Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The village where no children play

it is said that unlike your typical village in Pakistan, a visit to Shah Hassan Khel is conspicuous for the absence of children playing. Writer Yusaf Khan explains why.. -ed note.

This is the story of Shah Hassan Khel, a small village of 500 families in the Lakki Marwat district of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa. Prior to the 1st January 2010 I doubt if even the paper-pushing bureaucrats of the provincial capital, Peshawar, would have known about its existence. On that dreadful New Year’s day in 2010, this tiny village was pulled from obscurity and put on the global map when the Pakistani Taliban detonated an explosive laden pickup in the midst of a local volleyball tournament killing 128, mostly young boys, including the entire volleyball team, wounding equal numbers and demolishing the nearby huts.

The story goes something like this: The area used to have considerable Taliban presence and support--mostly initiated and run by a local cleric by the name of Maulvi Ashraf Ali. While the residents of the village initially supported the so called “rule of sharia” they realized that Ali was effectively running a kidnapping for ransom and stolen vehicle venture with considerable help from Baituallah Masud, the then Taliban chief from the adjacent South Waziristan tribal agency. With the help of the Pakistan Army, the people of the village formed an 'aman lashkar' (resident defence force) against the Taliban and were successful in ousting them from the village, with Maulvi Ashraf Ali escaping injured on a donkey cart. With the village “cleared” of the Taliban the Lashkar organized further village defences and even managed to install an FC/Police presence on the main road leading to the village. The Taliban, smarting from their losses, vowed revenge and continuously sent threatening messages to the Lashkar leaders, which were also relayed to the Pakistani military authorities.

On that fateful day, the leaders of the lashkar had organized a volleyball tournament to which most of the kids of the village had gathered to watch while they themselves were meeting in a local mosque adjacent to the volleyball ground. The Taliban, with the help of Maulvi Ashraf Ali, had managed to brainwash a local 14 year old kid named Obaidullah into becoming a fidayeen suicide bomber and was given the mission of annihilating the Lashkar and taking revenge. Obaidullah, brainwashed and drugged up, was given the keys to a pickup loaded with 600 pounds of explosives. He drove the vehicle towards Shah Hassan Khel, was waved through by the police picket outside the village and entered the village in the direction of the volleyball field. More than 400 kids were present at the volleyball field when Obaidullah drove his truck onto the volley ball field, exploding it and creating a calamity. He even managed to kill his own half-brother who was one of the spectators of the tournament. This massacre absolutely devastated the village as it is a very close-knit community. Generally even when a person dies a natural death no one in the village plays any music for three days so this devastation was more akin to a natural calamity. The fact that the person who triggered the explosives was one of their own hit the people that much harder.

The suicide bombing of Shah Hassan Khel affected me personally because I am from a village just 20 minutes drive away. I have fond childhood memories of that area and find it unbelievable that such peaceful and simple people would find themselves in the midst of such a brutal war. How could people from such a historically cohesive community turn against their own so brutally? It may be easy to lay blame on others but introspection is most necessary. How has the culture changed to allow this behaviour to take root and manifest itself so devastatingly and regularly? What are we doing wrong? Instead of focusing on these critical factors and guiding the community out of its downward spiral, such stories are glossed over either by conspiracy theorists or lack of critical analysis even on the part of those who understand that the perpetrators are not alien.

The story of Shah Hassan Khel was duly forgotten after a few weeks with only a small snippet appearing in a local newspaper stating that Taliban commander Ashraf Ali (who seemed to have progressed from a mere Maulvi to a commander) was killed by assailants and his body buried near Miramshah. But his death has brought no peace to the people of Shah Hassan Khel.

Their lives will never be the same again, their lives have changed forever. Kids have stopped playing volleyball, girls have stopped going to school and people who could leave have left. This is basically a microcosm of what is happening as a whole to my province of Khyber Pukhtunwa. This brutal and senseless war has changed my beloved province forever.

-Today is the third anniversary of the attack on Shah Hassan Khel. Like so many attacks in the region its story is now a footnote in history. The writer tweets under @yusaf_khan, video link courtesy Khalid Munir
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