Mustafa Qadri finds out for himself during a night patrol with members of an anti-Taliban militia in Pakistan that sometimes, it’s kill or be killed.
On the boundary between Pakistan-controlled Peshawar and insurgency-hit regions of the tribal areas, the global fight against the Taliban has turned former neighbours in this once sleepy rural setting into mortal enemies.
On March 9, a powerful human bomb exploded during a funeral procession outside Adezai, a village on the outskirts of Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s northwest frontier; 37 people were killed, and another 100 injured. The blast was so powerful that many of the victims couldn’t be identified. Sandals, shredded bits of clothing and some human remains were scattered around the blast site like confetti, making it impossible to provide a speedy burial for the victims in keeping with Muslim tradition.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the blast, there are strong suspicions that the Pakistani Taliban is involved. The target, after all, was the funeral of the wife of a senior anti-Taliban leader from Adezai. Adezai is literally the final settled outpost of Peshawar before the rugged, dusty terrain of Khyber Agency, the ancient gateway to Afghanistan that has played host to a myriad of conquerors from Alexander the Great to US and NATO forces. The famed Khyber Pass snakes across the landscape, and is the single largest supply route for troops in Afghanistan, including over 130,000 international troops.
Once a quiet little hamlet, Adezai now looks more like a medieval fortress, a veritable Alamo looking out on a sparse wilderness leading to tribal and semi-autonomous regions where control fluctuates between Pakistan and the Taliban. Dusty roads are lined with mud brick buildings, with only the occasional oasis of green fields dotting the landscape, surrounded by greyish-blue skies.
Entering this part of Pakistan requires discreet travel in the company of locals, a point made abundantly clear by the damaged buildings that line the road leading into Adezai. Two homes we passed on the edge of the village were blown up by the Taliban the previous night. Only a few months earlier, the village’s only girls’ school was destroyed by a suspected remote-controlled bomb.
As we enter the centre of the village, the powerful whirl of an Army helicopter blares out from above as it heads off on an anti-Taliban operation on the border with Afghanistan. Surrounding us are imposing mud walls that have clearly been peppered with machine gun fire.
A posse of local men, all armed to the teeth, are waiting to greet us. ‘I think that our village is a battlefield,’ says Irshad a tall, handsome young man with more than a passing resemblance to Errol Flynn. He says he left his job as a driver for a luxury hotel in Dubai to defend his home from the almost nightly raids that have seen scores kidnapped or killed. This is a rural society and most of those living here are farmers. But over the past three years, they’ve formed a militia, or lashkar, to defend Adezai against rival tribes in neighbouring Khyber tribal agency and Dera Dum Khel, which are aligned with the Taliban.
I ask what would happen if one of the residents of the village travelled to a neighbouring area, just ten minutes away by car. ‘They’ll kill us, it’s very simple,’ Irshad says. And if the men of Adezai capture one of their enemies? ‘We will kill them because they are our enemies, and the enemies of our country,’ he adds.
Local rivalries aside, it’s no exaggeration to say losing Adezai would result in an uptick in terrorism in Peshawar and the rest of Pakistan. ‘We feel we’ve saved Peshawar, because we are on the frontline,’ village chief Dilawar Khan says confidently as we survey the region from a tower looking out over the horizon. But he also tells me that Adezai receives little support from the Army or government authorities, and he has threatened to disband the lashkar if increased support – mostly money, fuel and ammunition – isn’t forthcoming.
This may have something to do with the fact that Adezai is aligned with the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid. Once the favoured political party of then-President Pervez Musharraf, the PML-Q is now in opposition, and Khan claims rival villages aligned with the Taliban are also getting support from local legislators. A smartly dressed, clean shaven man in his mid-forties, Dilawar answers my questions in between constant phone calls that are dispatched almost as quickly on a Bluetooth headset that seems surgically attached to his ear.
‘The Taliban fire rockets at us from those hills,’ he says, pointing out two mound-like hills that divide the farmlands of Adezai from the dusty plains of the tribal areas beyond. ‘If the village falls,’ an elder adds, ‘the Taliban would be free to infiltrate into urban Peshawar.’
