Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The massacre the world ignored: Parachinar

by 'Ya Baqiyatullah'

Very few open crimes against humanity are as disregarded as the assault against Shia Muslims in Parachinar, an area west of Islamabad. Many European and American media outlets have completely ignored the onslaught against Shia civilians at the hands of the Taliban and Sunni extremist militants. Parachinar is a town of 20,000 individuals, with almost all being exclusively Shiites and belonging to the Turi and Bangash tribes.

Extremist Sunni tribesmen from the North Waziristan agency along with militants from the Arab countries and the Caucasus have been attacking the Shia civilians for he past two years. Hundreds if not thousands of Shias have already been killed, and the important supply routes are also controlled by the militants. The supply of food and medical equipment has been badly affected, consequently doctors have had to operate without anesthesia. Power and water supplies are sparse and subject to sabotage and lack of functionality.

Interview of a native of Parachinar by
'Ya Baqiyatullah'

YB: To begin with, can you please give a brief introduction about yourself?

SZ: My name is Sayed Zeeshan, I am currently residing in Islamabad but occasionally visit my village in the North West Province of Pakistan, where the conflict is going on. I have a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering and am currently working as a Research Engineer in a research organization in Islamabad.

YB: To understand the situation at hand in Parachinar one needs to look at the historical aspect of the situation to see the current situation, can you summarize for how this struggle began and what have been the major events of this struggle?

SZ: Indeed, the historical perspective to every conflict is very important. Instead of focusing on the conflict in Parachinar, I must deal with it as a problem which affects the whole area of North West Frontier Province including Parachinar, Hangu, Kohat, Orakzai and Dera Ismail Khan. Except for Dera Ismail Khan the other regions are loosely interconnected geographically. Prior to 1980s the Shia-Sunni conflict was muted if even existent. Orakzai was the only area where there are known instances of hostilities before 1980. In 1977, Army Chief Zia-ul-Haq overthrew democratically elected President, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in a coup d’état and later hanged him in 1979. USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the Afghan war started which lasted ten long years from 1979-1989. Being a Military dictator, Zia, sidelined the popular parties and backed Islamist Parties, which were rather unknown till then, prime among them were Jamat Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulama Islam (JUI). These parties were used to prepare militias for the Afghan war which primarily consisted of Islamist Jihadists. This war was funded by Arab oil money and the US. It was a part of the ongoing cold war between USSR and the US which US has vowed to win no matter what forces they had to support. With the coming of Saudi and Arab money a mushroom growth of Doebandi madrasas (religious seminaries) was witnessed in the North West and Baluchistan provinces in the areas adjoining Afghanistan.

At around the same time another group called Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) was emerging in South Punjab lead by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the ex- provincial vice chief of JUI. Their sole agenda was to declare the Shia population of Pakistan as non Muslim as was done to Ahmedis in 1974. With the emergence of SSP and LJ (Lashkar Jhangvi, a splinter group of SSP) a wave of Shia target killings began. Most of the operatives of these terrorist groups had directly/indirectly taken part in Afghan War and had very good working relations with other jihadist organizations that were active in Kashmir and Afghanistan. This all was ignored by the government and the security agencies (primarily ISI) because of the strategic partnership with the Jihadist Organization for their agendas in Kashmir and Afghanistan to gain “strategic depth”. These organizations were sectarian up to the hilt. Although only a few of them saw Shias as their prime enemies they all thought of Shias as antagonists up to a certain degree. In Hangu and Parachinar the war affected Afghans settled their throughout 80s and 90s. SSP and LJ started recruiting them and then used them to attack Shia targets. This is the backdrop in which this conflict started.

The important incidents were the attacks on Shia Turi tribesmen of Parachinar by the Afghans in 1986. Another significant incident was the tribal war that started in Hangu and Orakzai in 1998 after a clash over flag rising on the event of Nauroz (Spring Solstice celebrations). Taliban from Orakzai attacked Shia village of Shahu Khel and razed it to ground; killing scores of Shia men, women and children. Hundreds of families were dislocated and took refuge in neighboring Shia villages. Army intervened afterwards to calm the situation. Since 2005, when a suicide bomber attacked Ashura Procession in Hangu and managed to kill 40 people, every year the local Shia and Sunni tribes clash with each other using heavy weapons to target each others’ positions and at times civilian population. Usually it’s because of the intransigence of the radical local Sunni groups, inspired by SSP, that the Ashura processions are not allowed to be taken out.

