The damnation of Chitral’s demon river

June 14, 2018

Artwork: Aniqa Sahar

It is so beautiful in Chitral—so why does it have a suicide epidemic? 

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Chitral and next-door Gilgit’s Ghizer districts hold a terrible secret. Approximately 150 people, mostly young women, have killed themselves in Chitral in the last 10 years, according to lawyer and rights activist Niaz A Niazi. Police data shows that 13 women killed themselves in Chitral from November to April this year. Five others made unsuccessful attempts. In Gilgit, residents say that 125 people did it in the past seven years.

Women cross a stream after flash floods in Ursoon, a village near Chitral, on July 3, 2016. Police data shows that 13 women killed themselves in Chitral from November to April this year. Photo: AFP

The alarm bells started ringing when the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme revealed in a 2012 study that 74% of marriages of Chitrali women with men from other areas, especially Punjab, turned out to be fake. Some of these women were brought from Chitral and made domestic helpers. Others were forced into prostitution. One Ghizer resident told SAMAA Digital that some trafficked Chitrali women have committed suicide. However, he said, this is just one of the reasons that women are killing themselves.

“We have seen a sudden transformation of and lack of avenues in our society,” said Inayat Baig. “And then, there is gender-based discrimination and tribal, cultural and religious intolerance. Our social institutions have failed to accommodate young people, especially young women.”

A highly sensitive people

Bibi Naaz Shahid, a clinical psychologist, works for her community in Chitral and Gilgit. She worked with an NGO, Social Innovation, and trained 20 women. She has conducted research on suicide in the area twice. According to her, there are many factors.

Paramilitary soldiers and residents search for missing victims following an avalanche in Susom village near Chitral in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa on March 22, 2016. According to a psychologist, children suffer trauma from an early age due to the yearly natural disasters. Photo: AFP

The first reason is the climate in Chitral and Gilgit. “We have gloomy winters across the year except in July when we get a bit of summer,” she said. “Then, there are natural disasters every year and at least one person in each family has died in the calamities.”

This means children are exposed to and begin to suffer from trauma from an early age each year because of living in an area with frequent natural disasters. “They end up losing their ability to handle trauma from a young age,” she said. “This makes them overly sensitive.”

To make matters worse, there is a severe communication gap between parents and children. Parents do not talk to their children and the emotions keep building up in the children, who have no outlet.

Pakistani earthquake survivor children gather in the midst of the rubble of destroyed homes in Charun Avir village near Chitral on October 29, 2015. According to a psychologist, children suffer trauma from an early age due to the yearly natural disasters. Photo: AFP

Competition among youngsters also runs high. “If someone gets a good education from outside of Chitral, youngsters in Chitral will be reminded of their own deprivation,” she said. On March 7 this year, a 14-year-old girl committed suicide at her house in Altit, Hunza. The girl was said to be stressed due to issues related to her school and education.

Depressed generations

Depression runs in families and is genetically inherited. “There was a young Chitrali boy a few years back who had gone to study nursing at AKU in Karachi,” said Shahid. “He committed suicide in the hostel. And the tendency ran in his family. His uncles in Chitral had also committed suicide.”

Children affected by flooding sit on higher ground in Nagar village in Chitral on July 3, 2016. According to a psychologist, children suffer trauma from an early age due to the yearly natural disasters. Photo: AFP

The situation is even worse when it comes to women. They are married off at most by the age of 20. They are not allowed to step out of the house except for school or college. Women cannot visit bazaars alone.

“All of this makes women very frustrated and angry,” said Shahid. “They have no one to talk to and their depression worsens. While both men and women develop oversensitivity since childhood and lose the ability to handle trauma, women are even more suppressed and vulnerable,” she explained.

“Pregnant women suffer from depression and there are no psychologists to even hear them out,” Shahid lamented.

Women in Chitral have no outlets to vent out their feelings. And their over-sensitivity makes matters worse. “There was this girl who was secretly using a mobile phone. Her family found out and did not say anything to her. But just the fact that they found out triggered her so bad that she jumped into the river the next day,” she recalled.

