How Parachinar got Pakistan to listen

An eight-day dharna after a bomb blast was the only solution for this terror-struck outpost

How Parachinar got Pakistan to listen
The boys with tin buckets of coal will protect you from misfortune. They sprinkle Spalanaey or wild rue seeds on the embers, and in tiny priestly waves coax its fragrant smoke from these homemade censers to chase off the evil eye. Some poverty-stricken children in Parachinar who have lost their fathers in bomb blasts have turned to this work to earn a living of sorts. They would rather do this for a few rupees than beg. Shopkeepers call out to them, “Ay spailanay wala aw lugay ka.” Come burn some for us.

Except in Parachinar there is far greater evil afoot than that which a few seeds may keep at bay.


On June 23, twin bomb blasts killed 72 people and injured 225 others in Parachinar’s central Punjabi bazaar in Upper Kurram Agency. The process of gathering data on the toll was still underway when we went to press, as many patients were taken to Peshawar. People say some bodies have not been found. “They were naked, no clothes,” says Ghayur Ali, who picked up five. “People were ripping the canopies off shopfronts to use as stretchers.” Others were rushed to the Agency Headquarter hospital on carts. In Parachinar, when there is a bomb blast, people run to it and not away. This time though, it was a double-tap. The rescuers themselves succumbed in the second explosion as women looked on horrified from the rooftops.

This was the third attack so far this year. Maddened men, around fifty of them, rushed to the Political Agent’s office to protest. What happened next is being investigated. The Frontier Constabulary (FC) jawans posted there are accused of allegedly opening fire on the protestors. Three men were killed and 13 were injured.

“No one ever thought they would open fire,” says H. Haider, one of the 13, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the foot at the AHQ. “They could have done aerial firing,” he says. “We were going to protest against the people who did the bombings, not the FC. And they knew that as we were in the red zone, we would be unarmed.” H. drives a rickshaw and earns about 300 rupees a day.

On a bed opposite H. is Asif Ali, who works in a bakery making kurramwallay mithai. They make fun of him in a gentle way because his case defies logic. He has the dubious honour of surviving three bomb blasts this year, on January 21 (25 killed), March 31 (23 killed), and June 23 (~72 killed). Mehdi Hussain Turi explains the smiles: “There is an insect that you’ll find in wheat. But after you separate the chaff, you will still find it crawling around. We call Asif the matchke [insect] after it.” In the earlier attacks Asif lost an uncle and a cousin. As details of his miraculous survivals are recounted by friends surrounding his bed, he cocks his head with a bemused look. He can’t hear because his ear was damaged. He lifts his shirt to show the baby pink burns. We cannot talk to him. He smiles. We smile back.

That night, after the dead were buried, one man decided something. By 3am when he had finished the ghusl or last rites for the last body, 33-year-old political worker Muzammil Agha went back to the road outside the Political Agent’s office and sat down. “Whenever we have a bomb blast I go straight to the mortuary,” he says. “When I was done at 2:30am, I took a blanket and pillow and went to protest.” He would not move until something gave. It was just him and handful of men. But then the numbers swelled into what would perhaps become the most successful dharna in this area’s history.

Except, when it started, on that night and some nights to come, no one was listening in non-Parachinar land.

Road to the end of Pakistan

Near Hangu en route to Parachinar, somewhere in Pakistan, three words appear in white on the side of a hill: Ya Ali Madad. And depending on what is happening here, they can be a plea, a war cry, a protest or a greeting. Black sheep skitter about the roadsides, fat with wool. Graves adorned with plastic flowers line the route. Some of them have red flags. Those are the special ones. The ones who should not have been in the graves.

There are four of us in the vehicle, including activist Jibran Nasir, community worker Meena Gabeena and Elaaj Trust’s Dr Talha Rehman. Jibran had put out a call for people to accompany him to Parachinar to show solidarity. Didn’t feel like celebrating Eid this year given what happened, he says. Meena was keen to talk to the women and children and Talha to assess the health needs.