External forces, like Taliban from the nearby areas like Douaba and Orakzai and some tribesmen from Parachinar also took part in this conflict. In fact, in 2008, the ceasefire was only enforced when the Army provided a safe passage to the external Taliban forces that were adamant to continue hostilities. In Kurram, the capital of which is Parachinar, gunmen attacked a Shia procession and killed several people. This kick started a series of events that gave rise to a full blown tribal war between Turi (Shia) tribesmen on one side and Bangash (Sunni) tribesmen on the other side, whom were also helped by the Taliban from Waziristan and Orakzai. The road links were closed for all kinds of traffic and a severe shortage of food and medicine started. This conflict was escalated by a particular gory incident. Army wanted to transport some foodstuff in trucks to Parachinar, which was blockaded for months, but Taliban attacked the convoy, the Army marooned the convoy and absconded; the truck drivers were taken by the Taliban. They executed them in a very brutal fashion, reminiscent of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, severing the heads and limbs of the victims in an animalistic fashion.

This exacerbated the situation still further and the Turi tribesmen went on offensive taking several of Bangash villages. It ensued in a deadlock situation and after several rounds of talks between the tribal elders of both sides in Islamabad a ceasefire agreement was reached in October, 2008. This fragile agreement is holding on by thin strings. There have been several killings and kidnappings after the agreement. The roads are open but people travel on these roads with throbbing hearts, waiting for something gory to happen. Shias from Parachinar and Hangu areas have also been killed in Dara Adam Khel, a lawless town connecting Kohat to Peshawar. People were stopped and based on the ID card information (name, residence etc.) decapitated. The situation is particularly difficult for Shias who are killed indiscriminately for the only reason of being Shia.

YB: Do you have an estimate for the population within the affected region?

SZ:The figures I am providing are rather crude and are used here to give an idea of the population. The population of Kohat is roughly about a million people. That of Orakzai and Parachinar will add another million to this figure.

YB: What is the demographic makeup in the North-West region of Pakistan, with particular emphasis on the sectarian composition of the population?

SZ: Quite a few villages in Kohat consist of a majority Shia population; they are mainly located between the districts of Kohat and Hangu and a few in Orakzai. Upper Kurram also consists of mainly Shia villages and the town of Parachinar is primarily Shia. There is a zone separating Kurram from Hangu populated by primarily Sunni population. Towards the south of Parachinar is the restive North Waziristan which is the stronghold of Taliban.

YB: How would you describe the nature of sectarian relations over the years?

SZ: There wasn’t any big conflict going on in this region prior to the Zia’s Jihad campaign. This question has been dealt with in detail in the answer to the second question.

YB: Militant terror groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba are said to operate in the region, and are blamed for the ongoing violence. Did these groups receive any support from regional and international players; would you care to kindly elaborate on the local and regional context of the developments within the region?

SZ: This question is a bit tricky and the information regarding the financial aspect of these organizations is a bit hazy. Although it is well known that the Arab oil money and the CIA money played a big role in arming and maintaining the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan but the sectarian phenomenon, which although intertwined with the global Jihad, is relatively recent. It is concurrent with the advent of Taliban in Afghanistan, which drew its force from Pakistani madrasas. Taliban were helped financially by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as asserted in the famous book Taliban by Ahmed Rashid. They were also helped by the drug money that came to Afghanistan through the poppy and heroin trade. Some of the groups like SPP and LJ were helped by local and Middle Eastern traders. After 9-11, Pakistan joined the war against terror but didn’t stop supporting the jihadist groups completely. Now this strategy has backfired and TTP, which consists of a plethora of Jihadist groups, sectarian or otherwise, has gained significant clout in regions bordering Afghanistan and several settled areas like Swat Valley. These groups operate by looting weapons from security forces and NATO convoys, getting money from local population and Middle Eastern traders under charity organizations and kidnapping wealthy people, especially Shia. Some of the money comes from Arab countries which they give to madrasas to export Salafism. It is asserted by some political analysts that some rouge elements of the ISI are still backing these groups but the validity of this claim is still unverified.

YB: Do they still receive support from these quarters? And what is the nature of this support?

SZ: They still receive support from these quarters. They mainly receive money from wealthy businessmen in Arab countries. Some of the money comes from drug trade and some from Arab countries that use this money to gain support for Salafism.

YB: Are there any Shia groups operating in the area to ensure safety of the Shia residents there and around that area?

SZ: There are several groups operating in the area but they usually have local roles. These groups aren’t very organized and lack command and control structure and therefore aren’t too much effective. Although, they successfully defend their areas in time of conflict and provide a buffer between the attackers and the civilian population, they still lack leadership. They consist of local people who have some knowhow of the warfare and are supported by small donations from the locals in form of defense funds.