That may sound outlandish, and perhaps the threat is exaggerated, but Adezai lays an easy 30-minute drive outside Peshawar. Although this year and last have both been relatively quiet in Pakistan’s frontier capital, it’s still surrounded by regions gripped by insurgency. According to police officials, the threat of suicide and remote-controlled bombs is an everyday concern in Peshawar, even during the cold season when hostilities traditionally ease off. Scores have died in Peshawar this winter in the sporadic attacks.
Here in Adezai, meanwhile, the security situation means that all the able-bodied men in the village must take turns patrolling the perimeter in the darkest, coldest hours of the night. Compounding the danger is the fact that their enemies are no strangers to them.
‘Yes, we know quite a few Taliban,’ says Hafiz Sajid Raza, a young Islamic scholar with a flowing henna-red beard and piercing blue eyes. Once a renowned local athlete, he’s one of Adezai’s best fighters. ‘Some of the Taliban came from our village, and I know most of the militants from neighbouring villages because I was involved in local elections and in sporting tournaments from before the fighting,’ he says. Some, like the feared Taliban commander Qari Ayub, used to teach in the local school.
‘People used to be very scared of the Taliban, that’s why they joined them,’ Hafiz Raza explains. I ask if he’s ever killed a Taliban. Yes, he answers casually, ‘the man who killed my father in Karachi, he was Taliban. After killing my father he called to tell me. He said “you must be very sad now because he’s dead.”’
In retaliation, Hafiz Raza and a few others from Adezai tracked down the brother of his father’s killer, who he says was also involved with the Taliban, to the neighbouring region of Bora. ‘I rang him (his father’s killer) to say I had captured his brother,’ he says. ‘I told him that if you are so brave and don’t fear death, come and rescue him.’
But the Taliban didn’t come to rescue their compatriot, so the men of Adezai shot him in the head. ‘We aren’t cruel, we didn’t mistreat or torture him, it was a quick death,’ Hafiz Raza tells me.
According to Pashtun tradition, a family must avenge the murder of their kin, a deadly obligation that has made it impossible for people here to escape the cycle of violence that sees endless skirmishes during the winter heat up along with the temperature into full blown warfare every summer. Judging from yesterday’s devastating suicide bombing targeting the people of Adezai, that could mean this will be a particularly bloody year.
Although Adezai technically isn’t part of the tribal areas, the ethnic Pashtuns here still adhere to the Pakhtunwali, an ancient tribal code that has governed relations within and between different tribes for centuries. The sudden US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the influx of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters into Pakistan’s tribal areas that followed it, may have disrupted much of the traditional Pashtun tribal structure. But in many ways, the current conflict is merely the latest in a long line of inter-tribe disputes that have engulfed foreign empires from the British to the Mughals, and now Pakistan.
As the call to prayer rings out at dusk, dark begins to fall on the village. In the hujra, something of a community safe house in the heart of Adezai village, young men gather to play cards and watch Bollywood films as they wait to begin their shift in the night patrols. Eventually, just after midnight, it’s my turn to go on patrol with Irshad, Hafiz Raza and a few other men.
Outside the hujra, a fine mist hovers close to the ground. The almost total silence is broken only by the rhythmic grinding of the gravelly earth under our sandals as we walk in single file, and the occasional piercing sound of distant gunfire. We trudge around the village through narrow streets and alleyways flanked by the mud boundary walls that separate the different family estates of Adezai.
We travel in almost total darkness so as not to give Taliban snipers an easy target, but the black of night presents problems of its own – at least for me, as I struggle to keep up with the lashkar. After each kilometre or so, we reach a clearing. The most exposed parts of Adezai, these areas are guarded all night by men who will later work the adjoining fields. ‘I’ll stand here until 5am,’ says Noor Malik. ‘Every night.’
After traversing the village and spending time with several night patrols, we return to the hujra in the early hours of the morning. The sun is slowly rising and another night draws to a close. Thankfully, this night has passed with few disruptions. But it’s only a matter of time before the fighting begins again. Two days after I left Adezai, the Taliban again bombed the girls’ school. Like the deadly bombing that killed and maimed so many that same month, it’s a reminder that for the people of Adezai, this conflict isn’t some vague, distant war, but an everyday struggle for survival.
Mustafa Qadri is a Pakistan-based journalist.