst affected are the refugees from the no-go areas of Bara and Teerah Valley.
But I feel these deaths are a mixture of power struggle, coupled with extortion from traders and avenging of feuds that today are being labelled as terrorism in Khyber Agency.
As I discuss with people the need to investigate and do more ground reporting in Fata, I still hear a lot of ‘you will not come back alive’. In my defence, if I made it alive once I can do it again.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2012.
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