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The Ghosts and the Darkness: Under the spreading apricot tree

Updated July 13, 2014

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Tarakai, the Black Mountains and the village Anghar, Photos by Umer Wazir
Tarakai, the Black Mountains and the village Anghar, Photos by Umer Wazir

Bubo’s memories are as beautiful and as haunting as her ancestral village of Anghar, which, tribal elders say, was once haunted and deserted. It is now a place of lush green fields, as if nature has rolled a carpet over the valley, broken only by the flowing waters of the River Tochi. Looming behind are the barren peaks of the black mountains, known as Tarakai in North Waziristan — where, legend has it, demons rule.

“My grandmother would warn us that no one should ever go to Tarakai. If humans trespassed, the demons of the mountains would in turn come down to the valleys in the guise of people and plunge us into darkness,” this old tribal woman narrates. Her son Umer Wazir, a known Pushto broadcaster with Mashaal Radio, remembers growing up with such stories.

“Just before sunset, we would sit under the trees in our family orchard eating apples, grapes and apricots. My mother, Bubo, and grandmother, Neo, would tell us stories, telling us that when darkness spreads, the demons on Tarakai whisper. Afraid, we would huddle close to them and go to sleep.”


In the blink of an eye, the legend of the ghosts and the darkness turns real in the village of Anghar, North Waziristan


But Bubo and other villagers had never imagined that these ghost stories would become real. “In the beginning there were only whispers amongst the women that guests have come from the mountains. When asked who and from where, I was told ‘from Tarakai after crossing the thick jungles of Shawal’,” she recalls. “I knew we should be worried then.” It was a bad omen.

Photos by Umer Wazir
Photos by Umer Wazir

From those very black mountains came Al Qaeda and long-haired Taliban militants, with a malign presence as dark as the night of Tarakai. The militants unleashed a reign of terror, executing tribesmen over the mere suspicion of spying, killing whoever was capable of dissent.

The militants grew older, more visible; their commanders driving speeding station wagons and Land Cruisers with tinted glasses. The Hilux twin cabs were usually driven by short-tempered Taliban, toting automatic weapons and with RPGs slung over their shoulders.


My grandmother would warn us that no one should ever go to Tarakai. If humans trespassed, the demons of the mountains would in turn come down to the valleys in the guise of people and plunge us into darkness


During those days, militants kidnapped a 16-year-old boy from Bubo’s family on suspicion of spying, a student of grade 8. When they released him after two weeks, his body was bruised, his skin blackened, one kidney had collapsed due to the ruthless torture he had been subjected to.

Photos by Umer Wazir
Photos by Umer Wazir

The stories ended; Bubo and the women from the neighbourhood would now sit silently in the orchard worrying about the safety of their male family members, especially the boys. “Sitting under the apricot tree, we shed tears and shared our pain. Much later, when my son took me to the psychiatrist in Peshawar, the doctor kept talking to me. She reminded me of my apricot tree,” Bubo recalls.

“When the shadows deepened, we (the women of the family) decided to send our sons away. Shedding tears in longing is better than crying over their dead bodies.” Bubo’s one son, Umer Wazir, was already in Bannu. He convinced the youngest, Javed, to try his luck in Dubai, but the eldest, Siddiq, was not willing to let go of his hardware and paint business in Miranshah.


In the beginning there were only whispers amongst the women that guests have come from the mountains. When asked who and from where, I was told ‘from Tarakai after crossing the thick jungles of Shawal’,” she recalls. “I knew we should be worried then.” It was a bad omen.


Demons claimed the land. From Miranshah to villages like Dandh Darpe Khel, they spread their shadowy tentacles on the stretch towards Ghlam Khan bordering Khost and Datta Khel towards the Shawal Mountain that overlooks Paktika province.

Around 5,000 foreign militants took refuge with the help of local militant commanders and clerics. Here, they found thousands of new recruits. They turned North Waziristan into what was considered to be the epicentre of global terrorism, shattering peace inside Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.

During daytime foreign militants, especially Uzbeks, would roam around in Miranshah market wearing shalwar kameez and local woolen caps, some of them even chewing naswar like tribesmen, visiting underground internet cafes especially built for them in the basement of the markets. They were usually armed with a Kalashnikov, a pistol, two hand grenades and carried a wireless set each. They had local sounding names like Abdur Rehman, Abu Sufiyan and Mohammad. The Arabs were usually called “Sheikhs.”

After sunset when men would return home, elderly women like Bubo asked them questions, while the younger ones stayed out of such discussions. But women already knew the inside stories of the houses where the guests had been hosted, and shared those amongst themselves. “The Uzbek and Tajik women were shameless; they roamed around inside their house in T-shirts and trousers, but outside they wore burqas. The women used laptops all day. I heard the women were fantastic engineers, worked with wires and electronics and probably made explosives.”

The foreign militants would not mingle with the tribesmen. They didn’t send their children to local schools instead taught them at homes. However, their children would play with local kids and talk in Pushto. The tales of terror, of beheadings and killings, of drone attacks and bombing … these terrified Bubo. She was increasingly concerned about the safety of her son Siddiq, who ran his business in Miranshah market.

Every morning for two years, Bubo would walk with him to Tochi River and stand there till he crossed. Every evening she waited for him on the riverbank to bring him back home. “Sorrows deadened my mother from inside and she was reduced to half her size,” says Umer. “When we forced our eldest brother to leave for Dubai then she said she was very happy to see her sons safely away but we knew how pained she was,” he says.

For Bubo, leaving her village Anghar was as necessary and as painful as her sons leaving her. “She told us: ‘give me 10 minutes to collect a few belongings,’ but when she came out she brought only a few apricot pits from our family orchard,” recalls her son, Umer. She looked back to the green fields and the Tarakai and wished the demons went back to the Black Mountains.

“I wish happiness returns and that I celebrate Eid with all my children in my village,” she says. “And I will never speak of the ghosts of the Black Mountains to my grandchildren, so that the stories never become real.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 13th, 2014