There is one place in Pakistan where people hire men to do blasts—but not for terrorism. These men are the explosives experts of district Shangla in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where their skill is essential for survival in a land so mountainous that you need to blast through tons of rock to get even an inch to build on.
“Blasting explosives in the rest of the country makes you a terrorist,” says Saidu Rahman from Shangla’s Basi. “But in Shangla it makes you a saviour. We provide people shelter by helping them construct their houses and we bury their dead.”
Shangla, which is sandwiched between Swat and Battagram, has very little flat land. You need “ranjhak” or explosives to shatter the rock in the mountain in order to carve out space. “A huge 10 ton rock needs three fistfuls of explosives if you want to break it down into pieces,” Saidu Rahman explains. They mix the explosives with a specific amount of wheat flour and ammonium nitrate otherwise it doesn’t work. Then they drill one feet deep and pack the hole with explosives and a prima card or detonator. They light it and run to hide behind another rock or tree. “We whistle at a high pitch to alert residents in the surroundings that a blast is going to happen before detonating the explosives through the prima card,” Saidu Rahman explains. It takes at least a month to go through multiple rocks in a mountain to make enough space to build a three-room house.
Up until the arrival of militancy in neighbouring Swat, no one had really given Shangla’s construction methods much thought. But in 2009, when the operation was launched, the use of explosives came under scrutiny and restrictions had to be placed on the transportation of such materials.
The military operation in Shangla was one of the most intense ones against militants. According to the ISPR, security forces were conducting some parts of the operation from heights of 2,245 feet, which had to be captured and secured. At one point, the question of burials arose. At such heights, of course, it was extremely difficult to manage the logistics of transporting bodies to the local graveyards down below. Time was also a factor. These were also extremely tense times when many of the locals had left the district.
One option was the hold the burials in the flat land or “bhandas” found at the very tops of the mountains. This is considered communal land and is favoured by shepherds who tend the community’s livestock for the summers. When the burials were debated, however, the shepherds flat out refused because they were fearful and superstitious. The system of grazing livestock in this area is simple. Locals send their livestock with shepherds, who will tend to the animals for the season in return for a calf or lamb as barter payment in return. This allows locals to pursue other work. And so, when the shepherds panicked over the proposal to bury the dead in their grazing lands, the locals did not want to upset them and gave up on that option.
However, the bodies couldn’t just be left in the mountains as they had started to decompose. So, the locals decided to use their old expertise of mining and sought permission to use explosives to create graves in the mountain faces. The method proved extremely practical especially for families located at great distances from the graveyards. And now people prefer to bury their dead close to their homes.
“No one charges for this special grave creation,” says Sahib Daad, who has also been in the business for a long time. “Now whenever someone dies, their relatives call me and I come with my kit to break through the rock.”