Read Is This Your First War? Online

Authors: Michael Petrou

Is This Your First War? (3 page)

When all the passengers had made it across, the bus followed. The road was full of smashed rocks that the driver had to avoid or roll over. The bus teetered, the many bells and trinkets affixed to its painted sides tinkling as it swayed. Through the bus's dirty windshield I could see the driver's lips moving quickly. He made it, climbed out of the bus to smoke a cigarette, and then we were on our way. Groves of poplar trees soon appeared on terraced fields below us, next to the silty headwaters of the Hunza River that gushed and roared through the bottom of the valley. Their yellowing leaves picked up the light from the setting sun and seemed to glow.

The next few weeks still appear in my mind's eye like scenes from a pleasant dream. We watched pickup polo matches played on dusty fields surrounded by garbage and stray chickens. The players charged up and down the field with the reckless abandon of street hockey players, and spectators celebrated each goal with shouts and musical flourishes on drums and clarinets.

Our arrival in the alpine village of Karimabad coincided with a visit by the Aga Khan, Karim al-Hussayni, Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. Locals celebrated the occasion by hauling tires up mountains and, when night fell, lighting them on fire and rolling them off cliffs into the valleys below. We watched the spectacle from the roof of our guesthouse, eating skewers of yak meat that teenagers cooked and sold on the side of road, fanning the coals in their makeshift barbeques with scraps of cardboard. It looked like the mountain was spewing lava.

We hiked through and sometimes dangerously above spectacular mountain valleys. Ten-year-old boys implored us to hire them as guides. “It is very dangerous. Without my help, you will surely die,” one solemnly informed us. We slept rough but enjoyed warm hospitality almost everywhere. Strangers fed us, invited us into their homes, and pushed gifts into our hands as we left them. Outside Passu, a small village nestled between glaciers, a jeep decorated with streamers and ribbons pulled around a bend in the road with seven young men piled inside, or clinging, somehow, to its bumpers and frame. It was late in the day, and while the valley through which we walked was shadowed, above us the jagged mountain peaks shone with reflected pink sunlight.

A polo game in Gilgit, Pakistan.

A bridge over the Hunza River in northern Pakistan.

“Where are you going?” the driver shouted.

“Passu,” I told him.

“Two hundred rupees,” he said, and everyone in and on the jeep laughed. “I'm only joking. Get in.”

There was no room to get in. Instead, we stood on the bumper, squeezed between two other young men, and hung on as the jeep careened down the mountain. I tried not to look at the drop below us every time we rounded a sharp corner. One of the men clinging to the bumper filmed everything with his one free hand. The other beside me, who had large eyes, a clean-shaven face, and curly black hair, shouted in my ear over the wind and the rumble of the engine.

“We are going to wedding,” he said.

“Who's getting married?”

He pointed to a man in the passenger seat, not yet old enough to grow more than a wisp of a moustache, who wore white and had a large feather in his rolled woollen cap. A wide grin split his face.

“He is,” the man beside me shouted. “He is king for a day.”

It wasn't until we left the Hunza Valley and made our way farther south, away from the company of the Ismaili and Shia Muslims who live in Pakistan's most northern mountains and toward the more conservative, Sunni, and increasingly Pashtun areas of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, that the atmosphere around us seemed to shift — subtly at first, and then more noticeably.

The easiest means of travel around northern Pakistan, at least for those on a limited budget, is minibuses that can be flagged down and boarded pretty much anywhere. Adam and I usually rode on the roofs of these buses — the view was better, it wasn't crowded up there, and it avoided the seat-shuffling that went on when a woman boarded the bus so that an unrelated man wouldn't have to sit beside her. On one leg of our trip, however, we sat inside. Adam made the mistake of reaching his hand over the shoulder of a burka-clad woman to hand our fare over to the driver in front of her. Her husband exploded in anger, grabbing Adam's forearm and hurling it away from his wife.

We left the main road south from China in Besham, a dusty, predominantly Pashtun town that serves as a gateway to the Swat Valley farther west. It was full of trucks, buses, and a sprinkling of gun shops. Many of the elderly men loitering on white plastic chairs in the dust outside the shops and teahouses sported beards dyed with henna to a garish shade of reddish orange. We climbed onto the roof of one of the many buses whose drivers were hustling for customers and settled ourselves among some loose furniture, the bags of the passengers below, and a box of explosives. When the driver had filled every available seat, the bus lurched forward and began rolling out of town, following the course of a river that gushed in torrents from the rounded mountains to our west. As we gained altitude, the temperature dropped and the air sweetened. Soon we were swaying through switchbacks that cut through pine forests. Long-haul transport trucks decorated like parade floats passed us on the narrow road with only inches to spare. But traffic was sparse, and the predominant odour in the air was not diesel fumes but moss and rotting leaves from the forests around us. At 2,100 metres, we passed through the Shangla Pass and into the Swat Valley. A sweeping expanse of green lay spread out below us.

In April 2009 a video clip emerged from the Swat Valley village of Matta. It shows two turbaned men holding a seventeen-year-old girl face down on the ground, while a third thrashes her backside with a short and stiff whip. She screams and whimpers. “Please! Enough! Enough! I am repenting, my father is repenting what I have done, my grandmother is repenting what I have done….” The girl struggles to protect herself and place a hand between her backside and the whip. The man beating her admonishes his colleague: “Hold her tightly so she doesn't move.”

