THINGS have changed drastically, both for better and for worse, for the hapless residents of the Tirah Valley since I last visited the picturesque Khyber Agency region bordering Afghanistan in July 1988, then as a tourist, and now on May 1 as a journalist.
Then, Lar Bagh Markaz, the central business and trading centre of Tirah, was thriving and had expanded in all directions. But now, most of the mud and cement structures in the market stand destroyed, thanks to the onslaught of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan back in 2013.
The TTP assault and plunder was ruthless and indiscriminate. Whether it was a commercial centre or a private house, almost every building — even imposing two- and three-storey structures with three-foot-thick mud walls — was razed to the ground with powerful explosives. They would then strip the remains of any valuables, timber and household items.
Yet 26-year-old Jalat Khan and his elder brother Qeemat Khan, who now work in a Middle Eastern country, are amongst the few lucky inhabitants of the Tirah Valley: their six-room, single-storey house, which is a mere two kilometres from the main bazaar, was spared by the fighters — although it was under TTP occupation for nearly six months. The two-kilometre road to the house from the main bazaar is part of the 38-kilometre metalled road which the government built last year as part of the development plan for the valley.
We, a group of eight journalists from Jamrud and Landi Kotal, were provided a one-night stay at Jalat Khan’s house; the valley has no hotels or guest houses to accommodate outsiders. This, despite the fact that it offers a lot in terms of tourism and sightseeing. Jalat Khan’s house is well-kept, with wood panelling on the walls (the timber is cut from the local forest under a quota system), an attached bathroom with a hot and cold water facility, and neat, clean beds — a rare luxury in this region. The six-room compound, with two rooms reserved for guests, is powered by solar panels.
A young cousin of Jalat Khan, Mohammed Bilal, offered to have our clothes pressed with a gas iron the next morning. “We learned a lot about the niceties of life during our time in Peshawar as temporarily displaced persons a few years back, soon after the TTP occupied the valley,” he explained. He runs an auto parts shop in Lar Bagh Markaz and is quite content with his business as the number of vehicles is increasing on the recently built road.
Education, health and unemployment are the main concerns of local residents, apart from the reconstruction of their damaged houses and marketplaces. One man said that he had to send his teenaged elder son to Peshawar to acquire a good education while working part-time with his uncle in a shop.
Smoking hashish as he talked, Sarwar Shah, another relative of Jalat Khan, told us about the poor standards of both health and education facilities in Tirah. He is also concerned about his overweight wife and wanted us to identify a specialist doctor in Peshawar to whom he could take her.
Shah and Bilal, both younger than Jalat Khan, are very fond of music and other sources of entertainment. “We arrange music, the rubab and the tabla, in our hujras (guest houses) whenever we feel physically tired and mentally exhausted,” Bilal said. He added that this was a welcome respite after the strict ban imposed by both the TTP and local religious groups prior to the army takeover of the valley.
Like most of the young men of the area, Shah keeps with him a mobile phone for the purpose of watching videos and listening to music. “We do not have mobile phone service in the entire Tirah valley but we have a number of mobile phone shops in the local bazaar, which are mostly used for entertainment purposes by local residents,” he said, exhaling a thick cloud of smoke in the small room in which we were staying.
The owner of a small piece of cultivable land in Lar Bagh, Shah is furious about the government not providing alternative sources of income when it barred him from cultivating poppy on his fields. Bilal, too, switched to the auto parts business after his family was told to restrict themselves to cultivating merely corn and vegetables on their farms — both less productive as compared to the money a poppy crop brings in.
“We are in dire need of rebuilding our damaged houses, but the government is yet to complete the damage assessment survey. Meanwhile, we are not allowed to grow poppy that could earn us some money for rebuilding and rehabilitation,” said a depressed Shah as he left to go to his own home late at night.
Although he himself is illiterate, he wants his children to go to school and be able to provide better health facilities to his family, especially his wife. Above all, he cherishes the elusive dream of a lasting peace being restored to the militancy-ravaged Tirah Valley.
Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2016