Zarteef Afridi: Hero of Jamrud

Published: December 9, 2011
The writer is author of Jhelum: City of the Vitasta (Sang-e-Meel, 2005)

The writer is author of Jhelum: City of the Vitasta (Sang-e-Meel, 2005)

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 His crusade from the HRCP platform single-handedly won the release of dozens of persons rotting in jail under the outdated Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).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.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Abbas from the US
    Dec 9, 2011 - 11:14PM

    Very interesting story that young people in the eighties could see thru this facade of Jihad and where it would lead to. In fact there were a lot of people at that time who thought the Soviet occupation could possibly bring forth an educated society despite the loss of freedoms that could be seen associated with the Communist rule.
    But Freedom is again a relative term. The fascists who use religion to take away every freedom but the freedom to take religion as an opiate are not liberators of the human soul either.


  • Arifq
    Dec 10, 2011 - 9:30AM

    How many decent, well meaning, law abiding citizens have to die before this nation wakes up to the horrible reality? Thank you Salman Sahib, keep writing.


  • sidjeen
    Dec 10, 2011 - 11:02AM

    why is it that we know about these great men among us only after they have been taken away from us by the forces of darkness. the biggest failure of the so called free media in pakistan is to highlight the struggle and achievements of men like Zarteef Afridi.


  • Dec 10, 2011 - 11:05AM

    His Dream will never diE


  • Dec 10, 2011 - 11:08AM

    Thank you for writing this, many honorable heroes like Zarteef Afridi remain ignored by us Pakistanis. While the real monster is getting stronger, we are worried about imaginary ones.


  • Realist
    Dec 10, 2011 - 12:32PM

    And the reader should now realize why S/he doesn’t know a word about happenings in FATA. Journalists and Activists have trade off with their intellectual integrity not for the sake of their lives but their families.

    Saying something in public, to press or government machinery means death.

    Mangal Bagh, a former bus conductor rules Bara Tehsil of Khyber Agency and is wall to wall with Hayatabad. He extort monthly of Rs. 7000 per family from those still left in Bara or their houses still not ruined. Otherwise, they have to provide one “mujahid’ for his force.

    Point to ponder is that beside a big Peshawar cantonment with AF and Army divisions of men, Governor(King of FATA) on his disposal Frontier Corps, Levis and Khasadar Forces, the yahoo is still at large. Nato Convoys fare safe as long as Pindi want’s it.

    The so far cosmetic operations have only killed innocent civilians.


  • Noman
    Dec 10, 2011 - 1:47PM

    A hero, a shaheed, an enlightened person, a free man, a free soul. a person we can all be proud of, assassinated by the demons who fear light because it exposes them and their satanic enterprise against the society.


  • Noran
    Dec 10, 2011 - 6:00PM

    Thanks for recalling great people especially from kp there was an other great man asif jan working as accounts office in land department
    cdgk. Had a great amongst a wide social circle Was of the opposition to terrors fortunately or unfortunately for being younger brother of an international judge. Was gunned down in front of his office on 23rd august 2010 in afternoon. He variously been told to limit his social activities. For which he always asking his allies to how to limit? He had been supporting his neighbors relatives and his lower staff in his office morally and financially. Neither of sindh gov nor from fed gov sep had attended his funeral nor any responsible fellow from any gov authority visited his family even after condol via media. Who how and why shoot him? may god gift him peace in heaven. Who will wipe the tears from the eyes of his kins and kiths. Who will arrange to send his youngest son uk from study on foreign affairs as asif jan had desired. He had desired that speaker of oRecommend

  • Feroz
    Dec 10, 2011 - 6:49PM

    There are many such heroes living among the common people whose stories the Press never highlights. Media is more interested in the shenanigans of the rich and famous.


  • Arshad Mahmood
    Dec 10, 2011 - 8:23PM

    Today is Universal Human Rights Day and this year’s theme is Human Rights Defenders. There is nothing to celebrate in Pakistan as Zarteef Khan Afridi, a prominent human rights defender from FATA was gunned down the day before yesterday in Khyber Agency and Alamzeb Khattak, who stood by his 16 years old sister, who was kidnapped and raped by a few persons including three policemen, to ensure justice for her was gunned down in Karak yesterday. In Pakistan, the struggle for human rights is to go a long long way. Long live Zarteef Khan!


  • You Said It
    Dec 11, 2011 - 11:41AM

    What a fantastically different story from the one that Pakistani media and people usually narrate! Most Pakistanis today, have put this spin on the jihad against the Soviets that it was the greatest and noblest thing Pakistan did.

    The story of Zarteef Afridi is to be all the more admired, because not only did he see past the flaws in the perspective of the rest of the country, but also kept himself being swayed away by the religious mania that has led so many of his neighbors and compatriots astray. His unrelenting focus on the welfare of his students, combined this with the courage he displayed in persisting with his work in spite of the peril to his life, makes him a genuine Pakistani hero. An endangered breed today by every account!!


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