April Issue 2009
The Death of a Culture
One by one, most places and institutions dear to Pakhtuns are coming under attack from the militants. Mosques and shrines have been bombed. Thehujra, or the male guesthouse, has been frequently attacked while serving as a venue of public meetings and political gatherings. Jirgas in session have been targeted and scores of tribal elders and clerics in attendance have been killed. The lashkars, made up of armed tribal volunteers, too have faced the wrath of the suicide bomber.
It was said that Pakhtuns like good food and guns, and enjoy music and a nice joke. One will have to take out music from the list of things that Pakhtuns like because the Taliban militants don’t like the playing of songs and musical instruments. However, they don’t mind eating well, acquiring the most sophisticated weapons and cracking jokes in which someone else is ridiculed.
Shrines and mosques have been among the targets on the militants’ list.
Bahadur Baba’s shrine in Nowshera district was attacked with rockets and although no lives were lost, the wreckage caused pain to his devotees. Shrines of a few other spiritual figures also came under attack. And then came the bombing of Sufi poet Rahman Baba’s mausoleum in Hazarkhwani village on the outskirts of Peshawar. It was the most outrageous and provocative act on the part of suspected militants, who had reportedly warned the shrine’s caretaker that it would be attacked if women weren’t stopped from coming there and mixing with men.
Rahman Baba is arguably the most beloved Pashto language poet. He is also revered for his Sufism, preaching love and tolerance. Planting bombs near his grave and placing explosives in the four pillars that held the huge mausoleum was something that saddened almost every Pakhtun. To get an idea of Rahman Baba’s peace-loving and tolerant nature, here is a sample of his acclaimed Pashto poetry:
“Sow flowers to make a garden bloom around you,
The thorns you sow will prick your own feet.
Arrows shot at others,
Will return to hit you as they fall
You yourself will come to teeter on the lip
Of a well dug to undermine another.”
The assault on Rahman Baba’s shrine shocked not only Pakhtuns but also people of other races and regions. For some, it was a reminder of the destruction of the massive Buddha stone statues dynamited by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province in 2001.
Exploding bombs in a mosque would have been unimaginable for a Muslim, and that too a Pakhtun, a few years ago but not any more. The devastating explosion at Bhigyari near Jamrud in Khyber Agency on March 27 was the fourth time that a mosque in the NWFP was targeted by terrorists.
It seems mosques, referred to as the Houses of Allah, are considered a legitimate target by militants seeking revenge or settling scores. Places of worship were sacrosanct, more so in the Frontier province, where Islam plays such a dominant role in life. But the terrorists have no qualms exploding bombs in mosques and sending suicide bombers to kill and maim the innocent Muslims who come to offer prayers.
In both the Bhigyari blast and the one at a mosque in Sherpao village in Charsadda district on December 20, 2007, the officially certified death toll was over 50. The unofficial death count in the Bhigyari mosque was around 70. The number of injured was around 200 in both cases.
There was apparently no high-profile target at the Bhigyari mosque as those offering Friday prayers at the roadside place of worship were common tribesmen, travellers and low-ranking officials of the Frontier Corps and Khasadar force.
The target of the suicide bombing at the mosque in Sherpao village was the then federal interior minister, Aftab Sherpao. It was the day of Eid-ul-Azha and Sherpao, his sons Sikandar and Mustafa, and relatives and guards were praying at the village mosque. Sherpao survived and so did his sons, with Mustafa receiving some injuries, but more than 50 people were killed.
On that fateful day, it became obvious that mosques were no longer sacrosanct for some people claiming to be Islamic fighters.
Two other mosques were also attacked by the terrorists. One was a Shia place of worship, the Imambargah Qasim Beg, in Jhangi Mohalla in Peshawar, where a suicide bomber blew himself up on January 18, 2008. The explosion in the congested imambargah killed 12 worshippers and caused injuries to 20 others.
The other mosque that suffered a bomb explosion was located in the remote Miskeeni Darra area in Lower Dir district. The incident took place during the month of Ramadan last year when seven faithful offering prayers were killed and several others were injured.
Two other attempts by suicide bombers to attack worshippers during congregations were foiled. In one case, the bomber wearing a suicide jacket was overpowered by policemen before he could enter an imambargah in Dera Ismail Khan. If the young suicide bomber had succeeded in his misguided mission, the human losses at the crowded imambargah would have been enormous.
In the second incident, the suicide bomber due to nervousness or inadequate training blew himself up before he could reach an Eidgah where Eid-ul-Fitr prayers were being offered in Daggar in Buner district. Two children who happened to be in the vicinity were injured by the force of the explosion.
The wise old men sitting in a jirga were respected because they resolved disputes and took unanimous decisions for the good of their people. The jirga was a venerable institution and its members were above board. This changed when militants started intimidating the jirga members and then dispatched suicide bombers to blow up the grey-beards wearing turbans. This happened in Darra Adamkhel, Orakzai Agency, Bajaur and elsewhere. The jirga was already losing its power due to a host of factors, one being the lure of money and the interference of the government. The militants may have dealt it a death blow by blowing up dozens of elders and ensuring that the remaining would do their bidding.
Tribal lashkars were raised to implement the collective and unanimous decisions of the jirga. Armed tribesmen would enforce the jirga’s verdict by demolishing houses of erring members of the tribe and punish those who violated their customs and traditions. Now lashkars are confronted with suicide bombers and their resolve has become weaker.
The Pakhtun way of life has been threatened and no one knows what shape it will take in the future.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.