Waziristan has remained in the headlines for wrong reasons for too long. From The New York Times to community publications in small cities like Kohat in Pakistan, the region has been described as being infested with the world’s most wanted men. Majority of the US drone attacks were directed at its many villages, towns and inaccessible lush green valleys near Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan. The world’s most wanted men from Baitullah Mehsud to Hakimullah Mehsud and many top Al Qaeda leaders all were taken out at different times by the U.S. or Pakistani forces in this region in covert or overt operations. North Waziristan is also considered to be the most bombed region of Pakistan.
Hundreds of articles have appeared in the Pakistani and international media about this mountainous region. Numerous writers have come up with books detailing the bloody history associated with the region, the one that sheds light on the many wanted men calling the region their home.
But how about the natives of Waziristan? How many authors ventured into exploring the region’s inhabitants, its rich culture, traditions, history, scenic beauty and untapped natural resources, and how it transformed from once peaceful region into a hotbed of militancy and terrorism? Not really too many.
Cheegha (the call) is one rare book that hit the bookstands in recent months and is all about the region, its people, customs, traditions and history. What distinguishes Cheegha from all other books on Waziristan is that a native of Waziristan has written it. The 392 pages long book, published by Swedish publishing house l’Aleph, has been authored by Ghulam Qadir Khan, a bureaucrat by profession and a traditional Waziristani Daur by heart.
Ghulam Qadir’s account of transformation of his native village Darpa Khel, North Waziristan, from a peaceful serene village into a hotbed of militancy and the accompanying destruction, is captivating and incisive. He describes this transformation through his personal journey from a traditional village boy to a successful bureaucrat who in later years served as the political agent of North Waziristan.
“Waziristan remains a mystery and a puzzle for most of the world. Reports of violence and terrorism are frequently associated with its name. For people living here, life has become a hell of uncertainty. A drone strike could kill them or their family members one day, a suicide bomber the next or action by the Pakistan army the day after. Is this all there is to Waziristan?
Khan takes the readers into the lives of common Waziristanis using personal experiences and those of his family, especially his father, a noted elder of the area. Using deep knowledge of the his motherland, observation, and wit, Khan explains the Pukhtun code of life, and the tribal society using anecdotal accounts.
The book mainly addresses three critical subjects — the military operation, Pukhtunwali and the rise of militancy.
He forcefully presents arguments against the draconian laws such as the Frontier Crimes Regulations enforced in FATA for the past over a century and the misperceptions about how the tribesmen perceive it.
“Supporters of FCR add insult to injury by saying that it is codified Rawaj (local custom). They argue that tribal traditions have been made into a law on the will of the people. This is not true. FCR is inhuman, un-Islamic and against the Rawaj and has been declared so by the Peshawar High Court.” (Page 49)
Qadir Khan also tries to alley the misunderstandings surrounding the characterization of the inhabitants of the region.
“Tribal Pukhtun is the most misunderstood nation on the face of earth. Tribal areas have always been a mystery, misunderstood and misrepresented; non-tribals have been giving erroneous explanations and interpretations to the tribal instruments of governance and their use in different circumstances. It’s like proverbial blind defining an elephant. Every one is giving his own meaning to his experience with the tribesmen. The media, research scholars and other concerned are discouraged and even prevented from visiting the tribal areas to find the truth for themselves; perforce inferences are drawn from events taking place. Scholars doing research on the tribal areas have never visited them. Such a research can be close to truth but it will definitely not be the truth.” (Page 59)
Qadir Khan uses about 70 pages to explain the different principles of Pukhtunwali such as Nikkat (of forefathers), Mashar (leading elder), Milmastia (hospitality), Badal (revenge), Nanawatey (unconditional surrender), Panah (asylum), Cheegha (the call), Teega (accord), Nagha (fine), Hamsaya (in protection), Tarbur (second cousins), Maraka (parleya) and Jirga (council of elders). He explains the tribal customs and traditions with anecdotal references to his or his father’s experiences, whom he calls “Baba”. Khan extensively uses Pashto proverbs while summarizing his personal experiences with the tribal way of life.
