I hear that Chilas is a ghost town these days, its inhabitants spooked by the killings of the international mountain climbers (and one Pakistani guide who had a Shia name), who were camping at Nanga Parbat’s Diamer Face base camp at almost 4,200 meters above sea level. That meant the attackers had to climb up almost 18 hours and needed to be skilled climbers – that indicates that they were no ordinary Taliban from the plains or even the tribal areas (the Tehreek-e-Taliban spokesman has claimed that the assault was carried out by its sub group, Jund-ul Hifsa). They had to be locals who were familiar with the high mountain terrain and could climb up to those heights without suffering from altitude sickness. Indeed the Chief Secretary of the area has claimed that the terrorists belong to banned organisations with 10 from Diamer, three from Kohistan and two from Manshera. Both the police chief and Chief Secretary say the Diamer jirga has helped them identify the accused, who are now hiding somewhere in the valley.
They did not rule out the possibility of the same group’s involvement in last year’s attacks targeting Shia passengers in Lulusar and Kohistan. Chilas is of course the capital of Diamer District and is a small town located on the left bank of the Indus River. The Karakoram Highway (KKH) passes right through it and there is a PTDC motel for travelers going onwards to Gilgit and Skardu. For me, it has always been a creepy place where women are nowhere to be seen and bearded men carry guns and stare at you with hostility – I always avoid stopping there while going by road to Gilgit or Hunza from Islamabad on the KKH. Last April, a crazed mob in Chilas town ended up lynching 9 Shia bus passengers traveling on the KKH. People from Chilas are inward looking and Wahabi-influenced – not at all progressive and tolerant like the predominantly Ismaili/Shia population of Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu. The towering mountains that ring Chilas are marked with huge SSP (Sipah-i-Sahaba) signs (although the organisation is now banned in Pakistan), and the main bazaar is named Muawiya Chowk. Need I say more?
For many years, the villagers of Chilas have prevented the government from building a larger airport with a longer runway on their relatively flat land (which would make it so much easier for tourists going to Gilgit and Hunza), for fear of an influx of outsiders to their area. The tiny airport at Chilas is currently closed for domestic flights and the town can only be reached through the KKH and also from the Kaghan valley passing over the Babusar Pass.
I have another reason for despising Chilas – last summer I decided to take the more scenic route over the Babusar Passon on my way back from Gilgit. The road over the Pass takes one into Naran in the Kaghan Valley and onwards to Mansehra and Islamabad. Our experienced driver, a Shia villager from Bagrote Valley near Gilgit, assured us it was a safe route – and would save us almost 2 hours in traveling time. What’s more, he told us it would be a drive we would always remember. His words proved prophetic indeed, for the day after we reached Islamabad, 19 Shia passengers were pulled out from three buses on the same route, and shot dead at around 7 am – the same time we were about to cross Babusar Pass 24 hours earlier. What should have been an amazing memory is forever tainted by the thought of those innocent men killed for merely having a different set of religious beliefs.
I clearly remember seeing villagers in small passenger buses crossing over the Babusar Top early in the morning. Most of them were half asleep as they got jostled around on the bumpy road. They were mountain men who worked in Rawalpindi or Islamabad in homes and offices and were heading back to their villages in Gilgit and Astore for the Eid holidays. After spending the night in Naran, they must have set out for Babusar Top in convoys of two or three buses in the early morning. Ironically, they had chosen this route not because it is more scenic, but because they thought it would be safer. After all, on February 28 last year, around 20 Shias were pulled out of buses at a place called Harban Nala in Kohistan, while traveling on the KKH en route to Gilgit, and killed. After this incident, the transporters began diverting their passenger vehicles away from the KKH to the Babusar road as they felt this route was more secure (bypassing both Kohistan and Chilas town).
