A Narrow Escape

Rehan Khan

The churlish breeze from Northern hills was blowing softly in the early part of the day. Perched at the foothill and opposite to the largest hospital of Gilgit, my house was offering a panoramic view of the entire city on the morning of 20th December, 2007. I abruptly headed to the dressing room and put on my school uniform comprised of one shirt and two blue sweaters weaved in woolen to avoid the bone-aching chill of Gilgit Baltistan.

  I set out to attend the first paper of my annual exams; normally proceed till the end of December sometimes even into the January. The driver whom we call ‘Chacha’ in Urdu, had already heated up the engine of vehicle which suffers the tenacious bane of freeze in winter season. We snaked out of our house and joined the train of traffic on main road leading to our college. The whole span of sky was camouflaged by the spread of dense clouds inhibiting the rays of sun to hit even an inch of ground. The grasslands along the margins of road were topped by the blanket of ice transformed from the dew.

It was around 8:30 am, bare thirty minutes for the exam to commence. I reclined on my seat and heaved a sigh of relief as if I were about to appear before the mighty court to prove my justified performance for the whole year. But suddenly, the sense of togetherness got disrupted by a hail of bullets ominously threatening to pierce our bodies. Chacha advertently steered the vehicle into a street avoiding the storm of bullets. We both fell into an abyss of sheer wonder. Apparently, it appeared a cinema movie where the villains were in search of hero and they sought me out on the face of road languishing for the safety of life. But, it was the terror-struck reality I met upon in less than one minute before.

    The front mirror had one hole, probably one bullet out of dozens reached enough in range to snatch the souls out of our bodies. Headlights were splintered into pieces while the green license number attached beneath the bumper split vertically into three unequal parts. We soon discovered that the front tiers got flat, while the most agonizing part of that discovery was the impetuous choice of the street that was dead-ended. Neither did the tiers have enough power to retreat back and sneak away from the explosives aimed at us nor did the street has even small corridor to let us flee on foot. I could see the face of death looming in my fear-fed eyes. Chacha once looked at me in a calm gesture to appease my nerves and put his arm around my shoulder as though only the Divine Intervention would bail us out. We were literally waiting for the goons, in mask to disguise their identities, to march up and fulfill their task. Every proceeding second was leaving an emotional scar deep in my heart.

   The earth-shattering event of 8th January 2005 triggered an epoch of bloodbath in Gilgit. A small gorge on the Northen part of Pakistan, it has been an epicenter of tourism for the time immemorial. On that tragic day of January, a religious leader of Shiites received several bullets on his chest and breathed his last on the spot. This assassination sent an emotional current deep into his followers who, in reciprocal, took to the streets with advanced riffles and guns. They picked on every traveler and lodged bullets into their bodies. Soon, the allegations were leveled against counterpart sect of sunnis. The frenzied circles of both sects ruthlessly gun down each other on that day. I could hear the thundering sounds of bullets striking against the walls of my house.

Rehan Khan

A house one street apart was burnt down to ashes with household toasted like the chicken roast. The motor cycles in an office adjacent to our backyard were dragged out and broken down into pieces. The road in no time offered a grim look stained by the blood. Thugs with black fabric put tightly around the face were meandering around the vicinity. Every vehicle was torched especially the ones with green plates registered as assets of government. Perhaps, the exclusive attack on me can partly be the stimulus of green license number attached with our vehicle. This event played a dynamic role in pitting both parties against each other and weakened the social fabric of Gilgit for good. After that tragic day, this city never witnessed a long period of peace and harmony. Episodes of killings would enfold repeatedly and scores of people have made an untimely journey of death. The event of 20th December was also the episode of that serial that initiated on the assassination of religious leader.

   It was 8:35 on the examination morning as I made an apparently last look at the wrist-watch. The slow ticking of needle was teaching me the precious value of every moment we live on this earth. Human being is an active agent who should feel for the existence of other creatures. No one is indispensible nor has the power to change the entire world from scratch, but this event taught me the role of single individual who can at least put his bit for the betterment. A bead of sweat ran on my face even on that frigid morning, raising the temperature of vehicle. A wafer-thin sliver was what between me and my death. We had no weapons; no aggressors not even a sharp tool to offer a slightest of resistance.  A bag at the rear seat, Mathematics book on the right hand and a pencil with blunt tip on the other hand, I was too young to imagine such a murderous attempt on me. Chacha broke out of dormancy and searched out for an iron rod which he thought would supposedly be enough to ward off the immediate second attempt but it was merely a reactive response meant only to satisfy himself.

  I looked at the mirror attached with the roof and saw two masked men marching stealthily towards us. It sent a dreadfully agonizing impulse down to the tail of my spine. They were inching close to us with bodies bent a bit on knees as if were to investigate whether we were developing a counter-reaction or were waiting for the death. Out of the blue, Heavenly Intervention lent us a generous support by sending one of his servants. A man emerged from a door on our left unnoticed by us and unleashed a barrage of shots at the thugs who relinquished in spur of the moment. In no time, we were asked by him to enter the door leading into his room. A new lease on life was given to me by this man.

