On June 23, 2017, while the rest of Pakistan was observing Jummatul Wida, the last Friday of the holy month of Ramazan, the town of Parachinar in Kurram Agency was rocked by twin bombings. The attack claimed 72 lives and injured nearly 250.
I did not have many links with Parachinar but for two friends whom I called to offer condolences. I had met these young gentlemen during the Lal Masjid protests in December 2014 soon after the carnage at Army Public School in Peshawar. After June 23, I finally understood why the youth of Parachinar dared to stand with a complete stranger to them against one of the most notorious terrorists of Pakistan.
Parachinar has battled through years of violence. Kurram Agency is situated on the north western border of Pakistan surrounded by four provinces of Afghanistan and hence has served as a strategic route. It was refusal by the local Shia tribes of Parachinar to give access to the Taliban to Afghanistan that resulted in an onslaught which lasted four years claiming thousands of lives. The offensive included blockades cutting access of Parachinar to the rest of Pakistan and with it ended all medical and food supplies.
Unlike the Shias, the Sunni locals were presented with two options: either to join the Taliban or to leave the city. It is no surprise that today a significant portion of the local economy is remittance by thousands of its youth who took asylum abroad during this time. The trauma of violence and broken families is unimaginable. And yet, the majority of Pakistan till this date know very little of the sacrifices made by the citizens of Parachinar for Pakistan by refusing to let their city become a Taliban stronghold.
It wasn’t the attack of the enemy that surprised us; it was the silence of our fellow citizens
Being situated in Fata, Parachinar is ruled by the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). Its citizens have been given a national identity card by the government of Pakistan but the government does not guarantee any fundamental human rights accorded to the rest of the citizenry under the 1973 Constitution. And with no rights, there is almost no accountability of government functionaries either.
The Friday attack was the third terror attack in six months in Parachinar city and the second after the visit of the army chief in January. Naturally frustrated with failing security apparatus, citizens attempted to the protest outside the office of the political agent, who under the FCR, is for all purposes a de facto ruler. Elsewhere in Pakistan, the government as an extreme measure tends to resort to water cannons to disperse a protesting crowd but here, the FC opened fire at them. As many as 16 citizens were injured while another three succumbed to their injuries. Accordingly to locals, the FC opened fire on order of its commandant, Col. Umer Malik, who has been transferred since — this was the third such incident of the FC firing directly at protesters under Malik’s orders.
As a response, the youth of Parachinar without adopting the banner of any local political or religious organisation, started a peaceful sit-in outside the office of the political agent. The sit-in was headed by Agha Muzammil Hussain, a 33-year-old who had spent the evening and night of the blast washing bodies of the dead for burial. He had performed this ritual after the previous terror attacks as well.
One would expect this incident to be the breaking news of the hour if not the day on Pakistan’s ever-competitive news media with reporters rushing to the site. That didn’t happen. And as is usually the case, if something is not making news on television, the government is also least likely to bother about it. No one expected the prime minister to take notice of the firing by FC personnel because not only was he in London at the time but he didn’t even bother offering condolences to the blast victims until he was specifically questioned about it by a reporter.
However, the same prime minister, government machinery and the media had a very different reaction to the oil tanker tragedy in Ahmadpur Sharqia. The citizens of Parachinar, meanwhile, were watching in helplessness as they were forced to question their status and worth as citizens of Pakistan. But the injustice did not stop here. Self-styled defence analysts and pro-military social media accounts annoyed by the protesters’ demand for action against the FC commandant started a heinous trend of calling protesters in Parachinar working on a sectarian agenda being anti-Pakistan and anti-Army supported by foreign funding and calls for military action against them.
As I tweeted and posted pictures of the protest along with demands of the protesters, I had to repeatedly highlight the Pakistani flags and the Pakistan Zindabad slogans being raised in Parachinar to counter the nefarious propaganda against the protest. I am not from Parachinar but I still cannot explain the humiliation I felt having to prove the patriotism of my fellow citizens who have already sacrificed much more than I can ever imagine.
I observed this sitting in the southern coastal city of Karachi thinking to myself, what makes our country vulnerable? What reduces the meaning of nationhood? What caused our disintegration in 1971? Is it the conspiracies, invasions and interference by foreign elements or is the apathy, ignorance and barbarity of your fellow citizens?
And as I began to find answers to these questions, it was clear to me that I had to be in Parachinar regardless of the odds. The distance or security was a not a concern. At a time when I was struggling with life concerns standing outside the Lal Masjid, it was the youth of Parachinar that stood besides me without any links or relations, strengthening me, supporting me and helping me brave through for the cause. In the words of one of them, they did so because they could empathise with my vulnerability and the challenges I faced.
