My hometown Hangu has become quite famous for sectarian violence over the past ten years. What apparently started as a Shi-Sunni conflict is now said to be a profitable war zone where dealers in weapons and war related stuff are making profits at the expense of the town’s peace and security. It is deplorable and shameful, and yet it continues! The culprits are still at large!
By pure chance, I always happened to be outside Hangu (and in Peshawar city, where I graduated and now am employed) whenever the conflicting groups attacked each other. This time, however, I saw what happened. More precisely, I myself heard it all. I went home on 20th March to spend 3 days there with my family. On 21st March, some members of the Shia sect were determined to celebrate the occasion of Nowruz (new year day of the Iranian calendar) in an open ground. Some anti-peace clerics of the Sunni sect had warned them not to do so. The town’s administration knew of the tension grown between the groups but was not taking any active step, apparently encouraging the conflict passively. And it did happen while I was visiting my uncle’s family at his house.
At around 10 o’clock, we heard a loud blast resonating from the northwestern side of the bow of hills surrounding Hangu. ‘It’s fighting again,’ said my aunt, ordering her children inside the verandah. I had just started doubting her assumption when a continuous exchange of firing and blasting filled the air and confirmed her interpretation. ‘Let’s hope it stops soon,’ I said, trying to console her, and thinking so this is how it sounds! The noise of reports and blasts continued. I called home and asked my brother (he works as a correspondent for a TV channel) about the matter. He confirmed the breaking out of the clash, telling me that some Sunni militants had targeted the Nowruz festival site. He also advised me to stay at my uncle’s house till the firing ceases. And so I did, trying to console my aunt and grandma.
After some 15 minutes, the noise of firing and blasting came to a brief end. I walked back home. Soon as I got there, it all started again. It was overcast and soon it started drizzling. The women of our house were not so afraid except my sister who happens to be faint hearted and cowered in a corner of her room, being consoled by my mother and my eldest aunt who was visiting us from Denmark. I kept reading Howard Wu’s Random Thoughts (in which my nonfiction story was published) in the veranda. Power had gone out as the power supply lines were hit by some projectiles at the main grid. While Shais (my younger brother and great friend) and I chatted in the verandah and did house chores, a loud blast reached our hearing. ‘It’s the petrol pump,’ said Shais. ‘Last time too, it was targeted but missed.’ The pump is some 350 meters away from our house and it was missed this time too.
News of firing, arson, and plunder were sent to my brother via cell phone and he gave us updates on the situation. The brunt of the clash was taking place in the southern side and the Shia settlements of Ganjano Kalay (literally the village of the balds) sufferd heavily with many houses burnt and looted by wicked militants. The drizzling continued and the beauty of the weather remained unaffected by the evil of bloody homo sapien instincts. The only human being in view who had no sense of what was happening was my two year old niece Ghazal who was scampering about the house and was constantly dragged back inside, quite against her will, in order to prevent any mishap resulting from some stray bullet. Phone calls from within and out of the town kept us hovering about the phone set. Everyone was concerned about the safety of his/her loved ones and my mother too was making plenty of calls to make sure all family/friends were safe. Happily, they were all safe and sound.
‘It’s not what I had imagined,’ I told Shais. He looked at me for explanation. ‘Well, I had imagined the blasting to be accompanied by ground shaking and window panes resonating, and things falling off the mantelpiece. But nothing of the sort is seen here.’ He told me that the fighting is rather mild compared to previous ones.’ Hmm, I thought, so I missing the real action. The military arrived in the evening when fighting was on its peak. We lit the candles to light the rooms and kitchen. The darkness of ignorance and violence continued outside well until 8 pm when exchange of firing and blasts finally stopped. A military curfew was enforced and has been so since then. The markets remain closed and people have to borrow things from those who have stocked necessities in their houses for the month or so. Our house had a good deal to go for several more days except flour and vegetables which we got from the nearby refuge camp. Power was resumed on Saturday and we were hoping for things to get back to normal by Monday.
On Monday, 24th March, I could not leave Hangu to get back to my office because of the military curfew. Roads were closed for general transport and no one was allowed to enter or leave the town along the main road. I spoke with my friend Iqbal who had told me he meant to leave for Peshawar in his car along with another friend in order to attend a training arranged by his employer organization. I decided to accompany them and hoped the curfew will be lifted by the next day. It wasn’t and going out to the road meant violating the military order, risking our safety. Whether it was boldness or stupidity, I decided to attempt getting out of Hangu since I could not indefinitely remain absent from my office and also because I was dying to get back to my writing work (something not possible without my office computer with the internet). So we started at about ten o’clock toward the road and reached there in a couple of minutes.
We hoped the military patrolling team won’t catch sight of us as we drove along the main road for about two minutes and getting to the alternative route that leads out of the town. Once on that route, we were safe. But it didn’t come off as we had anticipated. Just as our car turned along the short offshoot of the main road, a military pick up followed by a tank, came across us and ordered us to stop. ‘What are you guys doing?’ asked the soldiers, ‘don’t you comply by the curfew orders?’ Iqbal told them that we respected the orders but had to leave urgently in order to meet the requirement of our offices. They checked our bags and then ordered us to go back. Iqbal’s request to allow us to get to the alternative route was rejected and we had to drive back. However, instead of going home, we decided to try another longer route where military patrolling is rare business. This worked and we traveled for over 4 hours to reach Peshawar.
It was my first direct experience of war and my first violation of military curfew. There was risk in the whole experience but I really enjoyed the adventure. After all, adventures are risky and are enjoyed for that sake. However, I feel sad about the continued sectarian tension in my town. Last year, I could not join my family in grief, over my father’s death, due to the same reason and the blood money of war continues to hunt the peace of my townsfolk.
The above article was contributed by: Ernest Dempsey is the pen name of Karim Khan. A founding member of the World Audience Inc. (New York), Dempsey is the author of three books: The Biting Age, Islands of Illusion, and The Blue Fairy and Other Stories. He writes articles, professional book reviews, essays, and poetry. He is also an interviewer. Currently Dempsey is working on his fourth book.