The highway to death

When a police constable recently stopped a Skardo-bound bus at the Shangla checkpoint and asked for identity cards, many passengers turned pale with fear. Some ducked behind the backrests while others pretended to be asleep or dropped their ID cards under their seats. After the constable had checked a few of the cards and got off the bus, the passengers breathed a collective sigh of relief. 
This might not seem a normal reaction to such an everyday event – except to those who witnessed or have read about the unfortunate incident of February 28, when several armed men in military uniforms hauled 18 Shias out of four Gilgit-bound buses, and shot and killed them in front of their loved ones. The incident occurred in broad daylight, very close to two checkpoints in the Kohistan district, yet the 20 or more killers and the vehicles they drove off in were able to disappear from the crime scene without trace.

Following the bloodshed, many people in Gilgit-Baltistan suggested the assailants had acted with the support of the Pakistani military. The incident reminded them of a Shia massacre in 1988, when the Pakistani military directly supported attacks on fourteen villages in Gilgit-Baltistan, with the loss of thousands of lives.

Indeed, it seems that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have lost faith in the law enforcement agencies, and in their ability to maintain order in the region. They accuse them of fuelling sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan to weaken the masses and tighten control over this disputed province.

As terror has engulfed the area, even routine checking of vehicles at police and military checkpoints has become a nightmare, and the innocent people of Gilgit-Baltistan are forced to undertake the journey from Islamabad to Gilgit-Baltistan in the shadow of death. They are even afraid to leave their vehicles to buy food or use toilets, and the graceful mountains of Diamer and Kohistan have now become sinister sentinels.

For the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, travel on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) is no joyride. Some of the passengers are students attending universities in Pakistan; others are temporary employees in the country’s various cities, or patients on their way to hospitals in Islamabad and Lahore. Yet if the Pakistani government provided education, jobs and healthcare in Gilgit-Baltistan, these people would not have to travel and risk their lives like this.

But they have no alternative. The KKH is the sole road that links Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan, and the poor people of Gilgit-Baltistan – where the per capita income is one-quarter that of Pakistan’s average – cannot afford expensive air travel.

A soldier attached to the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) and currently stationed in North Waziristan Agency accompanied this writer on a bus journey, and as we were talking about security on the KKH, he said that travellers, especially Shias, have to plan ahead to conceal their identity and thus ensure their personal safety, making every journey emotionally and psychologically exhausting. ‘If we travel without ID cards, then the security forces hold us back,’ he said. ‘But if we carry the cards, then we lose our lives.’

On average, 5,000 people travel daily on the KKH between Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad. This means that in Gilgit-Baltistan, there are more than 5,000 families forced to spend hours in stress and fear, until their loved ones have completed the journey. Many also spend millions of rupees daily making religious offerings for the safety of their kinfolk, a form of ‘life insurance’ that severely affects the financial stability of these families.

When our bus reached Besham Qila, Ali Hussain, one of the passengers, got a call from his mother, who had sold her jewellery for ten thousand rupees to pay for his airfare. In the aftermath of the Kohistan killings, she had strictly forbidden her son to travel by road, but after repeated flight cancellations due to bad weather, Hussain had taken the bus anyway, lying to his mother that he was still waiting for the plane.

Sadly, the Kohistan killings will be forgotten by those in power, just like the previous incidents. Pakistan’s corrupt and incompetent government has, as usual, blamed the problem on religious groups and called it a sectarian issue. This temporarily distracts the masses, covering up the crimes of the real culprits, who live under state protection. At the same time, it leaves a long-term negative impact on society.

A hotel owner in Kohistan who was serving tea to the bus passengers said, ‘The government is looking for excuses to start a military operation in Kohistan. Our people were not involved in the Shia killings but our land was used by the assailants. The Karakoram Highway is dotted with security checkpoints every few miles, yet the assailants conveniently escaped.

‘For us, the KKH is a lifeline. The vehicles, goods and passengers travelling on this road sustain our economy and livelihood. Why would we destroy our own livelihood by killing passengers and customers? It’s beyond anyone’s imagination. Without traffic on the KKH, we would starve to death. Now the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are demanding that the Line of Control and travel to Kargil be opened up. If that happens, it will be a significant financial loss for the businesses on the KKH.’

A Sunni youth from Darel who tried to protect the Shia passengers in Kohistan and got himself killed reminds us that the issue is not about Shia-Sunni differences. On the same day, a Sunni passenger from Gilgit called one of the Shia passengers his brother and saved his life, which is testimony to the fact that Shias and Sunnis want to co-exist peacefully. It is a shame that Pakistan’s government has failed to arrest the real culprits and has resorted to blaming the Sunnis of Darel and Kohistan for the mayhem.

Now the government is planning to establish 30 more checkpoints on the KKH and a few more in Gilgit city. The Kohistan incident has become yet another excuse to beef up security in Gilgit-Baltistan and effectively convert the region into a prison. This will also add to the difficulties of travelling on the KKH.

From Islamabad, it took 34 hours to reach Alam Bridge, the point where the Gilgit and Skardo roads fork. When the bus crossed over the Indus River and lurched towards Skardo, people rejoiced and congratulated each other, with one passenger distributing tangerines to celebrate their safe arrival. Life slowly returned to the bus as cheerful conversations and laughter resumed, and the thought of his impatiently waiting mother brought a smile to Ali Hussain’s face. It was as if the passengers had been given a second chance at life – just because they had arrived in Baltistan alive and unhurt.

If the Pakistani government takes serious measures to protect passengers on the KKH, such joys could become permanent. Before another incident like Kohistan takes place, the charter of demands presented to the regime by leading Shia and Sunni religious groups – namely Anjuman Imamia and Anjuman Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat – should and must be fulfilled.

Manzoor Parwana