A DAY before the Thall-Parachinar road reopened, I was at the Peshawar Airport along with other passengers climbing aboard an eight-seater Cessna belonging to a private flying club, with what appeared to be a trainee pilot at the controls.
As the aircraft took off, I looked around to inspect the passengers. It did not appear that all of them could have easily afforded what is probably the most expensive commuter service in the country. I learnt later that the small fleet of four aircraft, which regularly travel between Peshawar and Parachinar, was utilised out of acute necessity.
To understand the few travelling options in this part of the country, one has to go back to late 2007 when sectarian Sunni-Shia rivalry in Kurram Agency spun out of control leading to the closure of the main Thall-Parachinar road. Resultantly, insecurity severed physical communication between upper Kurram and the rest of the country. Ever since then, the half-a-million people of Parachinar have lived in isolation, using irregular routes to travel down country. Despite the recent peace deal between the rival tribes (predominantly Bangash and Turi), there is still an environment of fear, and many people remain reluctant to travel on the road.
Initially, the Paktia-Gardez-Kabul-Torkham route was used to enter Pakistan via Afghanistan. It was a difficult and costly option. Normally, the 250km distance between Peshawar and Parachinar takes less than four hours. However, because of the violence, in which the Taliban — both Afghan and Pakistani — had a big hand, people found themselves having to travel via Afghanistan, the journey taking some 18 hours. Over a period of time, this route has also become increasingly insecure. More than 40 people have been killed so far on this route in different terror-related incidents.
In a bid to break the isolation, some well-off people from Parachinar introduced a jet service in 2008. Later, three more aircraft were added to make up the small fleet that carries passengers between upper Kurram and Peshawar. Under normal circumstances, one-way travel is Rs9,200 per person and at least 14 two-way flights, halted during bad weather, are undertaken daily. However, airfares and flight operations also depend on the situation on the ground. Some passengers say that airfares can reach Rs50,000 per person if all other land routes are closed.
In late 2008, Kurram’s Shia and Sunni tribes inked the Murree pact, following which the Thall-Parachinar road was reopened for traffic. Rival tribesmen exchanged visits and garlanded one another. This pleasant development brought down the number of passengers taking advantage of the air service. However, barely a month had passed when a bloody incident dashed hopes for durable peace. Two brothers travelling from Parachinar to Peshawar were killed and their relatives kidnapped when their vehicle came under attack. This deadly blow rendered the Murree accord ineffective and the key road was closed again.
The uncertainty on the ground boosted air travel, but within a month the road’s blockade was removed. This time the security forces took control of the land route. They were tasked with providing security to private convoys, usually transporting goods — and were authorised to charge Rs500-1,000 per traveller who generally had no recourse other than to travel on military vehicles. Yet, this could not keep criminal and militant elements away. In February 2010, a suicide attack on a private convoy killed 15 civilians. Kidnapping incidents in the agency also increased.
Such hurdles have created huge difficulties for civilians. Exorbitant fares at a time of inflation have increased economic woes in upper Kurram. In 2007, those journeying by road paid Rs200 to travel between Parachinar and Peshawar. After November 2007, Rs1,500 was charged for the same distance.
Protests were the natural outcome of this frustration. In August 2011, a convoy was delayed for many days due to militants’ threat. It prompted hundreds of students — who were returning to their respective educational institutes after Eid holidays — to create a law-and-order situation. Security forces were called in to control the protest and, subsequently, special convoys were arranged to transport students down country.
In such an atmosphere, the jet service appeared effective and the only alternative despite its hefty fares and the absence of proper ticketing facilities at Parachinar airport and a case of crash landing. PIA started flights to Parachinar in 1989, but these were closed in the early part of 2000. At one point, the political agent was informed about a plot to shoot down the aircraft.
Considering the situation there is a need to ensure safe, affordable air travel and to restart a regular PIA service for Kurram Agency, even as the state strives to secure road travel services for the citizens of Parachinar.
There was general relief recently when the Kurram peace jirga — representing 50 members each from the Sunni and Shia communities —apparently settled misgivings regarding the Murree accord. The Thall-Parachinar road has now been reopened with troops manning military check posts keeping an eye on the area while the resolution of other thorny issues like displacement and rehabilitation is supposed to be settled shortly.
What has also been a welcome development is that, unlike the past, this time the militants were not part of the consultations that led to the patch-up between the tribes. While this is no doubt a positive sign, the question that still looms is whether peace can indeed be given a chance without defanging the third party — the Taliban — which appears to be the most powerful stakeholder in the Kurram Agency conflict.
The writer teaches at Peshawar University.