Encounter with the northern cavalry

Hanniah Tariq befriends the Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts after they get her out of a potentially sticky situation

Encounter with the northern cavalry
Standing at the side of the road at 9 pm, we were now effectively poster children for the notion that “any place is dangerous if you are stupid”. Me and my friend had been to Sikandarabad in Hunza Valley (about 1 hour of the main highway) to interview one of the oldest working high-attitude porters in the area. He had customarily insisted we stay for a meal even though it was 5pm by the time we were done. With no conceivable meal to be had at that time, we sat around till 7, ate and then made a dash for our beds in Karimabad – which were effectively more than 3 hours away. The taxi, or rather a local enterprising man with a car, dropped us by the main highway at Husnabad. From here the illusive public vans that may or may not stop for us (depending on conditions ranging from being full to the conductor running late for his niece’s wedding) would run for another couple of hours to Karimabad.

As a number of vans went by without picking us up, we were two lone figures standing in the dark on the side of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) with most of our earthly possessions neatly distributed between us in our backpacks. This could end really badly I thought, as every shadow became a potential terrorist or dacoit! Just one year prior to this, on June 22, 2013, about 16 militants dressed in camouflage (accounts have varied on whether they were dressed in local paramilitary uniforms) followed a climbing group up to Nanga Parbat base-camp and shot in cold blood 10 foreign climbers and a local cook.
They had been escorting the family for a week, during which they had long hours, minimal breaks and felt "like guard-dogs"

As anxiety took over and I was beginning to contemplate what the headlines would say once we encountered the worst, a voice called out in the dark. “Hello?” it boomed twice, and unable to come up with another response I yelled back: “Hi, how are you?” (In English). I could hear my friend beginning to laugh like he always did at my ‘Burger disposition’ despite the circumstances. I consoled myself by thinking that at least I gave someone one last laugh before kicking the bucket.

Approaching us were two young men, dressed in black and carrying guns so casually on their shoulders that they could have been handbags on aunties going to brunch. I was contemplating having a heart attack and then a tearful parting with my laptop at gunpoint, when my friend happily stepped forward and shook one of their hands. The figures emerging out of the dark were men from our Gilgit-Baltistan scouts. The cavalry (for once in Pakistan) was here!

“Where you going Madam?” one of them asked in English. It was obvious that my usual attire of Western clothing was getting me mistaken for a foreigner - again. When we answered that we needed to get to Karimabad in Urdu, a familiar smile broke out on both their faces. Most people we had met always beamed when they saw two locals running around, trying to research their area. Apparently, it’s a practice that is not so common.

They were headed back to Aliabad after dropping off a political figure that had been in the area at the last check-post (we had encountered his entourage in Karimabad and promptly decided to leave for Hopper valley earlier that week). On the way back they had seen us standing by the road and decided to see if everything was OK. That in itself seemed like a miracle to me. When does the police ever stop to check if people by the side of the road are OK? In Karachi, if we had been standing there I doubt anyone would have stopped – even if I dramatically stabbed my friend in the throat and stole his phone!

We followed them to a small tea shop where the rest of the unit was waiting for us and warming up. Gingerly we followed them into the khoka. Seated, taking up almost all of the tiny room, were law enforcers of two descriptions. Group A was what you expect in the south. Older, noticeable girth, long beard and sanctimonious expression. Group B (which included our two saviors) were a breed I haven’t generally encountered before. Young, sharp, friendly and in great shape. Basically, people you can count on in a pinch. Best of all, neither group seemed to be concerned that I was a woman. I was spoken to with the same friendliness and respect as my male friend.

A polo game between two teams from the G-B Scouts

Sticking out among them like sore thumbs (admittedly me much more than my male friend) we were served tea, which was chemically closer to pure sugar than anything else. As had become our secret custom for simultaneously not offending hosts and me not succumbing to my family inclination towards diabetes I would have under normal circumstances waited for my friend to finish his and then sneakily switched my full one for his empty one. However, sitting in the middle of 20 smartly dressed scouts with guns, I decided maybe right now was not exactly the time to exhibit any sleight of hand.

My blood sugar soared as the senior most officer present (group A member since the early 1900s, most likely judging from the hue and length of his beard) grilled us long and hard about our research, professions, education, lineage and political affiliations. A second cup of syrup somehow arrived in my hands. The conversation would have continued into shoe sizes and allergies if the unit did not need to get to Aliabad at some point that night. Walking out I asked my friend if I should offer to pay for the tea as a ‘thank you’. There I managed to execute yet another Islamabadi burger move apparently, as he laughed and reminded me that police in Pakistan don’t pay for tea. Sure enough as the entire platoon exited the khoka, the proprietor, busy making more tea, barely even looked up. I said “thank you”. He rolled his eyes and stirred his pot.

Our chariot was waiting outside. In October, in the north of Pakistan, these guys ride around in what are essentially just pickup trucks. The front cabin seats members of group A, while the open back (a canopy graces half of the top of it) houses Group B. I was still weighing my options, warmth plus fat old policemen who ask too many questions or tearing through the mountains freezing in the middle of the night with group B. I was both thrilled and terrified by that prospect of hanging out with group B. However, the choice was made for me by group A, who neatly piled into the cabin without (thankfully) offering the “Laaadeese” a seat. We clambered into the back with our bags and squeezed under the canopy with some of the younger scouts.

“I’m so glad that [insert some questionable language here] is gone. I couldn’t stand him. When I go home tonight I will send him so many ‘Bad-dua’s. I’ll make my mother pray too. Inshallah a horrible calamity will fall on his head!” burst out one suddenly to his companions. The others all burst out laughing. My friend and I looked at each other. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. I was trying to telepathically ask him our chances of survival after jumping from this moving car that seemed to be housing some serious crazy.

Presently they began to explain. Their unit had been assigned to a political figure that had been visiting the area with his family. We were finally sitting in the middle of the “vacation-ruining bodyguards” we kept hearing about. Post the Nanga Parbat incident, VIPs and foreigners were being assigned local law enforcement officers as escorts for protection. A French couple I spoke to earlier claimed that their assigned security had inexplicably sat between them on their ride the entire time. But they didn’t seem so bad at all. And as we heard their end of the story my perspective shifted drastically.

“All day, Madam”, one of them said. “All day, for days we had duty with his family, to protect them wherever they went. Not one of them ever said Salam or even once offered us a cup of tea. It was like we were invisible.” They had been escorting the family for a week, during which they had long hours, minimal breaks and felt “like guard-dogs”. One of them said he hadn’t seen his mother the entire week as he had been waking up at the crack of dawn and returning late at night.

We debated VIP culture (at the time one of the most burning topics in the country thanks to the PTI dharna which was reaching its second month in the south) as we tore through Nagar and Hunza getting closer to our beloved Mulberry hotel in Karimabad. “For my country, my life is here – all anyone needs to do is ask. But not for these people, they don’t deserve this country!” said the initial invoker of curses as we pulled around the corner that I recognised as we headed up the hill to Karimabad. They had left their assigned station 15 minutes behind to drop us safely all the way to our hotel.

These gentlemen truly had hearts of gold. In a country where the general population tends to be nervous around police, the Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts shine through, abundantly deserving of respect and recognition, regardless of political standing or VIP culture. They really are there to protect and serve.