Kurram's Sectarian Rift Calls For An Urgent And Holistic Solution

Even though as a ceasefire has restored normalcy to Kurram, latent hostilities remain in a land marred by the rise of violent extremism. The government needs to prioritize a holistic solution that places the people of Kurram at the center.

Kurram sectarian conflict 2023

Kurram, formerly part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and now the Merged Areas, is embroiled in enduring sectarian rifts. Situated in northwestern Pakistan, it grapples with multifaceted challenges that span social, economic, and political domains. With a population of 619,553, the district is an intricate blend of 58% Sunnis and 42% Shias. Prominent tribes like the Turi, Bangash, Tari Mangal, and others inadvertently influence sectarian tensions. An important factor exacerbating these differences is the indigenous Pashtunwali code, which magnifies these discrepancies by combining tribal intricacies with religious dissonance.

Kurram's geographical proximity to Afghanistan makes it susceptible to the ramifications of Afghan conflict. Sectarian turbulence, particularly in Parachinar in upper Kurram, exacerbated after the September 2001 incidents, with a significant escalation leading to the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Kurram's proximity to Afghan conflict areas also facilitated a consistent exchange of militants. This bolstered extremist ideologies, further deepening the Kurram conflict. Moreover, many Kurrams attribute disturbances to external interference, especially from the Afghan Taliban and Iranian influence.

Recent incidents and ongoing challenges

Over the past two decades, this region has witnessed astounding loss of life, widespread injuries, and mass displacement. In particular, there was a conflict between 2007 and 2010, claiming over 3,000 lives, according to various media reports. Although the severity of the conflict diminished for a certain period, 2017 witnessed a renewed escalation in violence. 

Both sides use a variety of methods that involve sophisticated assault weapons, suicide bombings, and targeted assassinations. Regrettably, in the wake of forced displacement, their land, homes, and commercial properties were seized and occupied by adversarial groups, and they were not willing to reach a solution that may contribute significantly to local peace according to local sources. The government's approach, as highlighted by various voices within the region, has not been holistic, indicating the need for a more comprehensive strategy.

Current situation

In the past quarter of 2023, Kurram was once again marred by an uptick of sectarian violence. A series of incidents, seemingly trivial or based on personal disputes, have been manipulated into full-blown sectarian confrontations, often incited by misinformation or bias. 

On July 4, 2023, an incident transpired wherein a van driver, from the Sunni community and tasked with conveying school personnel from Parachinar city to Tiri Mangal for examination responsibilities, was shot dead by anonymous assailants near the vicinity of Norki village of Tiri Mangal. Notably, Tiri Mangal is largely a Sunni-inhabited region. Although the tragic event originated from a personal family dispute involving the driver, it was misconstrued as having sectarian implications. Erroneous narratives disseminated by prejudiced parties insinuated that Shia individuals had perpetrated violence against the Sunnis, leading to a swift escalation in tensions. Mere hours after the driver's death, an unidentified group launched an attack on a governmental educational institution in Tiri Mangal, targeting Shia personnel from Parachinar present for examination duties. The assault resulted in the loss of seven lives, including four teachers and three ancillary staff members.

According to the archives of the Home and Tribal Affairs Department of the KP, eight protracted land disagreements prevail within the central, upper, and lower segments of Kurram district. Some of these disputes have roots that are traced back to pre-independence times. 

In another incident that occurred on July 7, 2023, representatives from the Shia community ventured into Boshehra, a region with a Sunni majority, with the intention of erecting a structure on the contested shamilati arazi (commonly held land). As conveyed by my local residents, both the Shia and Sunni factions asserted proprietary rights to this land. Concurrently, the Sunni community intervened to impede the construction, and a subsequent verbal alteration culminated in a violent confrontation initiated by Shia representatives, leading to an immediate fatality. This incident ignited a series of tumultuous and sectarian confrontations that rapidly proliferated to encompass various townships within the district, from Upper to Lower Kurram.