Sharing his childhood days, Qadir Khan beautifully weaves the different festivals celebrated in his native Derpa Khel with personal experiences. His eloquent narrative style takes the reader into the middle of different cultural events, such as the De Gulano Nandara, Ballodukky (thanks giving), Gowasht (harvest festival) etc., leaving real-life feelings of giggles and pounding hearts.
He also dilates upon the diversity of his village and its surroundings in his childhood days, recalling how a significant portion of Darpa Khel’s population was Hindu who opted to stay in Pakistan after partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. According to him, majority of Darpa Khel’s Hindu Pukhtuns migrated to India’s Hyderabad Daccan region after the 1965 war.
“They weren’t weak in any way than the rest of us because of their religion; rather they were a kind of an elite wealthy class. They were friends and equals and both the communities (Hindus and Muslims) respected each other. Baba said he didn’t recall a single incident where they had an issue with the Hindus; they were all very balanced people.
“It was basically the partition that created the differences between Hindus and Muslims of Waziristan. We were two different entities on the same side, against the British colonialists but the partition made us into enemies….” (Page 240)
His fascinating account of tribal way of life is presented in a flawless continuity, laced with striking and honest observations.
“There isn’t much wealth in a tribal society so there aren’t many rich or poor among them. All are poor by worldly standards and the richest in heritage and pride. The tribesmen adore their religion and they love Pukhtunwali. They never miss a prayer and they never miss Attan (the traditional tribal dance). The family and Khel are one for whatever fate has in store. They wouldn’t bend to any threat and will always stand together, proud and unafraid. (Page 285)
Qadir Khan’s reading of pre- and post-invasion of Afghanistan by former Soviet Union is a blend of both liberal and conservative schools of thoughts prevalent in that part of the world. He blames pretty much all and sundry for the sweeping religio-social transformation of his motherland from a traditional Rawaj-lead society into a more radicalized cocktail of religious extremism, terrorism and nationalist fascism. He believes that from the Soviets to the petro dollar-rich Arab monarchies to Americans, to Afghan mujahideen-turned warlords and to the Pakistani establishment, all share the blame.
He maintains that the free world forgot the destruction of a nation while celebrating the Soviet defeat, end of Cold War, fall of Berlin Wall, independence of numerous independent states in Central Asia and the Baltics.
“In the zeal of success and ensuing opportunities, they couldn’t see the destruction of a nation. The nation that had made the victory possible, the nation that sacrificed all it had, the Pukhtuns, tribesmen in particular were gone and forgotten. Even after the so-called liberation, Afghanistan was enduring a terrible civil war.
“Our lands will never be the same. Our peaceful motherland became an international playground for the notorious “Great Game”. (Page 303)
Qadir Khan complains that the tribesmen were abandoned by the big powers after they facilitated the Soviet defeat.
“No matter what historians say, it was just the tribesmen standing between the Russian Red Army and the hot waters.
All this was made possible by the illusions created by the illustrious Charlie Wilson and Co…. (Page 304)
He recalls mushroom growth of Madrassas in his region in the early 1980s, which were used for recruiting young men and even children for militancy.
“The purpose-built Madrassas, run by Afghans and Arabs, took in the most vulnerable, unwanted poor, the orphans, the displaced and every one who had nowhere else to go. Children were indoctrinated against others, irrespective of religion, color, nationality or any other distinction. The hate spreading teachers filled them with hate. They were trained in death and destruction, total annihilation without any remorse, giving them a hundred justifications for their acts against any one and everyone. Anyone who could carry a gun was converted into a mercenary. (Page 305)
In the process, Qadir maintains, the international community, the US, Britain and their allies “created monsters that would haunt them for the rest of their lives”.
These indoctrinated jihadis melted into criminal gangs and proliferated a new culture of guns, narcotics and violence. So powerful, better trained and equipped were these Afghan Jihadiis that there was little Pakistani police could do to stop or defeat the emerging criminal enterprise.
