It was a sweet, awkward moment. The brigadier held out the keys. The Sunni tribesman stood there, surrounded by a nervous yet puffed-up crowd. “Take the key, take the key!” someone prompted him. He hesitated for a moment, unsure and aware of too many people around him. It had taken several rounds of talks and...
It was a sweet, awkward moment. The brigadier held out the keys. The Sunni tribesman stood there, surrounded by a nervous yet puffed-up crowd. “Take the key, take the key!” someone prompted him. He hesitated for a moment, unsure and aware of too many people around him.
It had taken several rounds of talks and confidence-building measures to bring him to this point. But when he did take the keys, three heavy seconds later, a sigh of relief was expelled and people clapped.
Everyone knew that years from now, they would all be able to say this was the moment when one place in Fata did something to leave some collective pain behind.
This historic ceremony was held last week in Parachinar to welcome back 10 Sunni families who had fled when sectarian violence erupted in 2007. The fighting left hundreds dead and many more wounded, in a massacre that transformed the demographics of the region. Families from both sects, Shia and Sunni, vacated their houses and relocated to safer parts of Kurram.
Ten years later, in 2017, the government started to rehabilitate internally displaced people in Fata. Part of this story played out in Kurram as well. The Shia families displaced from lower Kurram who had fled to Parachinar needed to go back and the Sunni families of Parachinar who had fled to lower and central Kurram had to return. In the long run everyone knew deep down inside that it was only in religious and cultural diversity and not in ghettoisation that survival and peaceful co-existence could be found.
The elders of Parachinar worked with the army and government to bring about reconciliation. “We want to request our Sunni brothers to come back,” says Shia tribesman Syed Hussain Badshah. “When the violence started in 2007 due to the presence of the Taliban, an operation was launched and all the routes were closed down, which affected both sects. It’s their land. They should come back.” They began in earnest to woo the estranged Sunnis.
But there was a problem. The fighting had destroyed houses. So the government offered Rs300,000 to rebuild and Rs50,000 to repair damage. The army helped construct a few houses, which is why the ceremony was held last week. Ten families were received at Bab-e-Parachinar by office-bearers of the Anjuman Hussainia and Tehreek-e-Hussaini and several tribal elders. A military band put on a display of pomp and ceremony as Brigadier Akhtar Aleem, commander of the 73 Brigade, and Kurram Deputy Commissioner Baseer Khan Wazir welcomed them with garlands. “The rehabilitation of IDPs is our foremost priority and work is fast underway,” Brigadier Aleem said.
The families were taken to Usmania Market Plaza where the new houses were built. Political leaders, including former MNA Sajid Hussain Toori, gave them the keys. Sunni tribesman Hazrat Ali added, however, that they still need some help and the funds should be doubled.
Amid the congratulatory mood, however, there was perhaps the start of the realisation that it will be hard work for both sides to leave the past behind. Parachinar has had a long history of sectarian violence with it first recorded in 1937 and then in 1980. The arrival of the Taliban led to fresh schisms this time round.
The Shias of Parachinar are aware that the Sunnis will have to be given a sense of security. But the Sunnis who have been persuaded to return also understand they have responsibility to convince others. “We are concerned that those Sunnis who were displaced should settle back into their areas,” says Haji Mangal, a Sunni elder. “We also want to put our strength behind progression of this area and live happily. It is my plea to members of my own sect to return now that we are at peace.”
Fata is on the cusp of no longer being called Fata with its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But the administrative changes to mainstream this long ignored part of Pakistan have happened faster than change on the ground. It will take time for places like Parachinar to heal from the conflicts which spared no one. It is difficult to say who was not touched by guilt, shame and anger. But senators like Sajjad Turi are hopeful that they can say the process has begun, even if with 10 families. At the ceremony he remarked: “The merger of the tribal areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa paved the way for a resolution of these problems.”