Earthquake survivor girls sit in the midst of the rubble of destroyed homes in Charun Avir village near Chitral on October 29, 2015. According to a psychologist, children suffer trauma from an early age due to the yearly natural disasters. Photo: AFP

“Similarly, a girl was enrolled in a madrassa against her will by her brother,” said Shahid. “She killed herself.”

According to the psychologist, general physicians in Chitral and Gilgit prescribe anti-depressants at random. “If someone can’t sleep, they’ll prescribe antidepressants. What’s worse is that they will not educate their patients on how to use the antidepressants.”

Shahid said people in Chitral and Gilgit have a close-knit community system. “Everyone knows each other and, to protect the families from shame, they do not talk about these things,” she said. “Most people, especially women, are not allowed to talk to other people.”

Naseem Wali, a resident of Chitral, children in the area do not talk to their parents about their problems. “Parents should be more loving towards their children,” she advised.

The road so far

Shahid conducted trainings in Chitral to help spread awareness. According to her, she helped 20 women develop psychological skills using therapeutic art and dance forms.

“Until we bring to the conscious what lies in the unconscious, people will keep falling into depression,” she said. “I recently spoke on a radio programme about how to protect our children from sexual abuse. People don’t talk about these things in Chitral but it’s important to start the conversation.”

Killer river

According to local legend, the Chitral River has a strange sort of “fascination”. “Some people feel pulled towards the beautiful river and they end up jumping into it,” said one resident. “Others are made to jump into the river by supernatural beings.”

Earthquake survivors move items from their damaged house in Drosh village near Chitral on October 28, 2015. According to a psychologist, children suffer trauma from an early age due to the yearly natural disasters. Photo: AFP

Young men are also committing suicide but they do not equal women in number, said Niazi. “Our people are over-sensitive due to various factors. And then, be it domestic disputes or failure in studies, young people jump into the river.”

Domestic violence exists everywhere in Pakistan, said Niazi. “But not everyone in Pakistan has a river running by their house.”

According to him, killing yourself by jumping into a river is an “immediate easy way out”. “The river runs in front of every house,” he said. “It is easily accessible. For instance, if you plan to kill yourself by poison, you’ll take some time to obtain the poison. This allows you time to change your mind. On the other hand, when you plan to jump in the river, you act right away when you’re triggered as the river is right there.”

Earthquake survivors eat in their destroyed home in Charun Avir village, some 65 km north of Chitral on October 29, 2015. Young men are also committing suicide but they do not equal women in number, says a human rights activist. Photo: AFP

Women living up north feel that they are not valued. “First, they are deprived of freedom that women in Karachi or Lahore have,” he said. “Then, if they inform their families that they want to kill themselves, no one stops them. This damages their self-esteem and they feel unvalued.”

Moreover, women are made to feel weak and inferior. “If a boy throws a stone at someone in a fight instead of physically wrestling the opponent, he is called a ‘girl’ as an insult,” he said.

Feelings of inferiority, deprivation and helplessness run deep. “In Chitral, we are transitioning,” he said. “We aren’t developed like Karachi or Lahore but we are not very poor either. We have TV and then we see how the major cities in Pakistan are. This leads to an inferiority complex and feelings of helplessness and deprivation among the young people.”

An army officer carries a young injured earthquake survivor who was evacuated from Chitral by military helicopter at a base in Peshawar on October 27, 2015. According to a psychologist, children suffer trauma from an early age due to the yearly natural disasters. Photo: AFP

Niazi said people need to become sensitised towards the feelings of the young people, especially women. “Every year, 10 to 20 suicides occur in our area,” he said. “Early marriages and sexual abuse are also major factors.”

‘God forbids suicide’

Clerics at mosques often warn in weekly sermons that those who kill themselves will not be given a funeral. “That doesn’t happen but the warnings are issued to prevent suicides,” said one resident of Chitral.

We need to tell the youth that God forbids suicide, said Mufti Sibghatullah Chitrali, a religious cleric in Chitral. “Suicide is a societal issue and clerics must play their part,” he said. “Mosques should incorporate God’s message about forbidding suicide in their khutbas [sermons].” According to him, it is more important to teach parents first so that they can develop a friendly attitude towards their children. He said the police and civic administration should also play their part in discouraging suicide.

Writing by Minerwa Tahir​