Qadir Khan says one reason the tribesmen’s power weakened was that mujahideen groups like Hizb e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar became so powerful that they defeated the fear of Badal (revenge by the tribe) in much of North Waziristan.
“Badal is central to keeping peace in a tribal society. With fear of Badal gone, tribal life was practically over. (Page 307)
Hekmatyar’s closest ally Jalauddin Haqqani (the founder of Haqqani Network) virtually took over Waziristan and beyond. After the Soviet withdrawal, Qadir says, the West’s most trusted commander who had received most of the American arms and funding was launched to take over Kabul. Hekmatyar however failed to defeat a ‘poorly armed’ Afghan army.
He challenges the historians who say Hekmatyar’s military campaign was defeated because of poor planning of his Pakistani handlers, the secret agencies. He argues that the Hizb e Islami lost because it lost trust of the tribesmen.
In the last chapters of the book, Qadir Khan details the frustration of the common folks in the transformed and radicalized Waziristan with the militants, the military, Afghanistan, the West and the Pakistani state. The last chapters of the book seems to speak up for every peaceful and law abiding tribesman’s sufferings. He says Waziristan’s residents are caught up in the crossfire between the Taliban, the Pakistani military and the US.
He laments the systematic destruction of the main pillars of Pukhtunwali like Mashar, Hujra, jirga, etc. by the militants who have imposed their own way of life, a culture alien to Pukhtunwali and Rawaj in the region he so fondly calls “paradise”.
“The enemy is cultural imperialism. The world wants us to do away with Pukhtunwali, our culture, the ways of the fathers. The government is trying to indianize us by giving us scholarships to schools down country. Others are trying to Arabize us by making mosques and madrassas for us, persuading us to accept Arab Badoin culture as a religious obligation. Yet others are persuading us to ape the West. Each inducing us away from Pukhtunwali. I wonder why we cant be mainstreamed as Pukhtuns.” (Pages 325 and 326)
Khan explains Waziristan’s transformation from a peaceful mountainous paradise into a dusty wilderness through his personal experience of the changing colors of his own village and its inhabitants.
“The last time I visited the village, the road was empty, there was no traffic, no livestock, no stray animals, there was an empty road ahead of us and a ball of dust behind us. It was all so lonely. Ah, I missed the crazy driving, saluting people enroute, playing music at full blast and playing baby sitter for the last few yards till we reached home. At last when I reached the village, it was all so quite. The land was all brown and barren with dust and debris blown around. The whole atmosphere was so sad; the main street that used to be full of people and livestock was empty, littered with debris. The Lukhtai was stinking. (Page 342)
Khan wraps up the book with some possible solutions that he believes can reduce the widespread frustration in the tribal society. He believes that preserving Pukhtunwali can only save tribal culture. And using the basic instruments of Pukhtunwali itself can save Pukhtunwali.
Coupled with saving the pillars of Pukhtunwali, he calls for sweeping administrative, judicial, economic and political reforms in FATA “to give tribesmen equal rights and mainstream tribal areas with rest of the country.”
And last but not the least he wants to use Cheegha as the critical call to action to turn the situation around.
“I announce the Cheegha and ask the Cheegha party to be ready to undo all the injustice done to us by anyone and everyone in the name of anything and everything. This is Cheegha, the Call against the faceless enemy. A Call against proscribing Pukhtunwali, replacing it by an alien culture in the name of religion”. Page 385
Cheegha is a unique account of a personal life journey through tempestuous times. It reflects on and challenges the many perceptions about Waziristan, the reasons for rise of militancy, destruction of the tribal way of life, the pain that the bloody transformation of tribal society brought along and the hope and chances of lasting peace in one of the world’s most volatile regions. The book is a must-read for any one who wishes to understand what happened in Waziristan over the past decade, the misery its transformation at the hands of self-appointed religious fanatics brought for its helpless inhabitants and their true feelings of frustration and despair. Being born and raised in the region, Ghulam Qadir Khan certainly is most qualified to give his version of this black chapter in Waziristan’s history that brought nothing but death, destruction, pain and misery to its inhabitants.
Cheegha is available at Amazon.