KHURRAM AGENCY: As a glance at one’s cell-phone in Kurram Agency shows ‘no signals’, you rush to the landline and the ‘zero’ on the dial gives a tone ‘engaged’. After dialling several times you discover that it just won’t dial out.
When suddenly the cell-phone of the person close to you beeps, you look in amazement and inquire “how come my cell-phone does not function here? Are you using a satellite phone?” The query sounds obnoxious because a satellite phone costs a fortune.
The man chortles, saying “although you are in Pakistani territory, only a SIM from Afghanistan can solve your problem”. One does not have to be a genius to decipher the sarcasm behind the statement.
Azmat Alizai, a local journalist from Parachinar pointing towards the boundary of Afghanistan, visible behind the Safed Koh Mountain, says “there is only one tower for ‘Mobile’ service, on top of that mountain. The telephone exchange does not give access to non-local calls and cell-phones are just a dream of the past after the military operation”.
Communication of the region mirrors the life of the local people. After having been cut off from Pakistan for almost three years the trade and commerce in the area has been severely affected. “After the Shia-Sunni clashes the only road that connects Kurram with the rest of the country was closed, the people had to travel via Afghanistan to reach their own country,” says a security official during a briefing.
“It took a number of jirgas between both the parties to settle the dispute and now we can escort a convoy once a week to carry rations and other supplies into the area,” he elaborates.
The Traders Union of Upper Kurram is anxious to meet journalists after the briefing who can tell their woes to the world. Syed Nijaat Hussain, a member of the union, says, “The road was blocked for three years almost. We had to travel through Miranshah-Khost-Gardez and back to Parachinar to bring back food supplies. A wheat flour bag cost Rs11,000 while that of sugar, Rs4,000.” He praises the security forces for allowing a convoy once a week but adds that he has to pay a heavy amount as ‘mahsoolat’ meaning taxes to the political administration, sometimes amounting to upwards of Rs10,000 per truck.
Officials recall that a security alarm rang in the agency for the first time during the Afghan war of the 80s. “A large number of Afghan refugees were settled here in camps,” says an officer. In the post-9/11 era when the bombardment in Tora Bora – a famous chapter in the siege of Afghanistan – took place, a number of al Qaeda and Taliban militants took refuge in the area. Some were apprehended, some escaped but the situation could not be normalised completely since.
The situation of Kurram Agency is emblematic of how the fire from Afghanistan engulfed Pakistan’s soil and how the Taliban re-emerged as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
The people of the area cannot be termed contented, but nevertheless are coping with the situation. Shaukat Ali, a resident of Kurram, when asked whether he could travel freely, replied, rhetorically, “if the road was so safe to travel why would you journalists be travelling by helicopter?”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2010.
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