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Earthly Matters: Who will save the Kalash?

August 07, 2016
Kalash of Bumburet Valley in Chitral mourning their slain shepherds -Photo provided by the writer
Kalash of Bumburet Valley in Chitral mourning their slain shepherds -Photo provided by the writer

Living in harmony with nature in three secluded valleys of the Hindu Kush mountains and celebrating the changing seasons according to their pre-Islamic religion for centuries, the ancient Kalash tribe of Chitral is under attack. This past week, armed militants from across the border in Afghanistan’s remote Nuristan province attacked shepherds in the high altitude pastures of the Kalash valleys — Bumburet, Birir and Rumbur — in three separate incidents.

In the first attack, which took place last week on a pasture in the Bumburet Valley, they stole around 400 animals and killed two of the Kalash shepherds who resisted the attacks. The militants had come for their goats and sheep, essential for the Kalash who survive on their milk, goat’s cheese and butter during the long winter months. Goats also play an important role in their festivals, which are a part of their unique culture and religion. It is estimated that the militants have stolen around 2,500 goats and sheep in such attacks.

In the second attack in Birir Valley’s pastures, the shepherds ran away and hid in a nearby village fearing for their lives, while the militants herded their livestock over the high mountains, back into Nuristan. The third and most recent attack in Rumbur Valley’s pastures was repulsed as around 260 Kalash men rushed up to the mountain to protect their livestock. Army action is expected to flush the militants out of the area, as they are said to be still hiding nearby.

“Our livestock can eventually be replaced but the two men who died have gone forever,” says a Kalash community leader from Rumbur Valley. “We have had to defend ourselves during the three attacks which occurred just when the Shandur Polo Festival was taking place in north Chitral and all the army and government officers were busy with the festivities.”


Climate change is clearly taking a toll on this unique community. Added to that is now the threat of militancy


It is the not the first time these attacks have occurred — three years ago, Taliban sneaked into the pasture-land of Bumburet valley, killed a shepherd from the Kalash community and took away a herd of 200 goats and sheep.

“This time we are terrified. The militants have told one of our Muslim neighbours, who was also in the pastures with his livestock, not to worry; ‘We won’t do anything to you, we are after the Kalash and we plan to kill them all in their villages.’” The most recent incident has created an unprecedented sense of insecurity amongst the local villagers.

The Kalash villagers, who now number around 4,000 people, live in the three narrow valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir in the towering mountains of south Chitral. Bumburet and Rumbur have been badly damaged by flash floods and glacial floods that poured down the steep mountainsides last summer when unprecedented rainfall hit Chitral.

The Kalash are animists in an Islamic state and have been threatened by the Taliban in the past. The people of this tribe are the last survivors of Kafiristan, who mostly converted to Islam in the 19th century. Their neighbours across the high mountain passes in the Afghan province of Nuristan are the Taliban who hold sway in many parts.

“If our livestock goes, our culture goes,” explained Akram Hussain, who heads the Kalash Cultural Centre in Bumburet Valley. The Kalash believe in a creator, ‘Dezau’ but also believe in various deities, semi-gods and spirits. Prayers are usually offered during their festivities and their elaborate rites demand the sacrifice of dozens of goats.

The Kalash also confront other problems as migrants move into their valleys. “Some of these migrants are brainwashing the Kalash people. There have been several conversions to Islam,” explained Hussain. “They are slowly taking over our lands but they should not be allowed to frequent our lands. The government really needs to help us.” He felt that the government and, in fact, the world was ignoring their plight. “Scientists all over the world spend so much money digging up old fossils and studying old cultures and here you have a living ancient culture that is struggling so hard to survive and the world is doing nothing about it.”

According to Unesco, Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Kalash tribe urgently need to be placed on its ‘Safeguard List’. However, this has to be done by the government of Pakistan itself. “They have to send the nomination to Unesco, explaining why the culture is so unique and special that it needs to go on a global list — we can only help with capacity building,” points out Vibeke Jensen, the Unesco country director in Pakistan. “There are international instruments for safeguarding these tribes.”

For now, however, it seems that the Kalash are on their own. During the long winter months their valleys will be cut off from the outside world by snow. At least the deep snow will be a deterrent to militant attacks. In September 2009, the last Greek volunteer Athanassios Lerounis, who was helping the Kalash build their traditional structures, was kidnapped by the Taliban. He was released only after eight months in captivity. No other Greek volunteer has come here since then. “That was a big blow to our community since he was doing good work for the Kalash,” says Shahida, a local Kalash woman from Bumburet. “The second blow was when one of our shepherds was brutally murdered on the border with Nuristan a few years ago.” The Pakistan Army had moved into the valleys in recent years to provide them with better security but the recent attacks are the third big blow to the Kalash and they are reeling from it. “Maybe we should just move from here — if another country will have us and give us protection. We can’t live like this in constant fear for our lives,” says the community leader.

Soldiers patrol the Kalash valleys and have set up many checkpoints where ID cards are checked. Military camps have sprung up in Bumburet and Rumbur in the last couple of years but still the attacks continue.

According to Syed Harir Shah, a Chitrali disaster management expert who runs an NGO called JAD Foundation: “Serious efforts must be made to develop a comprehensive and integrated security plan to protect the Kalash people. Influential conversion of Kalasha should immediately be stopped through legal coverage. Local people (Kalasha) must be recruited into the Pakistan Army, Chitral Scouts and Chitral Police and they should be posted in security posts within jurisdiction of Kalasha.”

He is also clear about other resources needed to protect Kalash culture within Pakistan. “Preaching by Tablighi Jamaat and other individuals should immediately be stopped. Urgent legislation for the protection of Kalash community should be passed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly, incorporating severe punishable criminal clauses for the forceful conversion of Kalash to another religion. All official positions in the Kalash area should be reserved for the Kalash community and additional security posts should be established within the three Kalash valleys.”

An army operation took place on Aug 2 and five militants were killed on the border with Nuristan.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 7th, 2016