The follwing piece appears on ABC’s Unleashed website today:
Who would do such a thing?
On Saturday 20 September twin suicide attacks turned a luxury hotel in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad into a desolate, black hulk liable to collapse at any moment. A giant crater, measuring around 20 feet deep and 40 feet across, replaced what once was an entrance lined with cars and fences.
Sixty to seventy people are believed to have been killed and many hundreds more injured, mostly Pakistanis – drivers, security guards, attendants, and many others gathering to break the day’s Ramadan fast. The blast also claimed the lives of at least five foreigners, including the Czech Ambassador and two US Defence Department workers.
An immediate question asked by many among the suburbs and cities of Pakistan and the world is how anyone could ever commit such an atrocity, let alone conceive of it.
The villagers of Pakistan’s Dir Agency, between the conflict-ridden tribal agencies of Bajaur and Swat, may have the answer to that.
“We were ordered to fire 130 kg mortars on unarmed civilians… I don’t know how many civilians I might have killed. It is still happening now,” says 22 year old Dir villager Farooq as he recalls his days fighting the Taliban in Swat with the Pakistan Army. “They are killing men, women, children, everyone.”
“I said, enough, I won’t kill anymore.”
Farooq has returned to the family farm, but he is effectively unemployed. He was visibly shaken as he recounted his experiences.
According to Farooq and others interviewed in Dir Agency, the Pakistan Army deliberately uses predominantly Shia soldiers against the Taliban and civilians in Swat, both of whom are Sunni, to stoke sectarian conflict. The Shia soldiers come from Khurram Agency, another tribal area which is itself experiencing sectarian clashes between Shia and Sunni communities.
“Of course, such allegations are false. It doesn’t matter whether our troops are Shia or not we do not target civilians,” says Pakistan Army spokesperson Lt-Col. Baseer Haider at the Pakistan Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Whether or not the allegations are true there is now a strong anti-Shia sentiment in the region, even in areas like Dir where there is no Shia population. The streets in the village of Butkhela, for instance, are littered with graffiti declaring the apostasy of the Shia.
“When Shia die in Khurram [in tribal clashes] or Swat [when fighting with the Pakistan Army] we celebrate,” says Kashif, another Dir resident, “they are not our brothers.”
It is difficult to know who is friend or foe in the conflicts now engulfing Pakistan’s tribal border regions with Afghanistan.
The uncertainty has left ordinary people wary of all the antagonists from the Taliban and the Pakistan Army to local militias and bandits. Yet it may surprise outsiders to know that most of the local antipathy is reserved for the Pakistan Army because it has been implicated in several atrocities involving civilians.
In the town of Timagara, at the foothills of the mountainous region of Bajaur, people live in basic camps without electricity or running water and limited access to food. At displaced person camps such as this people recount shocking stories of wanton targeting of civilians by the Pakistan Army.
“On the second day of Ramadan [3 September] the bombardment started again,” recalls Haji Mohammad Noor Khan, a community elder from the Waremond district of Bajaur.
At the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan, on 2 September, Pakistan Adviser on Interior Rehman Malik announced a ceasefire of hostilities between the Army and militants. Bajauri civilians fleeing the conflict, around 300,000 according to the Red Cross and the Pakistan Government, were told it was safe to return to their homes.
But many who decided to take the journey back to their villages found themselves the target of Pakistan Army mortars and helicopter gunships.
“It was very clear. They would bomb the civilians [and] not the suspected Taliban hideouts. The Taliban have [clearly identifiable] utility vehicles, yet the Army always targets our civilian buses. They cut our electricity but not the Taliban’s… actually I think they are afraid of [attacking] them,” said Misael Khan, another village elder.
“The bombardment left huge craters, each around 20 feet wide. People talk about [the violence in] Afghanistan and India, but what about us? We are being targeted like foreign invaders. We fear the Taliban too [but] not even they target civilians in this way,” said another man in the camp who refused to be identified.
In Timagara the displaced villagers may be safe, but life remains difficult. People are forced to live outside empty rooms that remain locked because the Pakistan Government insists that it is safe for them to return home. The conditions are so poor that, despite their poverty, many have now left the camp in search of a new life in other parts of Pakistan.
“Our people have fought and died for Pakistan in all of its wars. But not anymore,” decries Noor Khan. “If ever there is another war with India, don’t expect us to fight.”
The Marriott bombers may have mostly killed fellow Muslims in Islamabad last Saturday, but for many fleeing the violence in Swat and Bajaur, that makes them no worse than the Pakistan Army.
The only experience of foreigners in these remote areas, likewise, comes from reports of civilian casualties following US and NATO strikes on their fellow Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It’s then no wonder that the Taliban and Al Qaeda manage to recruit people to commit more suicide attacks on their own countrymen and women?
Some of the names in this report have been changed to protect their identity.