Commentary: Idyllic Chitral defaced in the name of God

Special to McClatchy NewspapersAugust 31, 2011 

On August 28, the pristine Himalayan region of Chitral became the latest of my favorite places in the world to be desecrated by murderous thugs who kill in the name of their intolerant and violent concept of God.

Bombers recently hit the Place Djema el Efna in Marrakesh, where I had spent many hours writing and visiting tribal merchants and storytellers. Bombers have killed people in cafes and shops of Jerusalem's Kekar Tzion. Killers shot worshippers in Sri Lanka's Anuradhapura Buddhist temple.

Thugs attacked the Sufi shrine in Lahore called Data Derbar. Killers attacked Hindus near Amritsar's Golden Temple. Hindus then responded by killing Sikhs.

Paris, London, Madrid, Casablanca, New York, Kabul and a dozen other places I have visited and loved have also seen attacks by killers who think they have God on their side.

But the attacks on Chitral in Pakistan close the door on a piece of the world that had been a garden of human tolerance and kindness.

From 200 to 300 Pakistani and Afghan Taliban reversed history Aug. 28, by crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan to kill 25 Frontier Scouts, policemen and other officers at remote checkposts on the flanks of Trich Mir mountain, according to the Pakistani military.

Chitral lies along the Afghan border at the foot of the 25,000 foot-tall Trich Mir mountain. On the north side of the mountain lies the narrow Wakhan Corridor, a remote finger of land once part of the ancient Silk Road from China to Italy.

The British and Russians — vying in what was called "the Great Game" of the late 1800s — agreed to give Wakhan to Afghanistan as a buffer separating British India from Russian-dominated Asia.

Years ago I hiked with a Canadian doctor into the Trich Valley. We flew up to the town of Chitral and found a charming, friendly and open people, ready to advise us how best to hike towards upper Trich Valley.

After harrowing jeep rides along the Chitral River, we crossed a steel cable bridge and hiked for days up towards the glaciers, camping in alpine meadows of fragrant herbs. In each village we were invited into the head man's house to break bread and drink tea. Many of the village men were on the upper mountain as porters for an Italian expedition.

After we reached as high as we could — 15,000 feet on the moraine of huge boulders atop the moving glacier of ice — we retreated to the last village and were offered fiery home-brewed whiskey to warm our frozen bones and stop our shaking legs.

Fifteen years later, I returned to Chitral as a journalist and walked into Afghanistan with mujahideen rebels I’d met in a refugee camp near the town. We reached Barikot, first Afghan city abandoned by the Russian-backed regime in Kabul, just as Russian jets bombed the village, killing several mujahideen. More blood would be shed before the Russians pulled out and their client Afghans were overthrown.

At that time, I returned from Barikot to Chitral and began a trek up Trich Mir towards the villages that had shown me so much kindness. As often happens, one falls in with other trekkers and these villagers invited me to join them for a rest beside a stream. They were hauling sacks of grain and other supplies to their homes.

They surprised me by opening a box and inviting me to share a slice of cream cake. "But it is Ramadan," I said, aware that Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink in daytime that month. I'd had to suffer thirst and hunger while with the muj as I shared their living conditions.

"Oh never mind," said one man with a smile. "We are Ismaili Muslims. We follow the Agha Khan. And we believe in the inner Ramadan." So we all ate cake.

Now these kind people, who enabled visitors of other faiths and cultures to wander freely in their villages and valleys, are the latest targets of aggressive, narrow-minded violent people ready to slaughter all who disagree with them.

Do these thugs specially target the decent and the meek of the earth?

Car bombs and suicide vests are the weapons of choice it seems. They know they can never win fair elections or come to power in a peaceful process. They know that the majority of the earth consider them to be psychotic monsters, lacking all of the restraints that keep us from raising our hand against others.

Because they are aware that the masses of the nations in which they live lack all respect for them and their murderous ideologies, these thugs see the average person as an enemy, a sacrificial lamb, a martyr in the path of purification.

There are two ways to fight these thugs.

— Use all the tools of counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, asymmetric warfare, intelligence and public information. Infiltrate, jail, bomb, interrogate, execute, and reach out to the younger generation.

— Empower the mass of the people through democracy. Because the people of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other countries have rarely had more than a yes or no vote on how their village, state and country is run, the killers see a void which they think they can fill. A powerful judiciary, educated and armed police force, and honest public administration will block the road to these killers.

But for now, Chitral is under threat. The Pakistan newspaper DAWN reported that the attackers were in part Pakistani Taliban who had previously taken over another mountain valley, Swat — burning schools and beating women who dared to leave their houses without veils. They were driven off by Pakistan's army and found refuge in two eastern Afghan provinces, Nuristan and Kunar, where the town of Barikot I'd visited in 1988 is located.

NATO and American forces withdrew from those provinces several months ago — either to focus on the south or simply because the wooded, mountainous terrain favored the insurgents. So the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban have found a safe haven there to train and rearm. Now they strike — but not at the Pakistan army in Peshawar or Islamabad. No — the army could fight back.

Instead they hit the gentle Ismailis who believe in inner faith.

I hope that Pakistan and NATO will not forget about Chitral and will come to its aid.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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