Unlike sympathy, empathy empowers you. I am not a Shia Muslim but for the past four years have been considered one by majority of my critics due to my activism against sectarianism. The same has resulted in my being subjected to the same hate speech, derogation, intolerance, bigotry and life threats and also at the same time made me realise the privilege I have enjoyed belonging to a Sunni family in Pakistan.
It is easier to say for those who do not suffer discrimination that we are one nation and there are no differences because ignorance is actually bliss. I still remember the night in January, 2013, when my mother panicked as I left the house to attend a sit in outside Bilawal House against Hazara killings in Quetta. She was less worried about me going to the protest; she feared for her son’s life since he had chosen to wear a black shalwar qameez and may be identified as a Shia going in and coming out of the protest site by any potential attacker.
In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr famously observed: “One of the shameful tragedies of our nation is that 11’o clock on a Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours of Christian America.” For Muslim Pakistan, it is 1.30 pm on a Friday afternoon. It is not because Sunnis and Shias go to different mosques. It is because they are made to exercise their fundamental right to profess religion in extremely different circumstances.
As someone belonging to a Sunni family, I can stroll into Baitul Salaam Mosque situated in DHA Phase 4, Karachi, without any security protocols but Yasrib Imambargah, situated on the very same road, wears the look of a warzone with multiple layers of security checks.
On the journey to Parachinar I was accompanied by my colleague Dr Talha Rehman, who was going there to carry out a basic medical need assessment, journalist Mahim Maher who was equally appalled by the lack of coverage of the tragedy, and fellow activist Meena.
I have attended and organised numerous sit-in protests in the last four years but have never observed such a show of discipline and resolve. The organising committee of the protest comprising of young men in their late-20s and early-30s was blessed with complete trust by citizens of the city. Throughout the eight days of the protest, shops were closed voluntarily and not through the use of force.
Citizens themselves prepared meals for participants and distributed them during lunch hour at the protest site. Men and women both came forward to make donations to ensure that the protest continues uninterrupted. Youth of the city volunteered to stand unarmed in lines creating several layers of security checks on the streets leading to the protests. Not a single word against the country or its security forces was uttered from the stage.
As religious leaders from the Shia sect travelled from all corners of Pakistan to reach Parachinar, it was saddening to see that no prominent Sunni cleric had arrived to show solidarity. It again made me question the concept of sectarianism: is it aided more through sect-based attacks or is it due to our lack of concern for the victims based on their sects?
However, as far the local population was concerned, the protest not only compromised of local Shias, but local Sunnis, Hindus and Christians also joined in. It became a collective quest for the security of Parachinar. All anxieties, frustrations, insecurities and fears were quelled with the thunderous chants of “Labbaik Ya Hussain!” which united all participants and blessed them with patience. Moments turned into hours, hours became days, but no national leader bothered to turn up in Parachinar to express solidarity.
My task was simple. Echo these voices online to ensure they reach the powers of corridors and newsrooms. The only tool I had was social media and the job was made difficult with absence of any mobile internet in the city. The locals arranged for me to stay at a house with internet access through a PTCL landline. As I tweeted and posted pictures of the protest along with demands of the protesters, I had to repeatedly highlight the Pakistani flags and the Pakistan Zindabad slogans being raised in Parachinar to counter the nefarious propaganda against the protest. I am not from Parachinar but I still cannot explain the humiliation I felt having to prove the patriotism of my fellow citizens who have already sacrificed much more than I can ever imagine to for Pakistan.
Finally on the eighth day, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Bajwa arrived and with him came the media glare. It made me ponder what a strange nation we have become. We leave a city or a group vulnerable to attacks, let them be hunted and killed, then we demand them to show character, resolve, patience and discipline and to keep their spirits high for at least a week, so we can ultimately bother to tend to their wounds. Salute to Parachinar that it quietly met the rest of Pakistan’s expectations and did not even complain about it to our leaders.
The COAS concluded successful negotiations with the protesters agreeing principally to their demands for a better security plan. The media which chose neither to cover the plight of the blast victims nor the protests at least follows up on the implementation of the security plan. For those believing that claims of FC firing at protesters was a false propaganda, should know that the FC after the army chief’s visit compensated those it killed and injured.
My friends in Parachinar kept on saying during my stay that they wished that I had accepted an earlier invitation and visited the city at a more peaceful time so that I would have been able to enjoy its hospitality. But it is hard for me to explain the love, warmth and hospitality I experienced in those three days, especially at a time when the city was engulfed in grief and sorrow. I am glad I have several friends from that part of Pakistan now.
The writer is a social activist.
He tweets @MJibranNasir
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 23rd, 2017