According to the archives of the Home and Tribal Affairs Department of the KP, eight protracted land disagreements prevail within the central, upper, and lower segments of Kurram district. Some of these disputes have roots that are traced back to pre-independence times. Locals, interviewed for this piece, validated the explanation that disagreements pertaining to land, water resources, and other matters intensified due to their sectarian perspective. I consulted influential locals from both sides in July 2023 who claimed that these episodes catalyzed the recent escalation of hostility in Upper Kurram.

Social media has exacerbated the prevailing discord. Narratives laden with derogatory and incendiary content, predominantly disseminated by younger members from both factions, intensified animosities between divergent sects, and further augmented sectarian tensions.

Consequences of sectarian violence

Sectarian clashes often lead to the blockade of passages between Shia-dominated and Sunni-dominated regions. Tiri Mangal, a Sunni-populated area, is one such area that is severely affected, as the shutdown of schools and healthcare facilities is common. With the prevailing low literacy rate in this region, these shutdowns hamper educational and healthcare services. This is exacerbated by the fact that staff from the more literate Parachinar area cannot travel. Essential services, such as launching a polio campaign, are also hindered. Additionally, blockades disrupt the delivery of crucial goods, including food and medicines, profoundly affecting daily routine. This is especially difficult for daily wage workers and small business owners because of limitations on movement and earnings.

The population of Shia faces similar challenges. The sealing of the route from the Sunni-centric Bosherah to Parachinar disrupts the inflow of supplies from Lower Kurram and beyond. The city of Parachinar, a vital economic center in the Kurram district, is frequently affected by curtailing the operations of laborers and local traders. The Kharlachi border trade with Afghanistan is also not spared. The community grapples with food and medicine shortages as well as restricted healthcare access.

Both the Sunni and Shia groups endured a relentless backdrop of tension and apprehension. The sealing of roads, educational institutions, and health centers, combined with interruptions in utilities such as communication and electricity, deeply strains everyday living. The overarching atmosphere of uncertainty, heightened by concerns over the potential loss of life and property, is palpable. Essential healthcare, especially for vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly, is frequently out of reach owing to facility shutdowns. This neglect of basic human rights further jeopardizes their well-being, underscoring the profound consequences of these sectarian clashes on both communities.

Government initiatives

Written land records exist in both the Kurram and North Waziristan districts of the FATA. However, most tribal areas depend on oral traditions, with jirgas (councils of the elders) resolving land disputes. In Kurram, land ownership was documented twice by the British, once in 1905 and again in 1943. 

Efforts by the government post-2009 did not bring about a durable solution, mainly due to a governance system that marginalized local political voices and leaning heavily on military support. This administrative oversight failed to address the ongoing tensions between the Turi and Bangash Tribes. To address this conflict, the KP government recently established a high-ranking commission to oversee land issues in Kurram, but its impact remains unclear.

A semblance of normalcy seems to have returned to Kurram, however, the district remains on the precipice, with the underlying causes of sectarian tension awaiting holistic solutions

Many believe that ensuring peace and enforcing law and order are the prerogative of the government. However, during the recent sectarian unrest in Kurram, the government's response was lackluster. 

It is crucial to note the absence of civil society groups or NGOs in the peacemaking process. Their lack of participation was driven by concerns about potential violence from extremists and the tedious government's process of registration, not allowing them to access certain areas. 

Subsequently, a grand jirga of 30 influential figures from various districts was created. As of July 2023, short-term truce seems to have been reached between the Shia and Sunni communities in Kurram. A year-long ceasefire was agreed upon by the grand jirga, with both factions committing mutual safety. They concurred that roads would be accessible to all and that both tribes would ensure road security. The trenches previously dug by both sides were surrendered to the security forces. A huge fine of 120 million rupees was set as the penalty for breaching the ceasefire. Daily life has resumed, and in Shia-majority Parachinar City, Moharram activities took place without disturbances.

A semblance of normalcy seems to have returned to Kurram, however, the district remains on the precipice, with the underlying causes of sectarian tension awaiting holistic solutions. It is incumbent on both regional and national stakeholders to engage collaboratively, ensuring that Kurram's history of conflict does not dictate its future.

The author is a development practitioner and researcher, and is a PhD graduate in Social Anthropology from Sussex University, UK.