Khyber tribesmen — between devil and deep blue sea
The ugly incident of Alamgudar-Dogra on January 15, 2013 when 18 innocent tribesmen were shot dead by gunmen wearing military uniforms has aggravated the already volatile law and order situation in the tribal belt.
The enraged relatives lifted the coffins of the victims on their shoulders from Khyber Agency to the Governor House in Peshawar, and staged a sit-in protest on the busy Sher Shah Suri Road.
In scenes similar to the ones in Quetta following the killing of Hazara community members, hundreds of protesting tribesmen on Sher Shah Suri Road called upon the government to halt the operation in Bara, pay compensation to the affected families, reopen the Bara bazaar, release tribal detainees and conduct a judicial inquiry into the unfortunate incident.
The tribesmen had ended their protest on the assurances that meetings will be held with the quarters concerned till an agreeable resolution of the lingering conflict was reached. However, this reassurance has been given many times before.
Rahim Shah Afridi lost six relatives in the Alamgudar incident.
“I am speechless about the incident. I would only say innocent people are treated with barbarism. We are citizens of this country and have the same rights like other citizens. Why must we chose sides, and join the militants or the security forces? We want to live peacefully,” Mr Rahim told Dawn.
The frustration and extreme measures of not burying their dead to make a point is understandable: the residents of Bara have braved the brunt of militancy, and the subsequent military offensive since its launch on September 1, 2009.
The fierce gun-battles between militants and security forces have taken the lives of hundreds of innocent tribesmen including women and children, and according to estimates around 60,000 families have been forced to flee the volatile region. Businesses and trade have been badly affected as well.
Shah Faisal Afridi, former vice–president of Jamaat-e-Islami Bara chapter, revealed that 55 schools have been torched or blown up by militants while 122 cottage industrial units, where many local and non- local workers were employed, have also been closed down.
“A degree college and a technical centre where hundreds of young male and female students were engaged getting education are now lying closed. Where will these young people go to make their future?” he questioned.
He is hopeful of a fruitful outcome from the negotiations between the 22-member Jirga (representing all tribes, political parties and civil society members) and the political administration.
On the other hand, Qadir Khan Afridi, a tribal elder, termed the negotiations a futile exercise.
He stressed the need for giving top priority to establishment of peace and government writ which he said would ultimately lead to solution of rest of the issues.
“What negotiation? Lift the curfew, stop the operation, IDPs will help themselves return to their homes and once they are back, everything will be okay. We are ready to make it happen,” he said.
“With the continuous rain of mortal shells on peaceful population, it is like turning peaceful people into potential militants. Why peace can’t be restored to an area spreading over just 10 to 15 km? One can imagine such unbearable sufferings only in the occupied Kashmir and Palestine. But in tribal area it is not possible,” Mr Qadir opined.
While the militants are blamed for the unrest, local residents also did not mince their words when it came to according blame on the political forces, civil society members and tribal parliamentarians who did not take serious notice of the bazaar situation in Bara.
In fact, stones and pebbles had been hurled on MNA Hameedullah Jan Afridi when he visited the protesting tribesmen staging the sit-in near the Governor House.
The parliamentarian from Bara though has his own version to offer: “I respect the emotions of my own people. I have already constituted a grand jirga having representation of all stakeholders including political forces as well tribal elders. First, we shall meet Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Governor Barrister Masud Kausar and then other quarters to find out a permanent solution to the prevailing situation in Bara.”
He was joined in by Maqbali Khan Afridi, president of Bara traders union and also head of the jirga, who said that all forces have joined hands to raise a powerful voice for the rights of the tribesmen.
“I am fully confident that authorities will meet all our just demands including reopening of Bara Bazaar where as per our survey conducted in 2011 Rs200 million per day losses are being inflicted on traders and daily human lives losses stand from 3 to 4
persons in various terror incidents,” he elaborated.
“We are being sandwiched between powerful horns. The way out is that only targeted operation should be carried out in militant-infested areas without any damage to the non-combatant population. Also a list of about 300 people who had been arrested during raids by security forces is being prepared to set them free,” Mr Maqbali added.
The prolonged operation in the area has forced many residents to shift to the provincial capital Peshawarwrap up their businesses. Some 15,000 families are living at Jalozai IDP camp in miserable conditions, and a few others have rented homes or are camping in with their relatives.
Janwali Afridi, 56, said that a large number of tribesmen like him faced problems including non-availability of shelter, proper food and medicines.
“We are living in subhuman conditions. My three daughters and two sons have no books to read. I tell them I am unable to even feed them. They are willing to relinquish going to school and play games,” the aggrieved old man from Bara at Jalozai camp said.
When a security official in Bara was asked to comment on the day-to-day affairs and how they have been affected, he put the blame on the local populace’s non-cooperation.
“The problem is a big one but the solution is very simple. Before launching any operation or conducting raid we have always requested the local people to either take responsibility of keeping their area clear of militants themselves because you are fully familiar with the situation in your own locality or vacate the area so that a clean-up operation can be carried out to flush out militants and establish government writ,” he claimed.
“As it is not a traditional war, the militants easily get mangled among the local populace and use them as human shields. It is right that in the crossfire the possibility of such unfortunate incidents is always there,” the source argued.
He suggested that Bara residents should follow examples of other tribal agencies where local populations support the security forces in getting their respective areas cleared of militants.