On the eight-hour drive from Islamabad, at one point you enter Fata—that mysterious land with the short acronym for a long name that is associated with the Taliban more than its own people. And as for Kurram Agency overall, it does not exist in the imagination. Its capital, Parachinar, just feels like a synonym for death.

On the map app, it is clear we are at the end of Pakistan. We are headed to that tip that juts out into Afghanistan so that it was dubbed Parrot’s Beak during British times. The geographical reality beggars belief. Fata feels like Pakistan in some seamless way that confounds divisions in the mind.

The only indication that you are entering fraught territory is the multiple check posts. At the agency’s entrance, Chapri’s Baab-e-Kurram, and beyond, cagey or blank jawans, depending on how high the sun is at that point in the day, ask you either of two deadpan questions: Where are you going. Where are you coming from. “We are from Karachi and are going to Parachinar,” says Jibran. We are struck by the oddity of that sentence. Some of the jawans peer into the vehicle and wave us on: the sight of two beatifically smiling women innoculates against the fear of a security risk.

Asif Ali has survived three bomb blasts in Parachinar. His hearing was damaged on the June 23 one. Photo: Mahim Maher

24hr protest

Volunteers form layers of security and cordon off the approach to the dharna with a chicken coop that looks suspiciously like a caged bier. Everyone is patted down. Scissors and nail clippers are deposited on a bench. The dharna stretches on main Parachinar or bijli ghar road, from Edhi park to the Political Agent’s office behind a tall stone wall. Under canopies, on rugs, hundreds of men sit, shoulder to shoulder. Some of them have turned grey, others are as little as grandchildren. Their open faces are studies in anatomical sculpture with a history of remote genetic infusions. Farsi diphthong vowels inflect this Pashto tongue: Jibraan becomes JibrOWn.

At the end, on a platform is Muzammil. From June 23 the dharna has entered its sixth day, starting with 10 men and swelling to five thousand (by rough estimates). The men stay here 24 hours; cauldrons of rice are sent from villages and sherbet stalls keep up a supply of pink water. Muzammil keeps their spirits up. Shia ulema arrive as do a few political names from Quetta to show solidarity. But no one else is in sight.

Saad Edhi announces that the foundation is setting up a centre so people do not have to travel 400km to get help. This will be the first one in Fata after the one in Mohmand Agency closed down during the operation. The announcement of three new ambulances is met with murmurs of ‘MashaAllah’. Edhi is well-loved here. Everyone remembers how he was turned away in 2008 when he tried to enter the agency to help.

Muzammil introduces Jibran, who gets down to business. He is a consummate public speaker, who has come prepared with cultural references he knows will resonate with these people. He enthralls them with couplets that encapsulate their victimhood and survivals. But most of all, he gives them what they have been hungering for: acknowledgement of pain. He opens with an apology. Not enough media is paying attention. No national leaders have deigned to come. One dharna participant quips about rumours that a major VVIP is scheduled to come via helicopter: “Even if he came walking from Islamabad he would have reached sooner.” There are anguished comparisons to Bahawalpur. Jibran uses the word ‘shame’. He tells them he is not Shia. He tells them he is here. And then, in a theatrical flourish he discards the microphone, cranks his arm up like a lever as if to raise the crowd in his open palm, and with all his vocal strength sends out a “NaraAA-E-HAIDERIII!” The crowd roars back. Far better to expel the anger vocally than to let it turn into something physical that spirals out of control. This is the discipline of the dharna; it brings together rage, compresses it, and gives it controlled release. “The youth are respected,” observes Meena, who translates from the Pashto. “And they respect the elders.” Speaker after speaker reminds the young men that theirs is not the way of the gun, but of patience.

People comes to share stories and boost morale. Haji Sher Hassan has lost three sons. “Even if ten of my sons were shaheed, I would still say I sacrifice them in the name of Hussain (RA),” he says. He donates Rs160,000 to the dharna. Muzammil weeps as he reads out a note from a woman who offers Rs35,000 set aside for her wedding dress. An anguished Parachinar man who heard this sent a message from Australia that he would send Rs100,000 in her lieu.

