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Flashback: The waning glory

April 14, 2013

Quaid-i-Azam paid a visit to Khyber's tribesmen in 1948. —File Photo
Quaid-i-Azam paid a visit to Khyber's tribesmen in 1948. —File Photo

Imagine travelling down a passage, winding through the towering snow-covered mountains of the Hindu Kush range and the Sefed Koh range, varying in width from three to 137 metres.

This is the 60km Khyber Pass that winds up through the rugged mountains of the northern regions, from Peshawar all the way to the border town of Torkham. A 45km railway track, built in 1927, runs through the Pass, crossing 34 tunnels, 92 bridges and culverts to reach Landi Kotal.

Throughout history Khyber Pass has served as an open gateway for countless invaders and conquerors. From Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Mahmood Ghaznavi, some of the most terrifying names in history have trod its winding path.

It played a role of great importance during the  Anglo-Afghan Wars when the pass was the scene of numerous skirmishes between Anglo-Indian soldiers and native Afghans.

In order to aid their military campaigns the British constructed a road  through the pass in 1879 and converted it into a highway during the 1920s.

The Khyber Pass once connecting British India and central Asia, now serves as the main supply route for the Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Khyber Agency, named after the historic Khyber Pass and comprising three subdivisions — Landi Kotal, Jamrud and Bara — was created in 1873.

Its position became strategically important in 1893 following the establishment of the Durand line (a demarcation showing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan {then British India} as a result of a settlement between Mortimer Durand of British India and Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan).

A portion of the restive Tirah Valley, a stronghold of militants that is accessible only through the air route, is also part of Khyber Pass.

Soon after Partition, the father of the nation Quaid-i-Azam visited Khyber Pass and, acknowledging their sacrifices and loyalty to the state of Pakistan, pledged with the tribesmen that their tribal traditions would be respected.

But unfortunately, the draconian set of laws — Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) — framed and imposed by the British rulers to control the tribesmen is still in place with only a few cosmetic changes.

The rugged mountainous terrain is home to the Afridi, Shinwari, Shalmani and Mullagori Pakhtun tribes, and has a rich history of cultural, social and literary traditions.

The traditional hujras and tribal jirgas are still in place but the region has been plagued by the worst law and order situation for more than three decades.

Also the corrupt political system in Fata including Khyber has converted what was once an abode of peace and rich cultural and literary activities into a place of gunsmiths, drug-peddlers and militants.

In the early ’70s, Landi Kotal bazaar was the hub of smuggled foreign goods ranging from brand new fabric, cosmetics and items of daily use to arms and ammunition; tourists and visitors travelled all the way from Karachi, Lahore and other parts of the country to get the best bargains.

These visitors would be sure to sample the traditional food of the area — tikka karahi and wareeta (roasted barbecue), patay tikay (barbecued meat wrapped in fat) and shana chai (green tea).

The Sunday train safari aboard a 1920s vintage model engine was a regular feature till the devastating flash floods in 2007 washed away a part of the railway track near Ziarai village in Landi Kotal; another reason was the security concerns for the visitors.

Haji Mastan Khan Afridi, 75, while recalling his youth, says, “I was in my teens when Amir Hamza Khan Shinwari founded the Da Khyber Adabi Jirga in 1950 which held literary sessions in main Landi Kotal bazaar; on wedding ceremonies people would usually arrange Pashto mushairas and Tank Takore — musical concerts in which local poets and artistes would perform.”

Khyber produced great sportsmen, singers, artists and literati, including the world famous athlete Iqbal Shinwari, cricket star Shahid Afridi, Shahenshah-i-Pashto ghazal singing Khayal Mohammad, noted music director late Rafiq Shinwari, popular Pashto film heroine of bygone days, Yasmeen Khan, rabab maestro Bagha-i-Harum, Baba-i-Pashto ghazal Amir Hamza Khan Shinwari, just just to name a few.

“Peace reigned everywhere; self-defence mechanism prevailed in the region. It is unbelievable but it is true that crime in the tribal territory was a rare commodity in the ’60s and ’70s. The whole region was characterised by rich cultural, sports and literary activities; grand football, cricket and volleyball matches would attract people even from Peshawar, Mardan and Charsadda districts. Tribal hujras were alive with traditional jirgas as well as music from the rabab and mungay (pitcher used as tabla) but now all these activities are things of the past as peace has given way to lawlessness and militancy,” says Wali Jan Shinwari, a local resident in his late 70s.

In many large villages in Khyber agency traditional hujras are in place where tribal elders hold jirga sessions to settle disputes among the tribesmen.

“Most people don’t trust jirgas constituted by the political authorities because they are corrupt and take bribes. Women’s rights is still a great issue, as during the last five years, despite democratic political dispensation in the country, no protective women laws framed by the parliamentarians have been extended to the tribal agencies. Girl’s education is being given importance now but most parents are not serious about it. The literacy rate, though comparatively better than what it was way back in the late ’60s is still alarmingly low in the area,” Malik Amir Jan Khan Afridi, 67, observes.

A cinema that used to screen Pashto movies, located inside the army cantonment in Landi Kotal, was closed to the public two decades ago due to security reasons, while Hamza Baba Cultural Complex built in 2002 near Landi Kotal bazaar for boosting literary activities in the volatile region was twice attacked by militants and is still lying dysfunctional.

“There are many literary societies in Khyber Agency holding their literary sessions and poetry readings at private places. We also arrange tournaments in the area including in Bara and Jamrud subdivisions on our own, while the political administration is to be seen nowhere,” says Sadiq Khan Afridi, a young Pashto poet hailing from Jamrud tehsil.

The Khyber tribesmen are in great need of basic infrastructure, such as healthcare and educational facilities and demand an end to military operations and the early rehabilitation of internally displaced people.

“Where should we go and what is our fault, we are the losers and we are the sufferers. Don’t we belong to this country or does this country not belong to us? I just want peace on my soil and no more bloodshed. How much loyalty does the state of Pakistan demand from me?” Arman Afridi, 56, whose young son Rokhan Khan Afridi was killed in Bara recently, asked a volley of questions with misty eyes.

The historic Khyber Pass is now engulfed in insecurity, uncertainty and its inhabitants look forward to having a peaceful environment and return to a normal life.

Political mainstreaming, restoration of peace along with developmental work in the militancy-hit area can once again lend a cultural identity to its people and land.