Pakistan’s ghost villages limp back to peace and life

    NewsPakistan's ghost villages limp back to peace and life
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    Pakistan’s ghost villages limp back to peace and life

    About 38 villages in the Kurram district of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were razed to the ground during the sectarian violence in 2007. Now, a few villagers are daring to return to their homes, more than a decade after the villagers fled fearing for their lives.

    Wasim Sajjad

    People on Kurram’s streets say that the city’s weather is as unpredictable as the mind of a trigger-happy gunman. The fear of a renewed vortex of sectarian killings is a reality in the small city in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan.

    On 6 April 2007, a gunman opened fire on a gathering in Parachinar town of Upper Kurram using an automatic weapon, leaving more than 40 people dead and more than 150 people wounded. Military strategists called the sectarian feud the Kurram Agency War.

    The humanitarian impact of that sectarian strife numbed the world. 38 villages were razed. First it was Bilyamin. Munda was the next. And then Muzaffar Kot, followed by Makhizai, Sharqi Makhizai, Upper Mandori, Haji Abid Ullah, Makai, Khewas, Selozan Tangai, Mandori….. 38 villages in all. All village people fled. These were called Kurram’s ghost villages.

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    Story of vengeance in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

    It was a story of vengeance. The Shias lived in fear where the Sunnis dominated. It was the other way around in other places, where the Shias outnumbered the Sunnis. Nobody wanted to return to the villages. They feared that anything could spark off a new spiral of violence.

    Amid the war, around 100,000 people fled Kurram. The figures dished out by community leaders reflects the turmoil the strife has left behind. Shia elders peg the count of their kinmen killed at around 4,500. They don’t count the “others”. The Sunnis put the number at 2000 deaths and 3000 injuries on their side.

    Courageous first steps towards peace in Kurram’s ghost villages

    Today, these uninhabited hamlets, till recently known as Kurram’s 38 ghost villages, are slowly beginning to buzz with life as a handful of their residents have summoned the courage to return to their villages.

    Yet, the overwhelming ghost of the past persists. Those who have returned to the villages have taken strong measures to guard their villages from the rival groups. Everyone is armed. Pashkas (fortifications in the local language) made of stone boulders cemented with clay have come up. In some places, there are walls of concrete. People take turns to watch over the walls and guard against strangers.

    “The biggest loss of this war is the hate among the friends and locals who have lived together for ages,” says local journalist Nabi Jan. “Friends who lived, studied and played together in a multi-ethnic society have become enemies. In the best case, they feel concerned.”

    Nabi says there trust deficit. “People fear the other and try to avoid approaching rival villages. Small scale skirmishes happen and people don’t hesitate pulling out their guns.

    Daunting road to peace

    The road to peace in Kurram’s once ghost villages is a daunting one. Haji Abid Ullah, one of the few who dared to return to his village says it is a life of hurdles and fear. He says he didn’t have another option as his displaced family stared at poverty. He still has the option to return to Peshawar in the event of violence flaring up once again.

    Haji Abid Ullah says that when he returned to nothing. “There was nothing left of the village — even the trees were gone,” he says. There were only 15 ramshackle structures he saw upon his return.

    Those who have returned to have had sleepless nights, fearing a fresh war would disturb their lives again. Haji wants to see his children playing, fighting, dancing and going to school with the children of the rival community as he did in his childhood. But he thinks that is impossible.

    Wasim Sajjad is a journalist based in Peshawar, Pakistan.

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