The dharna has a list of demands some of whose points are: Parachinar’s safety be ensured. The FC’s policy in Parachinar has been “biased” and so the Kurram (Turi) militia be returned and the city’s security be handed to them. “On the basis of need, Turi tribesmen be inducted for new wings in the FC. And local volunteers be made part of security.” They want the red zone to be scrapped and a security plan prepared which does not inconvenience residents. (Translated from Urdu).

It is not difficult to understand the raw sentiment that gives rise to these demands. They express a reaction of wounded people. And it is not the time or place to object, but some locals indicate that they know it will not be possible for the authorities to implement them. For the sixth day of the dharna, however, the focus is getting the country’s attention. Finding solutions to preventing the bloodshed will be harder. There is a long and complex history to it.

The dharna at Parachinar lasted eight days from June 23, the day of the bomb blasts, till Friday June 30. Photo: Abbas Jan

Troubles begin

Parachinar’s troubles, specifically sectarian violence, can, in part, be dated to the Afghan war in 1979. The tyranny of geography is such that Parachinar sits at the tip of that fin-like part of Pakistan that is surrounded by three Afghan provinces. It is closer to Kabul than Peshawar, which is why it is seen as strategically important—not just for the Mujahideen but for Pakistan as well. Its surrounding areas served as a launch pad.

At that point in time, Parachinar’s population was generally understood to be mixed, Shia and Sunni. “The arrival of the Afghan muhajireen changed the balance of Kurram,” claims journalist Hidayat Pasdar Ali, who has been writing since 1999. According to him, many mujahideen were given sanctuary in Kurram. The Turis, who are mostly Shia, were not impressed, he says. That’s when the “khitchri” started cooking. This is, however, the isolated perspective from Upper Kurram and these interpretations of ‘history’ are obviously presented through the lens of the individual. For the purposes of this article, due to several constraints, it was not immediately possible to independently verify these assertions. Let it be clear, as well, that the voice of the Sunnis and that of the people from central and lower Kurram could not, with regret, be included. Conflicting narratives emerge from lower and central Kurram on the causes and origins of the sectarian strife. It was also not possible to gain the perspective of the Political Agent or the IG FC, despite repeated requests for interviews. And while one does not want to give the impression that the narrative presented in Parachinar is flawed given how much they have suffered, it would not be fair to proceed without alerting the reader that this is just one, albeit important, side of the story.

Post-Afghan war, says Hidayat, there was relative peaceful coexistence—until the advent of the Taliban. According to the people interviewed, it was in 2006 and 2007 that the Taliban started to eye Parachinar, which was a prized stronghold that provided access to Afghanistan. They say that they started to notice “Taliban elements”. “We knew that something was wrong because [a] madrassa was getting 400 rotis a day,” says Jamshed Ali. The madrassa students ate at home as they were day students, so who needed 400 rotis?

“They wanted to take over,” says Hidayat. “There were messages, that Amir saheb doesn’t like this and Amir saheb doesn’t like that.” He recalls returning home in 2006/7 to find wedding dancing in Alizai. The wedding had ended days ago, but they were still dancing because a note had been sent saying that there should be no music and dancing.

Notes were reportedly sent to music centres, telling them to close. This, say the men interviewed for this piece, became a nuisance. But it was not as if the Sunnis were also not suffering. The squeeze was put on them as well. According to some accounts, people were being forced to take sides. “They would have killed them if they resisted,” claims a young resident, Basharat. And indeed many were. Kurram began to experience what many other places were experiencing in those years.

Then came April 6, 2007. According to all the people spoken to for this article, on 12 Rabiul Awal a procession emerged from the central mosque with some men shouting incendiary slogans. People thought there would be talks to handle the matter, say Prof Tahir Hussain, Ashiq Husain, Liaquat Hussain and Jamshed Ali. A few days later, a 17 Rabiul Awwal jaloos attempted to respond in kind with counter slogans. That’s when the firing erupted in the streets. The mosque and the markazi imambargah are located smack opposite each other. Four boys were shot dead and in 24 hours the toll rose to 64 with 700 injured. Lashkars were formed in surrounding villages. “They are all cousins so they get organised,” says Jamshed Ali. (These accounts could not be independently verified).