The Mansehra-Naran-Babusar road is open during the summers and mostly closed in winters due to heavy snowfall. The buses we encountered on the road were all driven in convoys to keep safe. Even the buses we had seen earlier on the KKH before reaching Chilas were traveling in convoys escorted by armed Rangers. Yet, somehow, we had felt safe on our own, lulled by the expertise and talkativeness of our driver who cheerfully pointed out all landmarks and sights on the way. “Here on the left is the Nanga Parbat mountain – see that narrow road? It leads to Astore,” he had pointed out as we headed towards Raikot Bridge, which leads to Fairy Meadows and base camp Nanga Parbat.
Just before Chilas town we took the dirt road up to the Babusar Pass. Our mobile phones soon stopped working as we snaked up to the pass on the rough road. There were a few scattered villages with little children in rags playing on the roadside. This was unlike the rest of Gilgit-Baltistan, where school children are usually seen in smart school uniforms, often walking on the road with their satchels full of books. We were still on the Chilas side of the mountain pass and I was feeling anxious because the few grown ups we saw on the road did not look very friendly – they were weather-beaten shepherds, and some were carrying guns.
A few convoys of small buses passed us from the opposite side, and then we were alone on the road as our jeep laboriously made its way up the steep incline. The Babusar Pass is a lonely, wind-swept mountaintop with no settlements in sight. I stopped at a small outpost located near the top to pick the lovely purple flowers growing on the slopes. The only thing that the security personnel at check posts were concerned about was the presence of foreigners. “Is there a foreigner in the car?” is the question we were asked repeatedly at all the check posts in the area. Since the Raymond Davis debacle, the army and the government are cracking down on the travel of westerners in the country, and Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral are considered highly sensitive areas. In fact, foreigners are no longer allowed to travel to many places in the north without NOCs from the government. How strange that we are so concerned about the movement of foreigners but look the other way when armed militants freely roam our remote mountain areas carrying guns.
As we descended into the Kaghan Valley, the river alongside the road suddenly flowed into a large blue-green lake, the waters of which were so clear they mirrored the mountains towering above. We had arrived at Lulusar Lake and stopped to take pictures and marvel at the scenery.
Now I think back with horror that it was at this particularly scenic spot, far away from any check post or settlement, that the carnage must have taken place. This was where the gunmen dragged the Shia travellers off the buses and killed them at point blank range – the third such incident in the mountain region last year. According to news reports, they stopped three passenger vehicles, checked their ID cards for Shia names like Hussain (our driver’s name) or Ali, picked out the Shia men in three batches and then sprayed them with bullets on the roadside.
Before leaving for Islamabad I had gone to the Bagrote Valley, a predominantly Shia area of Gilgit where, during a meeting with the local elders, I was told: “This is a very tough area, and people have to cooperate with one another in order to survive. A few years ago it did not matter at all who was Shia or Sunni or Ismaili here. We married into each other’s families and there were no sectarian issues at all. Even now we don’t believe that there is a Shia-Sunni problem here – these killers come from elsewhere and they are trying to stir up trouble between us deliberately. What’s more, someone is protecting them because why else have they not been caught and brought to justice?”
Eyewitnesses to the Lulusar murders say that the attackers were mostly locals wearing military uniforms and they were unmasked, just like the killers on Nanga Parbat. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan also claimed responsibility for the Lulusar attack. The killers were never brought to justice and it seems unlikely that the killers of Nanga Parbat will be caught as well, despite all the public outrage. This is what one of the survivors of the Nanga Parbat attack, a Polish mountaineer who had luckily climbed higher and therefore was not at base camp the night of the murders, had to say: “Everybody who plans to climb a mountain in Pakistan should rethink their plans, because the Taliban officially informed that tourists will be targeted in further attacks. It should also be noted that it is a complete change in their terrorist activities, because so far no attack was done against foreign tourists. Prosecution of the murderers is very difficult, because the current Pakistani government is sympathetic to the Taliban.”
If the murderers of the Shias had been caught and sentenced last year, perhaps those mountaineers would have still been alive today. It is time that our media and civil society became more vocal about the killings that are being “allowed” in one of the most beautiful and peaceful mountain areas of our country – once a magnet for tourists and adventure seekers, now an isolated region full of anger and fear.