When the police constable stopped a Skardo bound bus at the Shangla check post and asked for the identity cards, it made many passengers turn pale with fear. Without wasting any time, many ducked their heads behind the backrest while others pretended to fall asleep. Some even dropped their ID cards under their seats. It was only after the constable checked few of the ID cards and got off the bus that the passengers felt like a heavy weight was lifted off their chests.
At first sight, it might not seem a normal reaction to many except to those who have read about the unfortunate incident of February 28, when several armed men in military uniforms pulled 18 Shias out of four Gilgit bound buses and shot and killed them in front of their loved ones. The incident occurred in the broad daylight and very close to the two check posts located in Kohistan district. Yet, the vehicles carrying more than 20 assailants were able to disappear from the crime scene without any trace.
After the bloodshed, many in Gilgit-Baltistan raised the slogans, like "Yeh jo dehshetgardi hai; is ke peechay wardi hai", which suggests that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan believe that the assailants had support of the Pakistani military. The recent incident reminds them of the Shia massacre of 1988, when Pakistani military directly supported the militants during attacks on fourteen villages of Gilgit-Baltistan. Thousands of people lost lives, honor and property during that episode which lasted for sixteen days. The slogans also show that people have lost faith in the law enforcement agencies in their responsibility to maintain law and order in the region. They accuse the paramilitary of fueling sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan to weaken the masses and tighten control over the strategically located disputed region.
As terror has engulfed the region, even routine checking of vehicles at police and military check posts frightens the passengers. Now the peaceful and innocent people of Gilgit-Baltistan, who are known worldwide for their hospitality and loud laughter, are forced to undertake the journey from Islamabad to Gilgit-Baltistan in the shadow of death. Now people are even hesitant to leave the vehicles to use toilets or obtain food from the restaurants as are too scared. They feel that the lofty and graceful mountains of Diamer and Kohistan have become very unfriendly to them; the same mountains which once drew thousands of climbers every summer.
For the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, travel on the Karakoram Highway is no joyride. Some among the passengers are students attending the universities of Pakistan; others are temporary employees in different urban centers of the country; while some are patients on their way to the hospitals in Islamabad and Lahore. If government plans to provide jobs, and health and educational services in Gilgit-Baltistan, then these people would not have to travel and risk their lives like this.
They ride these buses and vans out of compulsion since they have no alternative means to travel. KKH is the sole road that links Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan. On the other hand, air travel is extremely expensive and poor people of Gilgit-Baltistan, where the per capita income is one-fourth of that of Pakistan's average, cannot afford to ride a plane.
A soldier attached to the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) and currently stationed in North Waziristan Agency accompanied the scribe in the same bus. While talking about safety measures during the travel on KKH, he said, "The travellers especially the Shias have to prepare in advance to conceal their identities to ensure personnel security. The journey is emotionally and psychologically exhausting. If we travel without ID cards, then the security forces hold us back, but if we carry the cards, then we lose our lives".
On average, 5,000 people travel daily on KKH between Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad. This means that in Gilgit-Baltistan, there are more than 5,000 families which have to spend hours in stress, fear and pain, until their loved ones have made it to the other end of the journey. Many mothers, sisters and wives spend millions of rupees daily to make religious offerings as part of their prayers for the safety of the passengers. On occasions, people slaughter domestic animals as part of the offerings to God while women even make offerings of their jewelry on the shrines and sacred tombs. One might not realize, but paying for life insurance through religious offerings does affect the financial stability of these families.
When the bus reached Besham Qila, Ali Hussain, one of the passengers, received a call from his mother, who had sold her jewelry for ten thousand rupees to pay for his airfare. She had strictly forbidden her son to travel by road given the looming danger in the aftermath of the Kohistan killings. However, after waiting for four days, and experiencing repeated flight cancellations due to bad weather, Ali Hussain embarked on the same bus with the scribe for Skardo. He lied to his mother about his whereabouts and ensured to continue to wait for the plane ride. People like Ali Hussain find it very difficult to justify paying for daily hotel and taxi charges, especially if the same money was needed somewhere else to pay for a child's tuition fee or health care of a family member. After finishing the conversation with his mother, Ali Hussain then called his friends in Islamabad and requested them to follow his version of the story, if his mother or any other relative ever called them.
The case of Kohistan killings will be forgotten like the previous incidents. The corrupt and incompetent government has as usual blamed it on the religious groups and called it a sectarian issue. It distracts the masses temporarily and hides the crimes of the real culprits who live under the protection of state. At the same time, it leaves longer lasting negative impacts on the society.
A hotel owner in Kohistan who was serving tea to the bus passengers said, "Government is looking for excuses to start a military operation in Kohistan. Our people are not involved in the Shia killing but our land was used by the assailants. The Karakoram Highway is dotted with security check posts every few miles and yet, the assailants escaped conveniently. For us, KKH is the lifeline. The vehicles, goods and passengers which travel on this road sustain our economy and livelihoods. How can we think of destroying our own livelihood by killing passengers and customers? It is beyond anyone's imagination. We will starve to death if there is no traffic on KKH. Now the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are demanding to open the Line of Control (LOC) and travel to Kargil. If that happens, then it will be a significant financial loss for the businesses on the KKH."
The Sunni youth from Darel who tried to protect the Shia passengers and got himself killed in Kohistan reminds us that the issue is not about Shia and Sunni differences. On the same day, a Sunni passenger from Gilgit claimed one of the Shia passengers as his brother and saved his life, which is a testimony that Shias and Sunnis desire to co-exist peacefully. It is a shame that the government has failed to arrest the real culprits and has resorted to blaming the Sunnis of Darel and Kohistan for the mayhem.
Now the government is planning to establish 30 more check posts on the KKH and few more in the Gilgit city. Kohistan incident has become yet another excuse to beef up security in Gilgit-Baltistan and convert the region into a jail. This will also add to the time of travel on KKH.
From Islamabad, it took 34 hours to reach at Alam Bridge, the point where Gilgit and Skardo roads fork. When the bus crossed over the Indus River and lurched towards Skardo, people rejoiced and congratulated each other. One passenger, Haji Mohammad distributed tangerines among others to celebrate safe journey. The life slowly returned to the bus as one could hear cheerful conversations and occasional chuckles. The thought of an impatiently waiting mother also brought smile on the face of Ali Hussain. The passengers felt like receiving second life after arriving unhurt and alive to Baltistan. If the government takes serious measures for security of the passengers on KKH, then such joys could become permanent. Before another incident like Kohistan takes place, the charter of demand presented to the regime by the leading Shia and Sunni religious groups namely Anjuman Imamia and Anjuman Ahlesunnat Waljamat should be fulfilled.