Bashir earns a few rupees by warding off the evil eye with Spilanay seeds in Parachinar. Photo: Mahim Maher


Subsequently, it is said that the Taliban closed off the road into Parachinar, in 2007. This is when the isolation began. People say they were forced to exit via the check posts into Afghanistan (Kharlachi, Burki, Tirimengal and Malikhel). You would then take a perilous 48-hour journey via Kabul to re-enter from Peshawar. “My two daughters could not go to medical school,” says Ashiq Hussain, who everyone calls ‘Daddy’ because he is the pioneer and backbone of Haidery Blood Bank. He told them that there was no way he could take them via Kabul. They wept for days. “We could not breathe until we knew our son had reached safely.” One of Ashiq’s sons insisted that he had to get out, despite his father’s pleas. He went to Australia to seek asylum.

And so, you literally had to go to another country to get into your own from 2007 to roughly 2012. People say they would take one trip a month. But even taking this route was no joke as they ran the risk of abductions. “In those years we didn’t even eat a single Pakistani toffee,” says one man. “We decided we would eat grass but we would not give the Taliban way.”

Between 2007 and 2011, an estimated 56 villages were burnt with entire families perishing in some cases, according to Parachinar residents. Abid Ali Shah Kazmi’s father, a principal in Jamrud, was apparently slaughtered, some say in front of his eyes. He had been openly threatened on the radio. In kidnappings, ransoms of Rs150,000 were reportedly demanded. In 2008, eight truck drivers and eight conductors bringing a convoy of rations to Parachinar, protected by six FC vehicles and a helicopter, were reportedly ambushed and slaughtered, by the accounts of the men in Parachinar. “We were not even able to get to their bodies,” says Liaquat of the Haidery Blood Bank.

Some people claim that salaries for government employees would have to be brought in helicopters during the times when the road was closed off. And while it was not possible to independently verify, many men in Parachinar say that many of their Sunni neighbours were forced to leave out of fear or coercion or for other reasons. Business from Afghanistan (fruit) and Iran (dates, dairy products) thinned out. Afghan SIMs were more effective but the government cracked down on them. (You apparently need an NoC for any other kind of solution like a satellite system.) Cellular 3G services stopped a year ago. Now you need a PTCL landline to get the internet. Only Jazz numbers work here.

It was in 2011 that the Tall-Parachinar road was opened after the government put its weight behind the effort. A slow process of getting Sunni families to return began, say many men. In 2012 there was a jirga at Governor House. Ashiq Hussain was there. According to his version of events, the Sunnis asked for guarantees. “I stood up and said that there were eight qaums (tribes) here and I would speak on behalf of all of them that no harm will come to even one of your chickens,” he recounts. He claims that the Sunnis were terrified of being seen as making a pact with the Shias of Parachinar to return. “We can’t even tell our wives at home anything political,” he quotes them as saying at the jirga. If even one woman shared information with a friend it ran the risk of being found out. “They kidnapped anyone who spoke against them in Sadda.”

Turning point

On Friday morning, dharna day 8, COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa arrives. According to Mehdi Hussain, a small group of Parachinar men in Islamabad had met Air Marshal Syed Qaiser Hussain to apprise him of the concerns earlier on. They had, he says, conveyed that the dharna would stay until the COAS came to Parachinar.

Muzammil Agha and a team of dharna representatives say they spent two hours with Gen Bajwa. “He was calling me beta, so I said, if he was considering me that, then he should listen to me as an elder,” says Muzammil. And indeed, he says a frank discussion followed so much so that the team felt that they had been properly heard out. One complaint is that the FC wing positioned in Parachinar is made up of outsiders, tribals from other agencies. In the 1980s, there was a change of policy and the Kurram militia men were posted out of Kurram and other militia were brought in. Now the demand is that the Kurram or Turi militia (of locals whether Shia or Sunni) be allowed to protect Parachinar. It became clear in the meeting, however, that this demand would not necessarily work because of certain considerations. And while the people of any area can work with security forces, it is not the norm for them to tell them how to do their job. Locals should be engaged with the authorities on informing them about their needs in the city; it perhaps does not make much sense for them to be making the security plan.

