ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — It began with an errant dog,. It's culminated with the forced betrothal of 15 little girls, some of them as young as three, as compensation in a case of tribal feuding in a remote part of Pakistan.
It's thought that around 20 people have died in the bitter quarrel, and the marriage offer of the girls is meant to end the bloodletting.
Under a brutal custom, called Vani, the girls are being traded as settlement of a long-running dispute between two tribes. This case occurred on the border between the southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan, but the practice, known as Swara in some areas, isn't uncommon in rural parts of Pakistan.
"The murderer gets away. It is his daughter, his sister, his niece, that pays the price," said Samar Minallah, a human rights activist based in Islamabad. "The girl has to pay the price for the rest of her life."
Vani usually involves the daughters of illiterate and poor people, who don't have money or other assets to give as compensation. Minallah said that a disturbing feature of such settlements is that they're often ordered by the rich local landowners who adjudicate the cases. Typically, they're educated people and even include members of parliament. A law bans the practice, but police and local administration officials rarely intervene.
In this instance, Noor Ali, whose three daughters are to be given away, said in an interview that he accepted the verdict. His girls, however, had no choice.
"I think it is right," said Ali, speaking by telephone from his village in the Jaffarabad area. "This is our culture."
There are different versions of how this particular tribal war began — such enmities are a common feature of rural life in Pakistan — but a dog was involved. The dog, belonging to the Chakrani tribe, offended the neighboring Qalandari clan.
Depending on whom you believe, the dog either bit a Qalandari or one of their donkeys or, according to some, simply drank from a Qalandari water well. Whichever version is believed, the dog was shot dead by the Qalandaris — back in 2000. That started the conflict, which escalated into tit-for-tat killings until 20 people had been killed, mostly Qalandaris, including five women.
Akbar Bugti, a tribal grandee from the area, settled the dispute through a traditional meeting known as a jirga, in which each side argues its case. In 2002, Bugti decreed that the Chakranis hand over the girls as they'd killed many more people than the Qalandaris had.
That decision, however, wasn't implemented, and the dispute festered. It took until last month for another jirga to be convened, which confirmed Bugti's judgement. It's unclear whether the decision has now been enforced, as local media attention has frightened the tribesmen.
Ali, the father of three, said recently that the "dupata" (scarf) ceremony, where the other tribe comes to claim the girls by laying scarves on their heads, hadn't occurred but would soon. He said his daughters were aged three, six and seven.
He said that while the girls would become the property of the Qalandaris after the dupata ceremony, they'd continue to live with him until they reach 18, and then they'd be handed over for marriage. Others doubt that the girls will stay with their family.
On Friday, when he was contacted again, Ali said the handover had stalled.
"Some problem occurred," Ali said.
An investigation of the affair by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group, found that the promised girls were between three and 11. Indad ullah Khoso, the local co-ordinator of the rights group for Kashmore, said that no arrests had been made.
"Once the dupata is laid on the girls, they become the personal property of the Qalandaris and they can take them away when they want," Khoso said.
The national and provincial government, after being pressed by the media, pledged to take action against those involved in this case, but so far, it seems no one has been punished.
Shazia Marri, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party and a provincial minister in Sindh, said: "We have always condemned such atrocious acts. Unfortunately, this kind of system has strengthened in certain pockets in Sindh . . . . There are steps being taken to catch hold of the culprits."
According to human rights activists, girls in Vani cases are treated poorly by their new families because they're deemed to be tainted by shame. Married off to adults, even old men, they can be subject to rape while they're still minors.
It's the involvement of the influential landowners that helps keep the tradition alive, and landowners are a major part of the People's Party. At least two current lawmakers from the PPP, supposedly a progressive liberal party, are accused of involvement in Vani cases.
A nephew of a People's Party provincial minister in Sindh is accused of officiating a Vani case in which three girls were ordered to be given, to restore the honor of a family in which a woman had wed against her parents' wishes — the girls came from the groom's family.
One People's Party member of parliament, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, was alleged to be involved in a jirga deciding a Vani case in which five girls were handed over as compensation for a murder. Last year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered his arrest. He not only remains at liberty, but the People's Party also chose him again as its candidate in the 2008 elections.
"He (Bijarani) might have been associated with the people in the jirga, but he says he was not present at the time," said Marri. "I'm not saying that people belonging to the People's Party are all angels."