They did not rule out the possibility of the same group’s involvement in last year’s attacks targeting Shia passengers in Lulusar and Kohistan. Chilas is of course the capital of Diamer District and is a small town located on the left bank of the Indus River. The Karakoram Highway (KKH) passes right through it and there is a PTDC motel for travelers going onwards to Gilgit and Skardu. For me, it has always been a creepy place where women are nowhere to be seen and bearded men carry guns and stare at you with hostility – I always avoid stopping there while going by road to Gilgit or Hunza from Islamabad on the KKH. Last April, a crazed mob in Chilas town ended up lynching 9 Shia bus passengers traveling on the KKH. People from Chilas are inward looking and Wahabi-influenced – not at all progressive and tolerant like the predominantly Ismaili/Shia population of Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu. The towering mountains that ring Chilas are marked with huge SSP (Sipah-i-Sahaba) signs (although the organisation is now banned in Pakistan), and the main bazaar is named Muawiya Chowk. Need I say more?
For many years, the villagers of Chilas have prevented the government from building a larger airport with a longer runway on their relatively flat land (which would make it so much easier for tourists going to Gilgit and Hunza), for fear of an influx of outsiders to their area. The tiny airport at Chilas is currently closed for domestic flights and the town can only be reached through the KKH and also from the Kaghan valley passing over the Babusar Pass.
I have another reason for despising Chilas – last summer I decided to take the more scenic route over the Babusar Passon on my way back from Gilgit. The road over the Pass takes one into Naran in the Kaghan Valley and onwards to Mansehra and Islamabad. Our experienced driver, a Shia villager from Bagrote Valley near Gilgit, assured us it was a safe route – and would save us almost 2 hours in traveling time. What’s more, he told us it would be a drive we would always remember. His words proved prophetic indeed, for the day after we reached Islamabad, 19 Shia passengers were pulled out from three buses on the same route, and shot dead at around 7 am – the same time we were about to cross Babusar Pass 24 hours earlier. What should have been an amazing memory is forever tainted by the thought of those innocent men killed for merely having a different set of religious beliefs.
I clearly remember seeing villagers in small passenger buses crossing over the Babusar Top early in the morning. Most of them were half asleep as they got jostled around on the bumpy road. They were mountain men who worked in Rawalpindi or Islamabad in homes and offices and were heading back to their villages in Gilgit and Astore for the Eid holidays. After spending the night in Naran, they must have set out for Babusar Top in convoys of two or three buses in the early morning. Ironically, they had chosen this route not because it is more scenic, but because they thought it would be safer. After all, on February 28 last year, around 20 Shias were pulled out of buses at a place called Harban Nala in Kohistan, while traveling on the KKH en route to Gilgit, and killed. After this incident, the transporters began diverting their passenger vehicles away from the KKH to the Babusar road as they felt this route was more secure (bypassing both Kohistan and Chilas town).
The Mansehra-Naran-Babusar road is open during the summers and mostly closed in winters due to heavy snowfall. The buses we encountered on the road were all driven in convoys to keep safe. Even the buses we had seen earlier on the KKH before reaching Chilas were traveling in convoys escorted by armed Rangers. Yet, somehow, we had felt safe on our own, lulled by the expertise and talkativeness of our driver who cheerfully pointed out all landmarks and sights on the way. “Here on the left is the Nanga Parbat mountain – see that narrow road? It leads to Astore,” he had pointed out as we headed towards Raikot Bridge, which leads to Fairy Meadows and base camp Nanga Parbat.
Just before Chilas town we took the dirt road up to the Babusar Pass. Our mobile phones soon stopped working as we snaked up to the pass on the rough road. There were a few scattered villages with little children in rags playing on the roadside. This was unlike the rest of Gilgit-Baltistan, where school children are usually seen in smart school uniforms, often walking on the road with their satchels full of books. We were still on the Chilas side of the mountain pass and I was feeling anxious because the few grown ups we saw on the road did not look very friendly – they were weather-beaten shepherds, and some were carrying guns.