Additionally, it would not set a good precedent to have an all-Shia militia. The army’s recruitment simply doesn’t distinguish along those lines. Furthermore, there are good reasons why outside forces are preferred for an area in order to maintain discipline and the integrity of law and order efforts. However, what was agreed upon is that the existing FC wing would be moved out and another be brought in, according to Mehdi Hussain.

The ISPR issued a press release on June 30 after the meeting and clarified many points. “While administrative concerns will be pursued with the executive body, suggestions regarding security mechanism[s] are being incorporated forthwith. We can only be effective when locals are part of the security and vigilance,” the COAS said.

It is important to note, as the ISPR states, that to date 126 soldiers of FC KP alone “have laid [down] their lives and 387 have [been] injured while performing security duties in Kurram Agency [alone]”. “FC KP is a professional force inclusive of all tribes and sects performing their duties selflessly,” the COAS said.

The second point that was raised at the dharna concerned the alleged firing after the blast that day. “Firing by FC troops while handling mob situation post blast is being inquired and those responsible shall not be spared,” the ISPR said. In any event, a full investigation is the only way to ascertain what happened. According to some reports, CCTV cameras were broken by protesters. An argument is presented that the protesters could have been deterred by aerial firing. “Pathan aerial firing se kidhar bhagta he,” said one Parachinar man in response to that argument. “You think aerial firing scares a Pathan off?”

Another demand concerned FC commandant Col Malik Umar, who had attracted the ire of the residents. The demand was that he leave. “FC commandant has already been changed,” the ISPR stated. It also went into detail about how the army would also set up a trauma centre and the government will be offering the victims compensation, all points raised by the dharna.

According to Mehdi Hussain, the success of the dharna was that a “sincerity” emerged in listening to the people. On Monday, Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra distributed one million rupees for the martyrs and Rs500,000 for the injured.

The challenge now is how to secure the city. “The entire city can’t be turned into a red zone,” argues journalist Hidayat. The bomb blast on June 23 took place outside it. “There were 50 applications to end the red zone,” he claims. And it is easy to see how shopkeepers may be against it. The check posts have long lines. The ISPR addressed these points too: “Additional Army troops have been moved in Parachinar to enhance its security. [W]hile FC troops are being beefed up on Pak-Afg border to seal it effectively. T[u]ri Razakars are also being dovetailed on check posts.” A safe city project will be undertaken by installing CCTV cameras as has been done in Lahore and Islamabad.

And so, for this last city at the end of Pakistan, it appears that something has changed. Parachinar is no longer on its own. Pakistan is listening.

Turi militia & FC

The Pashto-speaking Capt George Olaf Roos-Keppel who was the PA from 1897 to 1899

In order to understand the dharna’s demands that the FC’s Kurram militia be manned by locals, a historic note is in order. The FC is made up of several groups such as the Chitral Scouts, Khyber Rifles and the Mohmand Rifles. One of them is the Kurram militia. Many Turis generally agree, according to Khan Barmazid’s blog ‘A History of the Pashtun’, that they are of Turkic origin and were nomads who came to settle in Kurram valley to displace and fight the Bangash tribe here. (Historian Sir Olaf Caroe disagrees). Eventually they took over the valley and the Bangash compromised. For years they had a rebellious relationship with Kabul. At one point, fed up with the Afghans, the Turis welcomed the British who had ejected the Kabul government from Kurram in 1879. The British government declared that Kurram was a protectorate in 1892 and the Turi militia was raised, recruiting locals. It was initially based at Balish Khel near Sadda, but within a few months the headquarters were moved to Parachinar, and it was renamed the Kurram militia.

The name Parachinar

There are several theories to the name Parachinar city. The most obvious one pegs it to the chinar or maple leaf tree that grows here. Kurram Agency also had a pre-Turi tribe known as the Para Chamkani, who used to convene their meetings under the chinar tree to resolve problems, according to resident Shahid Kazmi. Parachinar’s old name is Tootkai and in Afghanistan some people still call it that. The name was changed in about 1910 or 1920.