February Issue 2019
The Unsung Soldiers
By Abdur Rauf Yousafzai | Newsbeat National | Published 4 years ago
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was a strong non-state actor in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the years 2007 and 2008. It had also gained ground in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Dr Sulaiman, the capital city police officer (CCPO) at the time, organised a flag march on the streets of Addezai village, which lies just off the Indus Highway at Mattani, on August 6, 2008. The area has a population of over 38,000 and lies 25 kilometres south of Peshawar valley. It is strategically located halfway between Peshawar and the Frontier Region’s (FR’s) Darra Adam Khel – a town known for the manufacture of guns.
The purpose of the march was to reassure locals and countrymen that the security apparatus was in control of the area. The locals of Addezai were, nevertheless, well aware of the TTP’s parallel patrolling and justice system in the village. At the time, the TTP Tariq Group had full control over Darra Adam Khel. It had slaughtered dozens of residents, including police officials.
TTP members opened fire on the police during the flag march. They saw the march as an affront to their sovereignty. The exchange of fire lasted for an hour. To locals, this gun-battle marked the end of life and the beginning of a reign of violence in Addezai.
Haji Abdul Malik, a local elder, was picked by law enforcement authorities and released a few weeks later, even though the militants lived several hundred metres away from his home and he had nothing to do with them. Then, one night, the police fired mortar shells on the village, killing and injuring a few residents. The next day, the village elders met with police officers, only to be told to either prepare a civil militia against the TTP, or be ready for routine shelling.
With few options left to turn to, the people of Addezai formed the Aman Lashkar (Peace Militia) – an anti-Taliban civil militia. They would rather die than live as internally displaced persons.
The next day, villagers gathered at Haji Malik’s hujra with their guns and after a short meeting they marched towards the militants’ homes and bases. “We had surrounded them [TTP militants] from all sides and restricted them to one house, after killing a few,” says Haji Malik’s son, Fazal Malik, a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) member of the District Council, Peshawar. “But later, the police came and took over the operation.” After some time, high-ranking KP police officers came to the hujra and informed Fazal and members of the Aman Lashkar that the militants had “escaped.”
The atmosphere of the village had become tense due to the misfortune that had befallen it. Anticipating the militants’ revenge, residents had closed their doors earlier than usual, after Isha prayers.
At around midnight, against the backdrop of stray dogs’ howls, the militants appeared in groups on the western side of Addezai and attacked the home of Haji Malik’s neighbour, Khalid Nawaz. Nawaz, now Addezai Village Council Nazim, and his 82-year-old grandfather, were the only males present in the house. “I was 19 then and was preparing myself for entrance into the 13th grade,” said the soft-spoken Khalid. “There were almost 250 of them,” he adds. Khalid rushed to the entrenchment on the roof and opened indiscriminate fire in all directions. But the militants were already inside his home. They dragged his grandfather out and beheaded him.
Militants threw a grenade at the entrenchment, a part of which collapsed over Khalid. “My family and the militants believed I was dead as I was no longer firing,” he says, in a low voice. He describes it as “doomsday” for the family and tries to hide his tears while narrating the tale. “It was a horrible time, but it made me much stronger,” he says, adding that the situation compelled him to “put down the pen and pick up a gun.”
He describes Addezai and its residents as the “wall” between peace and war for the rest of KP. “Sadly, the state didn’t acknowledge our sacrifices. The blood of the Pashtuns, both young and old, who restored a degree of normalcy here, was cheap,” he says.
On the outskirts of Addezai, a metal signpost on Shaheedan Chowk (Martyrs’ Square) tells the villagers’ tale. The first Aman Lashkar was formed by Haji Abdul Malik, with the help of the then Awami National Party provincial government and with the approval of the security forces. The Peace Lashkar was registered as a community police and given an honorarium of Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 per month. Haji Malik and the Lashkar were, at first, provided with police, paramilitary forces, weapons and vehicles by the law-enforcement authorities. But later, these were withdrawn. Malik was killed along with 22 other colleagues, on November 8, 2009, in a suicide attack at Shaheedan Chowk. Although militancy has been reduced after Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the militants still continue to kill Aman Lashkar personnel and demolish their homes.
Farosh Khan, another local, was part of the first attack on TTP militants in Addezai village. He was fighting on the strength of his own resources, along with his friends and partners. During the attack, he received a bullet that left him permanently paralysed. “I defended the soil but the state let me down; it never acknowledged me,” he says in a broken voice. When militancy was at its peak, it was the Addezai villagers who stood strong, like those rocks, he says, pointing at the mountains of Darra Adam Khel.
There are dozens of such tragic stories in Addezai, including a suicide attack on a funeral on March 8, 2011, that killed more than 50 people. There was a coffin in almost every home on that day. Infrastructural rehabilitation carried out by the last PTI government – newly built roads and schools – is apparent. The TTP had once blown up all schools in the vicinity and demolished the telephone exchange.
Dilawar Khan, who had survived suicide attacks and ambushes from TTP, also joined the Aman Lashkar. An outspoken man, he was on the hitlist of the TTP (Tariq Group) as well as its Khyber Agency chapter, the Mangal Bagh group.
Dilawar’s family too has lost its loved ones for taking a stand against the TTP. These days it’s Dilawar’s brother, Farman Ullah, who runs the affairs of the hujra. Militants had intimidated local shopkeepers into stopping the sale of vegetables, meat and bread to the police. Farman says the writ of the state was nowhere to be seen and that the police was confined to its stations.
Farman was by Dilawar’s side throughout the period of confrontation between the two militias. There has been no data of casualties compiled in regards to the losses of the Aman Lashkar, nor have the number of attacks on the village been recorded. “Those days were highly tense,” says Farman. “Our older brother was killed by the Tariq group in Karachi and within seconds, the militants called Dilawar to inform him of the deed. It was a shocking period for the family.”
More recently, there was a suicide attack at the gate of the hujra, says Farman, in which one of his nephews died, while two were injured. He spent large sums of money on their medical treatment and laments that the law enforcement authorities never asked, or even attempted to compensate him. He complains that the young members of his family could not be given an education, as everyone was busy defending the village.
To this day, Fazal is prepared for any unexpected attacks and keeps guns in his hillside hujra. Both he and Farman complain that their skirmishes with militants and successful attempts to overpower them are now referred to as a “family feud,” by authorities. They say that they are open targets for the Taliban, who can kill them at any point.
An entire generation in the village has grown up illiterate due to the violence. Although the Aman Lashkar is no longer of any use to the country, its courage and audacity on the front lines of the war against the TTP will remain etched in memory, according to Fazal. “Sooray sooray pa golo rashi, da benangay awaz di ramasha maina,” (“You may get your body riddled with bullets, but I should not see your head hang down”) he says, reciting a Pashto tapa.
Analysts, meanwhile, criticised the unlimited powers given to Aman Lashkars, as it amounted to the militarisation of civilians. The Superintendent Police, Sajjad Ahmad Sahibzada, still appreciates the Aman Lashkar’s contribution in restoring peace and stability in the region. He was, at the time, posted in the area. According to him, it was after the police received complaints from locals [of extortion and land grabbing] against the Lashkar, that the government cut off its support and resources to the group.
While the government had ensured that the group’s members had a respectable status in the community, many of them misused their powers, he says, adding that besides this, there were also misunderstandings between the Lashkar’s chiefs. “Now the region is peaceful and if the Lashkar receives threats from anyone, they should inform us,” he says. “We will definitely provide them with security. But we cannot allow anyone to roam with guns in the markets or in the streets, terrorising citizens,” he adds.