YB: According to experts, the central policy of the former government in Pakistan was said to have unleashed a "violence-accommodation cycle". What is your assessment and do you think the present administration will treat these militant groups any differently?

SZ: This is a very old policy of cozying up to jihadists to achieve the ends in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Although a certain level of reversal of this policy has been witnessed in recent days but it’s too little too late. For instance, the radical madrasas which spread sectarian hatred are thriving with impunity. Maulvis have been given free hand to preach sectarianism from mosque pulpits. The target killings of Shias have risen exponentially since the arrival of the democratic government. All these factors indicate that there is no serious effort going on to eradicate these ills from the society.

YB: As we speak today, many towns in the Kurram Agency have been under virtual siege from early 2007 - a period of two years. Can you describe the humanitarian situation on the ground? Additionally, have humanitarian aid organizations, particularly international ones, played any significant role in dealing with the humanitarian situation?

SZ: Things are a bit better now since the ceasefire that came in effect in October, 2008. But this agreement is very fragile. It’s waiting like a time bomb to blast any day. It is because the root problem has not been addressed. The monster has been put under the carpet for now but it will raise its head again with much ferocity than previously witnessed. As for the international aid agencies, there has been no significant help. One reason is the closure of the transportation routes heading towards Parachinar from Pakistan but the routes from Afghanistan were open. International aid agencies were in a better position to help because of their presence in Afghanistan, but they chose to ignore this problem or weren’t well informed.

YB: What is the reason for the muted coverage of the crisis in the region by Western media outlets? Can anything be done to place the spotlight on the grave human costs and tales of sorrow from the region?

SZ: The local media covered this event somewhat, although insignificantly, without divulging any details about the sectarian aspect of this problem and made it look like a tribal war between warring factions. In fact this is the case with any sectarian event. The logic they give is that this issue is too sensitive to be discussed publicly. It would flare conflict in other parts of the country. This is the kind of apathy we are dealing with in Pakistan. As for the international media, the tribal areas are too remote and restive for the international journalists to operate. But that is not a good reason for them to ignore such significant events. There are other ways in which these events could be covered. BBC Urdu did cover the event in somewhat detail but it doesn’t have an international outreach.

YB: Any final words, particularly to the Shias situated in the West?

SZ: I would say that the apathy has gone for too long and if something significant is not done a massacre is in waiting. It has happened before in Mazar Sharif (Afghanistan) in 1998, it could happen in any of these areas again. Hundreds of people have been killed; scores of children died of lack of medicines and this conflict is far from over. The Western Shias should put pressure on the Government of Pakistan through demonstrations and lobbying and by writing to different news agencies, informing them of the scale of the atrocities. This is the least that anyone can do. They could also help by donating for the orphans of the conflict which number in hundreds if not thousands.
Commentary: I am deeply grateful to 'Ya Baqiyatullah' for offering this amazingly interesting and important information on my blog. Many topics touched upon here (the role of Pakistan, Sunni extremism, ISI, the Taliban, etc.) are, I believe of immense importance not only to the region, but to the entire world. As my readers already know, I strongly believe that the kind of extreme Sunni Islamism (Wahabism, Salafism, Deobandism, Qutbism, etc. - they all have a common root) which is now growing in influence in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and much of the Sunni Muslim world is a major threat to, literally, the entire planet. Likewise, I believe that the opposition that many feel to the 'imperial' policies of the elites which have now taken control of the USA should not obscure the fact that there are other, equally dangerous, foes out there, some even possibly harder to defeat than the "last superpower" (since the latter is well on its way to deafeat itself having become a de-facto Israeli colony and client state).

'Ya Baqiyatullah's' interview clearly shows that Sunni extremists make absolutely no difference between the infidel kafirs and their fellow Muslims if the latter dare to confess a different type of Islam. Nor will they make any distinction along ethnic lines: they will murder anyone, including their fellow Pakistanis, just like they murdered Daniel Perl or Russian conscripts in Chechnia: by slitting their throats and cutting off their heads. In their mind, just like in Dubya's, you are "either with us or against us" and if you choose the latter, well, then murdering you is a pious act.

From the many comments to my recent piece on Afghanistan (I thank you all for sharing them with us!!) I get a strong sense that many are still dubious about the reality of the threat presented by this type of Sunni Islamism. I will therefore try to regularly post articles here which describe some important feature of this phenomenon.

The Saker