Where Chitral meets Kunar

travels to Arandu on the border with Afghanistan

Where Chitral meets Kunar
A few days after my visit to Bumborait I was off for another day-trip in Lower Chitral. This time I was headed to the southernmost point in Chitral, the sub-tehsil of Arandu. This is culturally and geographically a part of the Kunar Valley and is a remnant of the little empire of the Katoor Shahs, who for a brief time ruled everything from Asmar to Puniyal. As I have quite a bit of property in the area, which had been neglected by my family since the merger of the state, I wanted to go meet the locals and have a feel for the Wild South of Chitral.

Arandu lies about a hundred kilometers due southwest from Chitral Town and is where our river flows into Afghanistan. You first take the main road which leads to the Lowari and Dir but after crossing Drosh and reaching the military base at Mirkhani, you continue following the course of the Chitral River instead of turning towards the stream flowing from the Lowari. Shortly afterwards the valley narrows considerably and the climate and flora start to change as you leave the Chitral Valley and enter the Kunar Valley.

The Arandu region is the warmest part of Chitral. The main valley does not receive snowfall during the winter and on the sunny August day when I was there, the temperature was 43 degrees Celsius, very hot by any standard. This warm climate makes this area the only part of Chitral where citrus fruits are grown. The side valleys are much cooler and lush green with abundant forests of oak, pine and cedar. Sadly, these forests have been ravaged by the timber mafia and it is this corrupt clique that has caused problems for me by bribing the local tribes and tying up the legal rights to the forests in litigation – while they chop down the trees.

Gawari Tribesmen, the gentleman on the extreme right has translated the Holy Quran to the Gawarbati language

The Arandu area is multilingual and multiethnic. The indigenous languages of the valley are Dameli and Gawarbati, Dardic Indo-Aryan languages belonging to the Kunar group. Also present are settlers from Nuristan, Dir and Lower Kunar who speak Nuristani, Gojri and Pashto. This is the only part of Chitral where Pashto is the language for inter-ethnic conversation rather than Khowar. The border town of Arandu has some Khowar speakers who settled there in the latter days of Chitral State and the notables among the Dameli and Gawarbati speakers also know Khowar.

The entire region has a strong military presence. Before 2011 Arandu was a lawless area. Following the merger of Chitral State in 1969, the sub-teshil was declared a tribal region and the locals left to their own devices. The only institution that really ran the show was the Timber Mafia. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan the area became a smuggling hotspot as well as the route used by Chitralis who transited through Afghanistan to renter Pakistan via either the Nawa or Khyber passes while the Lowari was blocked in winter. Black money and strategic significance combined can only lead to trouble and trouble came calling in September 2011 when the Swati Taliban, who were based in Kunar and Nuristan following their expulsion from the Malakand Division, invaded Lower Chitral via several points in the Arandu region from Mirkhani to Arandu and took the lives of twenty men belonging to the Chitral Scouts, Police and Chitral Levies. Following this tragic incident, the regular army was stationed in Arandu and since then there has been peace.

Upon reaching Arandu I wanted to see Arandu Gol, the large, richly forested side valley which extends from the Afghan border to the Lowari Pass one side and the Barrawal region of Dir on the other. Arandu Gol is populated largely by Gujjars and Wardak Pashtuns, who were invited to settle the region during the reign of Mehtar Shuja-ul-Mulk in the early 1900s. The indigenous Gawaris are limited to the village of Ramram. On the climb up into the Arandu Gol you cross a hill which has an Afghan Army post on it and which oversees Arandu Gol as well as the village of Dokalam, which used to be part of Chitral until the 1920s when the British forced Shuja-ul-Mulk to relinquish it to Afghanistan in exchange for a few hills in the Khyber Agency.

Dokalam, a former Chitrali village handed over to Afghanistan by the British Raj

After returning from Arandu Gol we stopped at the house of one of my supporters, Saadat, a Gawari who is my liaison agent with the local tribesmen, for lunch. As is customary in Lower Chitral a goat had been slaughtered and the meat boiled in its own stock until meltingly tender! I enjoyed the meal while my staff, including my secretary Nishaan-e-Haidar and Jalal, couldn’t eat much due to the heat. While I was consuming the better part of a goat, Saadat introduced his brother Abdullah, the premier intellectual of Arandu. This gentleman has translated the Holy Quran into Gawarbati and has a wealth of knowledge about the linguistics and history of the region. Following the mutton came the famous grapes of Damel, which due to the heat of the region are extremely sweet.

One of the major topics of discussion was the newly laid border fence along the Durand Line. The Dardic speakers mostly supported this initiative as it has led to less cross border crime whereas the Pashtuns, Gujjars and Nuristanis are against it due to the fact that the well-guarded fence has cut them off from their ethnic counterparts in Afghanistan. As my agricultural lands in Karanzlasht extend right up to the border fence and are now secure whereas previously it was no man’s land, I, too, am a beneficiary and supporter of the Durand Line Fence!

Thus after a day of exploring and liaising it was time to drive back to Chitral Town. Just a decade ago a visit to this region would have been a dangerous endeavor but now thankfully this linguistically and ethnically diverse region is completely secure. Perhaps in the next few years it can be opened for tourism and the spectacle of the Afghan Border, the lush forests, succulent fruits and beautiful scenery of the valley can be experienced by everyone.

The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk

The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk