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In aid of Gilgit-Baltistan

August 23, 2012


ALL through the Eid holidays, my mind has been on the Northern Areas.

The brutal sectarian murder that took place near Babuser Pass may not sound like much of an economic story to most people, but it is of such universal importance that it would be naïve to think that economic matters are divorced from the steady descent of our country into a boiling cauldron of primitive hatreds.

However, the human tragedy that the killings represent is the first order of priority to highlight. There are only two overland linkages that the erstwhile Northern Areas have with the rest of Pakistan, and both of them have seen brutal sectarian murders.

The eyewitness accounts are chilling, where passengers are offloaded from buses, their papers examined, and Shias separated from Sunnis.

Then the grim firing line is assembled and in one quick burst of gunfire, those belonging to the minority Shia sect are gunned down. In one online eyewitness account, in the most recent of such killings, those whose lives were spared were made to shout slogans declaring the murdered ones infidels before they were allowed to resume their journey — in many cases those sent on were family members of the dead — leaving behind the bodies of their murdered fellow travellers.

With both roads that connect them with the rest of the country now under attack, the people of the Northern Areas are effectively cut off from their own country. Air travel is far too limited to handle the traffic that goes back and forth, and there is no rail link.

Tourism is an important source of income for many people in these areas, which see visitors in large numbers from across East Asia and more spirited enthusiasts from across Pakistan. Of course, the killings deter people from visiting and impose a heavy cost on the people across this area.

Adding to the difficulties faced by the people in this region is the still unresolved issue of the Attabad lake, formed in January 2010 when a massive landslide blocked the Hunza River near what was the village of Gojal.

When the river levels rose with the arrival of summer, the water formed a lake behind the landslide, rising to a height of almost 100m in some parts and flooding a stretch of almost 20km of the Karakorum Highway. More than 6,000 people were displaced by some counts and the overland link to China was cut off.

To this day, the lake has not been drained, and the government appears to have abandoned all efforts to drain it. More than two years after the original tragedy, the only way to go beyond Attabad is by an hour-long boat journey in completely unregulated crafts.

During a recent visit I saw food, fuel and medicines being carried across the lake in those boats, taken down to the water’s edge on the backs of hardy young men. This is no way to keep a population of more than 30,000, north of Attabad lake, supplied with daily necessities or to operate our only road link to the world’s fastest-growing economy. This is no way to live up to state obligations to safeguard the livelihoods of citizens.

The people living north of Attabad lake have been trapped in a low-intensity disaster zone for more than two years now, and the tragedy is that the country appears to have forgotten about them.

Compounding the situation is the condition of the Karakorum Highway. This once proud road has been ripped up almost completely from the China border almost down to Thakot. It is being repaved by a Chinese construction company, and some stretches do present a fresh look, but the journey on this road has been turned into a nightmare as a result.

The highway is more than a strategic link for the army; it is a vital artery that connects all those living in the northern areas with the rest of the country, and with each other. The journey from Gilgit to Hunza, which used to be a most pleasant three hours or so now takes more than five hours. South of Gilgit the situation gets worse.

A simple question that everybody who has seen this road wants to ask is: why did they rip up the entire road to repave it?

Couldn’t it have been done in sections? Who gave the order to rip up the whole road?

It has been lying in this state for over two years now, and from the looks of it, it will be in this condition for at least as much longer.

Between murderous gangs prowling the road in the south and a disaster zone in the north, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are stuck in a nightmare from which there seems to be no escape. They’re having a great deal of trouble getting the government to pay attention to the seriousness of the situation they face, and many of those who have tried to organise the local community have found themselves targeted by the security services and detained indefinitely.

The Gilgit-Baltistan government under Chief Minister Mehdi Shah should wake up to its responsibilities and work harder to resolve the issues under its control. It must make a greater effort to awaken the federal government to its responsibilities in the area too. He may be from Skardu himself, but the chief minister would do well to remember that he is an elected representative of Gilgit-Baltistan which also includes Hunza, Passu, Diamer, etc.

But the biggest responsibility belongs to the federal government. Until its fair share in federal resources is made available to it by virtue of having provincial status, Gilgit-Baltistan will continue to require federal assistance to execute its responsibilities.

The federal government can start by making a strong and credible commitment to maintain law order in the access routes to Gilgit-Baltistan.

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy.