Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Travels with a superannuated Guerilla

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When S said her office was sending her to Mawand in the heart of Marri tribal country in Balochistan, I simply knew I had to go with her. Years ago riding a train from Sibi to Khost I had passed along the western fringe of this wild territory and had seen just about enough of the Marris to whet my appetite for a journey through their country.
What had then intrigued me the most was the way these hirsute Baloch tribesmen kept strictly to themselves. Travel in a train with Punjabis or Pathans and within the hour you will have a professed friend slapping you on the back and wishing you to get off with him at his station or at least offering an address for you to stay in the future. But here were very private people who kept to themselves, preened their immaculately curled beards with deliberate care and carried themselves with a pride and grace that I had seen in few people. Any attempt to start a conversation had been stymied by my illiteracy in Balochi and, what appeared to me, a polite rejection of my intrusion into their privacy.

Moreover, there was just no way they were leaving without me when S and her colleague Irfan said that Asad Rehman was to be their guide and chaperon through that little known country. It was only incidental that just a few days earlier I had learnt some details about Asad who had been two years my senior in school, and to me he had come across as a hero out of a Forsyth novel. I knew there was no better way of gaining the friendship of the Marris than through a man like Asad who was loved and respected by them.

In the mid-seventies, our politicians having bungled up (no surprise there!), the tribes of Balochistan had ‘taken to the hills’ in rebellion. The army was sent in to run the ‘feraris’ (renegades) to ground only to discover, much to their discomfiture, that it was well nigh impossible to track a Baloch tribesmen in the hills he knew so well. These wild mountaineers who could survive on just a little water and wheat flour for weeks on end would materialise out of the hills, strike the army at will and spirit away into the unknown gorges again. Among them was a small group of idealistic Punjabis and a Sindhi who stood and fought for what they believed was right. Asad had been one of these men and his exploits had earned him the nom de guerre of Chakar Khan after that great Rind chieftain of the 16th century.

Having left Lahore very early and spent a wonderful evening at the hill resort of Fort Munro smack on the frontier between Punjab and Balochistan we made for the town of Barkhan. As we descended from the 2000 metre high ridge of Fort Munro the sun was just beginning to light up the farmlands of eastern Balochistan. My thoughts turned to earlier travellers like Richard Steele, John Crowther and that inimitable Thomas Coryat the ‘legge stretcher of Odcombe’ who actually ran from England to India and back again. This had been their route between Kandahar and Multan and early in the 17th century it would have taken something more than ordinary pluck to traverse it.

Barkhan was a bit of a disappointment for, like most villages, it has succumbed to the syndrome of trying to grow too quickly into a town. The result, therefore, was a bunch of shoddy concrete buildings with television antennae and of course the ubiquitous deep-freezers crammed with Coke and Pepsi. In the back streets the mud houses with their high mud-plastered walls still held their own and preserved something of the aura of an un spoilt Baloch township. Hameed Marri the engineer, was a generous host who ordered tea with several kinds of biscuits. Thinking this was all the breakfast we were to have this day I had barely finished stuffing myself when along came the main course: fried eggs and parathas and two flasks of very milky tea.

Our destination that day was the village of Mawand just over a hundred kilometres to the southwest and for that we had to skirt the high, elongated ridge of Jandran that lay between Barkhan and the district headquarter of Kohlu. At the latter place we picked up young Zahoor Marri who, together with his cousins, ran a women’s literacy centre at Mawand which S and Irfan were on their way to monitor.

I shifted to the battered Suzuki jeep with Zahoor at the wheel and it did not take long to realise that this man and his family had remained on the ‘right side’ during the uprising. There were, naturally, stories about the atrocities committed by the feraris and of this family’s loyalty to the country. In fact, to educate me, the uninformed outsider, Zahoor mixed up a couple of much recent events and attributed them to the ‘heartless feraris.’ I would dearly have loved to hear what an erstwhile ferari would have to say about something that for him would have been the treachery of the Marris of Mawand. Of course all this is simply a matter of perspective.

Just outside Barkhan the badly pot-holed tarmac gave way to a hard packed gravelly surface and we sped along a flat landscape hemmed in by hills of the most fantastic shapes: long flat topped ridges, some that seemed to be crowned by man-made crenellations; dun-coloured cones topped by what could only have been turrets, but weren’t; and a hill whose crest seemed to end in a large, cube-shaped building. Through this dreamlike extravaganza of shapes the road snaked its way into the lonely landscape. Not once did we encounter another traveller, very rarely did we see a shepherd and his flock on some distant hillside. Even rarer in this parched land were ponds. We stopped at one and Asad led us to a fig tree growing in a hollow. It had but a handful of fruit which seemed sweet and luscious in the midday heat.

Mawand was made by early afternoon where Zahoor’s cousin Mir Alam had prepared a feast of pilaf, vegetables and of course the roast lamb called sajji. It wasn’t however my idea of a holiday: a storm four days earlier had cut off electricity and the only source of underground water for the village was extremely meagre. Worse still what was to be had was hard water and you ended up endlessly trying to wash off the soap. I griped and griped until Shabnam told me to shut up and we lay down to sleep under a starry sky with a brisk breeze. But around midnight the breeze died and droves of mosquitoes descended on us with their miserable song. No one slept and by morning we had all very nearly been bitten to death.

I think we were all happy to put Mawand behind us as we left after breakfast, heading for the hill of Tadri which, Asad said, would be considerably cooler and without mosquitoes. So far as I was concerned Tadri really had been my objective all along; here for the first time we were actually going to be in unsullied, tribal Marri territory. It lay directly to the east but there being no jeep track through the furrowed Drabbani hills we had to make a wide detour.

At Fazil Chel we left the Kohlu-Mawand road and turned south into a landscape of small patches of cultivation cut across by dry streams. In the middle distance were low mounds of a dark colour beyond which lay the higher hills. Behind us and to the left was Jandran and far ahead Tadri. In all my travels through Balochistan the one thing that has always made a deep impression on me is the surreal quality of the landscape: here was a patch of cultivation and a solitary homestead stuck in the middle of a whopping great wilderness shimmering in the mid-morning heat, two camels browsing in the bush and a young man sitting in the sparse shade of a tamarisk.

He waved; Asad waved back and stopping the pick-up truck stepped down. While they were talking a middle aged man came out of the hut and stood silently by staring hard at Asad. Recognition came suddenly and with no uncertainty. ‘Chakar Khan!’ said the man and grabbed Asad in a bear hug. He was one who had taken to the hills and somewhere in the course of those half a dozen years of wandering had found himself fighting by Asad’s side. That was the beginning of a friendship. Now Chakar Khan had come home and like every self-respecting Baloch our man was not allowing us to pass without offering hospitality. A lengthy palaver followed with several references to Mir Hazaar Khan who awaited us in Tadri and the man relented but only after Asad had promised a visit.

Beyond hills that looked like giant cakes with coffee icing the road climbed up to Bijar Wadh – Bijar’s Parting. Legend relates that when he left Sewi (Sibi) in the early years of the 16th century under pressure of the Central Asiatic hordes of Shah Beg Arghun, Chakar Khan and his tribe took refuge in this desolate and inaccessible country. Eventually the main body under Chakar Khan migrated northeast to the land beyond the Indus while one section of the Rinds under Bijar Khan remained behind. It is from this section that the Marris claim descent and the place where Chakar and Bijar separated, each man to seek his own fortune, is known to this day as Bijar Wadh. Beyond the saddle lay the wide open flat of Shar-e-Sand – The Fertile Plain.

Then the pick-up was grinding up the hill past the deserted houses of the winter habitat. Further up we came to a tent flapping in the breeze, a couple of concrete cubicles and beyond them a collection of huts. We had arrived in the encampment of Mir Hazaar Khan Marri, the second most powerful Marri chieftain. We were installed in the verandah of one of the cubicles and served tea and biscuits. Presently word got around that Chakar Khan had arrived and those who had once been free-ranging apparitions haunting the army in these hills came to greet a friend they hadn’t seen in years. Men with their voluminous turbans and neatly curled beards arrived to slap Chakar Khan on the back and dig out from the dusty recesses of their minds stories that were beginning to be forgotten. We were witness to a camaraderie spawned under fire and tempered in the crucible of a war situation – a camaraderie untainted by the passage of a decade and a half.

Shortly Mir Hazaar Khan arrived. Fair complexioned, not very tall, a bit on the heavy side he looked extremely distinguished with his graying beard and snow white turban. His unhurried demeanor and measured conversation became his position in the tribe. But this time around there was no talk of the next ambush or raid. Now they talked of piping water from the distant well of Taddi Tal to the settlement and into Shar-e-Sand to boost cultivation. Now they talked of building schools and a dispensary. Twenty years ago as fugitives in these desolate hills these men had had a dream and they fought for it. The dream is still there and they are preparing to fight for it again – only this time they are doing it with picks and shovels and a little help from a development NGO.

No Baloch worth his salt would let you off without the sajji, and here they had killed not one but two lambs. But Asad had made it known that there was a vegetarian amongst us and so the women of the Mir Hazaar’s household had taken the trouble of cooking a dish of lentils that I ate with great relish while the meat-eating Marris regarded me with undisguised pity. Later we were taken to the well and given buckets of ice cold water to hide behind some rocks and bathe. It just couldn’t have been better. Needless to say that the night under a starry sky and a bracing breeze was actually without the menace of mosquitoes.

Half a day’s walk away was Chakar Tang – Chakar’s Defile, that narrow cleft in the hillside through which Mir Chakar Khan had led his tribe. In that crack, they say, there is a natural shelf where the chief had hidden his armour. It still lies there for it is difficult to climb up to the shelf. This was the kind of story that could have lead me to the farthest corner of the earth. It was just like Alexander stumbling upon the shield of Achilles in the ruins of Troy. But unlike Alexander I would not take the arms of the great Chakar Khan for myself. Having seen them, I would leave them undisturbed for a Marri or a Bugti – some true son of Chakar Khan, to claim and lead his tribe to new glory. Mir Hazaar Khan preempted this excursion, however. For this, he said, I needed more time and if I came back in a cooler part of the year he would give me a camel and guides for a journey through Marri country. That is the trip I now look forward to.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 5 October 2013 at 16:01, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

And we too...enjoyed every single word. Must confess that I know very little abt Baloch history.

At 5 October 2013 at 17:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

But for various reasons I was unable to return to take up Mir Sahib's offer. And now the situation is so bad, that I will not stick my neck out.

At 5 October 2013 at 20:25, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They are such nice folks though thy look real dangerous.

At 5 October 2013 at 21:13, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Yeah...very sadly.we traveled by road to Iran in 2005 n now it seems like it was another century. Don't do that now. We need more of all the amazing things u r doing.I got the impression it was a recent one:(

At 6 October 2013 at 10:39, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

A good read on Bloch life

At 7 October 2013 at 00:39, Anonymous Anonymous said...

#salman ashraf you remind my memories of motherland Balochistan
that the tough life of village,brown beard,turban,mountains,mir chaker khan rind,sibi,kolu etc
really enjoyed your ever single word.

At 10 October 2013 at 21:43, Anonymous Tariq Malik said...

Fantastic account! A piece of advice for the writer though: In future, make sure your travel kit also includes "Mospel" for mosquitoes :)

At 11 October 2013 at 08:32, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Tariq, this is a Ha Ha. Actually, after several bad bouts with mosquitoes, repellent is now a pucca part of the kit.

At 4 November 2015 at 12:12, Blogger mateen zaman said...

It is our sheer incompetence that we intentionally kept Baluchistan,interior Sindh,Gilgit,Baltistan,FATA and lower Punjab backward and if any agitation or terrorism erupts in these areas we tends to find out the'foreign hand'first then the people of these are straight away declared disloyal but never to mention our incompetence , corruption and policy of keeping these areas and people backward


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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