The girl was being abused according to the version of sharia, or Islamic law, that Pakistani Taliban who had taken over her village were administering. She had supposedly had an affair with a married man, though villagers reported her real crime was to have refused a marriage proposal made by a local Taliban commander, who then ordered her punishment. Such scenes were common throughout the Swat Valley since 2007, when a wing of the Pakistani Taliban, led by Maulana Fazlullah, took over much of the district, torching schools and beheading government officials.

The Pakistani state had long been willing to tolerate the presence of Taliban on its frontier. Such groups acted as proxy forces for Pakistan in Afghanistan, and the army was slow to move against them. But Taliban control spread ever closer to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. They launched waves of suicide attacks and bombings after a bloody confrontation between the Pakistani army and Islamist students and militants at Islamabad's Red Mosque. They are believed to have been responsible for the December 2007 murder of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who had returned to Pakistan to contest the 2008 general election.

“For the first time, senior Pakistani officials told me, the army's corps commanders accepted that the situation had radically changed and the state was under threat from Islamic extremism,” Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes in his 2008 book,
Descent into Chaos
. He described the situation as a civil war.

Even then the response of the Pakistani army was sluggish. The Taliban negotiated a series of peace deals or truces, which they promptly ignored and used to push deeper into Swat, clashing with the Pakistani army and driving its soldiers out of the district. The government faced a choice of finally striking back in force, or ceding growing swaths of its country to insurgents. It was clear that the Taliban were no longer content to limit their influence to the fringes of Pakistani territory. The video of the girl being viciously whipped swung public opinion behind the need for a confrontation. The month after the video aired, the army moved into Swat in large numbers. A three-month campaign followed that killed hundreds and displaced some two million people but ultimately brought the now shattered Swat district back under government control. The Taliban who had controlled it were pushed back into the Tribal Areas, where, as long as they directed their fury at NATO and Afghan forces across the border, the Pakistani military gave them free rein.

When Adam and I first saw Swat, however, this was still part of an unimaginable future. Our minibus crested a final hill and the valley opened up before us — an expanse of green framed by mountains. Adam's body swayed from side to side as he tried to keep his balance atop the lurching and over-packed vehicle. He looked back at me and grinned. “It's beautiful,” he shouted over the sound of the wind and the shifting gears. It was.

We began our descent toward the town of Khwazakhela, which would be the scene of heavy fighting between the Taliban and Pakistan forces in 2007. The bus stopped at a depot where a few men sold bread and patties of ground beef fried in large cylindrical cauldrons of oil. We disentangled our stiff limbs from the furniture and box of explosives on the roof of the bus, grabbed our packs, and climbed down. There were few women in the streets, and many of the men again had henna-dyed beards and wore tightly woven woollen blankets draped over their shoulders in the Afghan fashion. Some, sitting on their heels outside street-side market stalls, pulled their blankets over their heads to ward off the autumn chill and stared out at us beneath these improvised hoods. It didn't seem like a welcoming place.

But then, minutes after we walked into a call centre in an attempt to check in with family back home, Mohammad Hayat, a middle-aged man with a shop nearby, ushered us into his shop's backroom, served us tea, and insisted we stay for lunch. Newspapers were spread out on the floor, and on these were placed plates of rice, bowls of yoghurt and milk,
, raw onions, and chicken
. Hayat's friends and members of his family joined us, sitting down on mats and more newspapers spread over his shop's dirty floor. We ate and drank everything from communal bowls, using our fingers to pick up pieces of chicken and bread or lifting bowls to our lips to drink yoghurt.

“The people we love and respect the most we feed like this,” he said. “With Muslims this is the most important thing — to be hospitable.”

Hayat had not been to Canada but mentioned a friend who had tried to visit the United States. He was denied a visa.

“They think we are all terrorists. In fact, we are not.”

When lunch was over, Ahmed, one of Hayat's friends, led us through a labyrinth of alleys and passageways behind their shops to reach another bus stand where convoys of Suzukis were idling, their drivers waiting for passengers to take farther north into Swat. Ahmed found us a willing driver, negotiated a fare, and sent us on our way. This time we squeezed inside the bus rather than climbing on the roof. The passengers switched seats to keep a female rider from sitting next to us.

“You've come thirty years too late, man,” said Ali when we checked into his guesthouse in the Swat village of Madyan a few hours later. Madyan, tucked between the Swat River and a trout-filled tributary, was once a favourite stop for Western hippies trekking from Europe to India. Some were so overcome by the beauty of the place that they stayed for months, making Ali, then a young inn owner, briefly rich and very happy. Decades later, his beard flecked with white, Ali's English vernacular was still frozen in another era.

“A lot of beautiful women were here, man,” Ali said, sitting later with us on plastic lawn chairs in front of his guesthouse. The sun was dipping toward the hills that rose above the valley and the river that ran through it. We were breaking apart and eating a kind of bright orange and impossibly sweet fruit I hadn't seen before. Our hands were sticky. Ali was feeling nostalgic.

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