Abid Majeed Khawar
In the vanning days of summer of 2012 in Gilgit-Baltistan, where the onset of winter is more pronounced than rest of Pakistan, I somehow got some relief from the grueling job routine in the Capital and decided to hit Karakurm Highway (KKH) with every intention to participate in one of now-not-so-frequent family gatherings after the nerve-wrecking flight schedule of the national flag-carrier airline once again lived up to its dismal reputation. Those were the days when KKH had made it to national news bulletins for all the same wrong reasons that Quetta ironically finds itself in, nowadays. To make the undertaken journey a shade more painstaking and precarious, the highway-metal-strip was stripped to none as Chinamen were diligently expanding and overhauling the highway anew. Not to mention the hours long mid-way stoppages for vehicles to accumulate into convoys amid police surveillance on approaching the designated “no-go-areas”.
On our arrival at Kohistan’s district centre, the dusty town of Besham, that marks not only half a distance between Islamabad and Gilgit but also stands at a crossroad where the highway splits into two; through Kaghan valley and else the extension of KKH through Dassu valley, we found ourselves deep in conversation about which path to take! On both ways ahead, close to provincial border between Khyber-Pukhtunwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, there lie two dissolute roadside places, Hurban and Lolosur respectively. Barely couple of days earlier and few months in between, two strikingly similar incidents had turned these almost unheard and totally dissolute places alive with notoriety and terror. On both the occasions, passenger buses first in February at Hurban and latter in August at Lolosur, were deceitfully stopped by the camouflaged armed assailants who made the selected male passengers to dislodge after identifying them Shittes through their IDs and shot them in cold blood. Even those few, who earlier identified as Sunnis when protested, were not spared and hacked to death with similar impunity. Both the gruesome episodes lasted barely for 20 minutes and assailants vanished into thin air leaving behind only trail of blood and heart wrenching wails of dear ones.
Finally, with concensus, we decided to proceed through Dassu valley and eventually at the crack of dawn we entered Chilas, the first major enclave of Gilgit-Baltistan. While driving through the town, on the roadside, charred frames of passenger buses posed a gloomy look against the overall serene town milieu. The vehicle carcasses stood as stark reminders of the gruesome series of incidents when in April 2012, a grenade attack on a peaceful Sunni protest procession at the main square in Gilgit-city left several participants dead and many maimed. The rumor laden news on reaching Chilas, fueled the frenzy of hatred to the point that miscreants stopped the buses enroute to Gilgit, dislodged and shot many hapless passengers dead while putting buses on fire.
Close to noon when, in between the barren and lofty mountains, I got the first glimpse of Gilgit-city, the hometown I was born in and brought up. My early childhood reminiscence of this once serene city was when Gilgit was slowly recovering from the horrific days of 1988 which surely impaled the centuries old Shia-Sunni cohesion of belonging to the same racial stock and blood ties that ran through scores of generations but still the blended social fabric survived. Then there came the year of 1992, details of which I still vividly remember. On one fine afternoon, in the middle of our English lecture, my fifth grade teacher suddenly looked alarmed as string of gunshots erupted at the closer proximity of school and pandemonium ensued. We were told to lie down on the floor, so did our teacher. After couple of moments which seemed like eternity, the Army administered school started sending students to their homes in highly guarded school buses. Curfew was imposed, thus bringing the whole city at a standstill. However the killings of both Shittes and Sunnis continued unabated. Although normality slowly returned, but the city did not remain the same, thereafter. In the later years, Gilgit city underwent a major migration from within and without city till Shia and Sunni neighborhoods were demarcated and eventually became the most pronounced feature of the city.
Afresh from tiresome journey, in a fit of nostalgia, I decided to roam around the city. Accompanied by friends, I passed by the old city-square where an old and now dilapidated clock-monument was built to commemorate the region’s war of independence against ruthless Dogra Raj, but now stands a witness to many gruesome killings. Hardly couple meters away was the spot where a well-known and influential Shitte Scholar and religious leader was assassinated in a broad daylight, triggering a frenzy of killings hitherto never seen in Gilgit-city. Death squads held the whole city at sway. Scores of people were burned alive and shot to death on that fateful day.
The city, as it stands today, is bifurcated into two enclaves in accordance to Shitte and Sunni population density and this has also led to spliting of the local administrative, public amenity and social service offices on sectarian lines. The mutual suspicion, fear and hatred now hung strong between the two communities and any hope of rapprochement at least at this stage is a forlorn idea. This tragic and ironic tale is not merely associated with Gilgit anymore. Not to such extreme extent, may be, but every town, every single metropolitan city across Pakistan is now besieged by this tirade of sectarian terrorism. This looming large sectarian rift which once was strictly regional now flares to engulf the whole country.
It is very much probable that in between the lines, we may tend to trace which community shoulders the blame most and in doing so our respective sectarian affiliation may come into play or would certainly term the ongoing sectarian rift yet another extension to centuries old schism deeply imbedded in Islamic history. We may call it a grim replication of Iraqi or Syrian civil war or a part of nefarious American covert plan to disarray Pakistan from within and without. Some of us may have firm believe that fanatics alike– TTP, Laskar-e-Jangvi, Sipah-e-Muhammad, Tehreek-e-Jafferiya or Jash-e-Mohammad are nothing but pawns of Iran and Saudi Arabia to fight the proxy wars in Pakistan. In short, with every stretch of imagination, we seemingly believe on a hotchpotch of every plausible theory except to accept that we are in continuous state of denial, oblivious to see our own short-comings, our own Achilles heel where we are vulnerable most.
Time and again People of Pakistan in its short yet tumultuous history happened to find themselves on the cross roads when chaos and mayhem in the name of sectarian supremacy reign supreme. But at this crucial juncture, when hell broke loose over our tremendously strained social fabric owing to our reeling economy, rampant corruption that wrecks the governing mechanism apart, incompetent-to-the-core political leadership and not the least devious and unleashed intelligence agencies. Our ills are the consequence of our own failing to act what enormity of situation demands us to. Seeing the hopeless and never-to-learn political leadership it is down to every individual to reach-out for the fellow brethren who happen to have different set of belief yet shares the living and breathing space.