A brave man and the sole brother of two sisters, Ikram had a broad chest with black eyes. Upon my jittery gestures, he snuggled me and smoothened my nerves. He was the postman of nearby post office. The incessant events of violence and massacre led him to keep lethal weapons in order to ward off the possibilities of any mishap. Still the danger was on, looming on the horizon. The thugs were still out there to claim soul out of my body. But, I was taken aback with surprise to be surrounded by a handsome number of youth in the same house to defend me against the clutches of death. I can’t measure the magnitude of euphoria in which I dared to last more distance on the landscape of worldly life. Soon the rangers, deployed at a nearby station, reached at the spot with a string of vehicles topped with red sirens. By then, the thugs had escaped up to the mountainous terrains and had taken refuge in rocky caverns. The situation got normalized and the entire region was cordoned off. Crowded by the heavily-built frames of rangers, I along with Chacha was put into a vehicle and dropped at my home. Ikram gave a bright look to me and bode farewell before my abrupt departure. My parents leapt to hug me like the swooping eagles. The emotional climate was resonating with the verses of gratefulness. The vibes of nature were profusely infused with the slickness of love. Soon, a tradition paved its way and for months our house was teeming with an ever-surging tide of relatives coming from far-reaches to mark their attendance for the sympathies.

I had an expanded circle of friends in my school times. Out-bounds, parties and hang-outs were very frequent. I was indifferent towards to the purpose of life. Seldom had I given a thought to the value of every breath we take in. I didn’t care to understand the role of human being in shaping the dynamics of this world. I was a 5.10 feet tall, heavily- framed and an ‘educated idiot’ with no inclination towards a contribution for the betterment of humankind on my part. I was living on a planet where everyone was too busy in partying and merrymaking. Social gatherings and festivals were aimed to spin a web of life that has no resemblance with the rest of the world. The misery involved in earning a single bread to traverse the terrain of life was beyond the shot of my eyes just like the sunlight to the owl.

That very event changed the course of my life. Those few moments of fear and agony taught me the importance of every minute step we take to create a change in our society. I had seen threatening face of death in my eyes. It made me know the amount of time one individual has on this earth to bring a change for better. No matter how much his in-put is insignificant in the oceanic stream of global service; his own bit is enough to justify his existence. Life is a debt that needs to be paid off.  I rigorously believe that the favor upon us by this world can only be returned through exploring the possibilities to serve the mankind in true spirit.

After the dramatic climax of that event, I underwent a moral, ethical and social change. A complete transformation from an ‘educated idiot’ to a responsible human being took place within my personality. The trajectory through which I was examining the happenings of life got revamped and took a course which enlightened me to heal the wounds of mankind. To put a hand of soothing effect on the shoulders of calamity-stricken victims is the mission of my life. I have taken a small step that soon will leap out of traditional boundaries and will echo in the corridors of powerful helms. I am just a piece of matter that will ultimately decompose into smaller pieces and perish in the vast of soil. But, a life that is lived to regenerate lively current in the life of anybody is worth-admiring and preserve-able in the pages of history.

Gilgit is still in grip of sectarian violence. Schools and colleges are closed on regular basis.  Even, the attack on me led the school administration to postpone exams for a week. Recently, Gilgit was once again turned into a hunting ground after a handful of people on way from Islamabad to Gilgit were stopped and gunned down. As a consequence, a spate of killings left more than two dozen dead in a couple of months. Business, especially the sector of tourism is suffering the most brunt of this curse. The influx of tourists amid the bloodshed has been pared to the bone. But, the austerity measures taken by the democratically- elected government and the gradual maturity of populace has lent strength to the muscles of social security.

Last time, I had a jaunt to Gilgit with some of my acquaintances. Nestled at the feet of gigantic mountains was the beautiful gorge of Gilgit profusely sprayed with fog in the morning. I gathered my courage to a considerable proportion and went to witness the spot of incidence. The entire episode of that shocking day once again became fresh in my mind which was propelled into the recessive corners of my memories.

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  1. A beautiful account of phrasing the memory, goodjob Rehan. The important lesson articulated here is the value of life Rehan has realized, and top of that re-aligning the rest of life for service to humanity is simply outclass.
    Many a person would have faced such aberrant situations/incidents, but extracting into constructive outcomes is rare, more specifically in this time of ours, where evrybody is educated of revenge as a religious duty.
    Like Rehan, every young man of the region and the country should come forward to understand the preciousness of life and its colours and Nature’s blessings, and to preserve and conserve it and use it for constructive purposes, no matter the destructive forces are more offensive and stronger, but are fewer than the you.

  2. Excellent poetic sketch of the bloody games….and the answer to this game is “Negotiating Pluralism” for which all segments of society need to contribute.

  3. An interesting account of facing death and the fear many people in this area have, Rehan.
    Thank you for your essay.

    What is needed is more education on the positives of Gilgit Baltistan and the responsibility of it’s people to educate their children about the universal cultures & religion in general, acceptance of others and how to develop this area in a positive productive manner without guns and hate.

    As Slimtiger keen observation, “where everybody is educated in revenge as a religious duty”…
    and as long as this is the belief, there will not be the education which is needed for change & productivity.

    Hate seems to have stronger control of the human emotions than love in these times. Over the world, we need to take a look of our own motives and intentions.
    When I was in GilgitBaltistan, what impressed me was the neighborly kindness and generosity. I wanted to visit again to experience this!
    Why is this being lost to hate?

    Pray for change and acceptance for whatever the religion or cultural belief may be. There are good people in all religions ,and hate should never be the focus.

    Thoughts are with you all.

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