They did not give in to the Taliban. They put up a fight, unsuccessful though, against a much stronger, ruthless enemy, to deny them a foothold in their land. And now, they are paying the price. They are under siege, literally, for three-odd years now. Hundreds of their men have gone down fighting. They are the Turis – a Shia Pakhtun tribe of the Kurram tribal agency.
Defeated, disillusioned and hopeless, many of them have fled their villages and towns – leaving behind fertile farmlands and lucrative businesses to become refugees in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
“Are we not Pakistani citizens?” asked Mudassar Abbas, resident of the Alizai area in Lower Kurram. “The government has deserted us, it has left us at the mercy of terrorists,” said the young Abbas, who is studying English literature at Peshawar University. Abbas and over a dozen other students from Kurram Agency live in a small two-bedroom flat in a dark, dingy plaza in the Khyber Supermarket area of Peshawar.
Abutting Afghanistan in the north and surrounded by militant-infested tribal regions of Orakzai, Khyber and North Waziristan, Kurram Agency has virtually no contact with the rest of Pakistan. The only land route – the Peshawar-Thall-Parachinar Road – has been blocked since early 2007. Sporadic attempts by desperate tribesmen to travel on this road ended in deaths and abductions.
“We are stranded here. We cannot visit our families,” said Ishrat Ali, an MBA student in Peshawar who hasn’t seen his parents in Parachinar, the main town in Kurram, for over two years. “Earlier we could travel to Kurram via Afghanistan… It was a long, arduous journey, costing us 500 times more, but it was a blessing,” he told The Express Tribune. “Now this route has also been closed due to fighting in Afghanistan.”
Surprisingly, it’s a small portion of an over 250-kilometres Peshawar-Thall-Parachinar Road – between Alizai and Thall areas – where passenger vans and supply trucks are mostly ambushed.
Sectarian tensions in Kurram date back to 1939, but the ongoing bout of deadly fighting broke out in April 2007. Accounts of what triggered this fighting vary. What is for sure is that thousands of tribesmen, both Shias and Sunnis, have been killed and many more injured since. Flocks of them have fled while those still there have been suffering due to the shortage of food and medical supplies.
“There are no medicines, no doctors in hospitals, schools and colleges are deserted, and the economy is paralysed,” said Mumtaz Hussain, a Parachinar resident studying engineering in Peshawar. “Hundreds of our women and children have died due to the shortage of life-saving drugs,” he added. But local tribal elders say the fighting in Kurram is being wrongly portrayed as sectarian strife. “It’s not a Shia-Sunni conflict. It’s a third force – Taliban, terrorists or whatever you call them – which has exploited the situation. Both sects are fed up with fighting. They want peace,” said Malik Haji Ghulab Hussain Turi, member of the grand tribal jirga engaged in peace talks.
“We know Taliban terrorists and their harbourers in Central Kurram are behind all our troubles,” said Malik Ghulab, who also heads the Turi-Bangash Supreme Council. “I was part of the Murree and Islamabad talks. The Murree agreement was never implemented while the Islamabad deal was violated by the Taliban six times,” he added.
Munir Orakzai, a lawmaker from Fata, blamed the government for the non-implementation of the Murree agreement. He admitted Taliban’s involvement, but said that it would be unrealistic to say there was no sectarian strife.
“Yes, in 2008 clashes a huge number of Taliban insurgents were involved, but they had no role in the deadliest fighting in the months of April, November and December 2007,” Orakzai told The Express Tribune.
The Haqqani network, the deadliest of all Afghan Taliban groups, is said to be involved in peace talks because it’s seeking a foothold in this strategically important region.
Both Haji Ghulab and Orakzai admitted a representative of the Haqqanis was also invited to the Islamabad talks to make sure all stakeholders were on board. But the former denied the Haqqanis are seeking a transit route to Afghanistan for their fighters.
Attaullah Khan, a Sunni member of the grand jirga, didn’t reject outright Taliban’s presence in the region, but he believes it is being exaggerated by the Turi tribe. Instead he hinted at possible “foreign backing” for the Turis. “What are Mehdi Militia and Hezbollah doing in Kurram?” questioned Khan, who is also the spokesperson for the Reforms Committee Parachinar. Malik Gulab had the answer: “These are local lashkars formed by our youths to defend their villages. They’ve nothing to do with the Iranian Hezbollah and Iraqi Mehdi Militia.”
Khan also blamed the warlords in neighbouring Afghanistan for the unrest in Kurram. “They’re fuelling the strife by selling weapons to both Shia and Sunni tribes. If peace and normalcy return to Kurram who will buy their weapons,” questioned Khan, who is also the spokesperson for the Reforms Committee Parachinar.
However, both Khan and Haji Ghulab were unanimous in support of the military operation in their region to flush out “troublemakers”. “We support [the] military action,” said Khan, who has been living in Kohat since fighting broke out in Kurram in 2007.
On Sunday, the armed forces formally announced that they had launched an operation in Kurram. Major Fazal, the spokesperson for the Frontier Corps told The Express Tribune that the operation would be targeting “TTP militants and other criminals in central Kurram” without giving any details.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2011.