Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Walking in Waziristan

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In June 2003, I travelled in South Waziristan without let or hindrance and with the heart utterly free of the dread of being kidnapped to be gruesomely beheaded by some fifteen year-old lunatic or of being shot and killed. From Tank, I was driven to Jandola whose very name strikes terror in the stoutest Pakistani heart. And then through Ladda up into the higher mountains, perhaps passing the compound that sheltered bin Laden or the mad doctor Al Zawahiri or the one-eyed mullah of Kandahar.

At Larimai, we gave up the pick-up truck and walked. Our objective that day was the peak of Pir Ghal (or Ghar), 3515 metres above the sea and well inside the Mahsud heartland. Young Khalid Mahmood, the local tehsildar had organised a guide for me. Bearded Zahir Shah came with a grim set to his mouth, few words for he spoke only his native Pashto and a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder together with a holstered pistol and a wicked-looking knife in the waistband. Zahir Shah had also let the word out about the man visiting from Lahore and some fifteen of his friends tagged along as well. All of them, fine Mahsud lads, loaded down with enough weapons and ammo to start a major war in Waziristan.

But these were good men, all of them. None spoke anything but Pashto, a language I barely understand and then too only its Yusufzai dialect. Yet we hit it off. This complement of guides had an average age of about twenty-two and as we left the village of Larimai, they joked about me coming to die in the wilds of their country — not from being shot at, but because the strain of going up their mountain would be too much for my tired old body.

At one point, Khalid Mahmood halted us beside a rill for a sumptuous lunch of chicken curry and rice and naan that he had packed. If that was a surprise, the bigger one was the topping of mangoes to follow. Then our tehsildar lay down to sleep telling us to hurry to the top and wake him up when we returned. From then on, I was on my own with my little army of Mahsuds that danced on ahead as I huffed and puffed behind them. About half way up the slope, I was overtaken by a greeting in Urdu and turning around saw a good looking man with a sack on his shoulder. Feroz Khan Mahsud had returned home only some weeks earlier after successfully completing twenty years of service with the militia in Balochistan. Earlier that morning, he had gone up the mountain to leave his wife and three daughters near the shrine at the top and was now taking up the sack of flour for the two days they were spending up there.

For him and his family, this was no Sunday picnic. This was a pilgrimage to the Saint's Peak for that is what Pir Ghal signifies. Here the Mahsuds and Wazirs come to pray for sons. And Feroz Khan thinking three daughters a tad too much was now desirous of an heir to carry on the name of the family. When we made the summit, I found a small partly sunken room that oozed women's voices and a little distance away a sort of balcony behind which supplicants stood to invoke the name of the prophet Ismail so as to beget sons.

Lying beside the cubicle was the skin of a black-haired goat that had earlier been sacrificed for the prophet so that the cherished son may be granted. A whole bunch of Feroz's relatives had already cooked the mutton and were now preparing large, badly cooked chapattis over a fire that smelled richly of pine resin. My army and I were invited to dine with them, but Zahir Shah declined. The good man sensed that were we to join in, there would be none left for the women hiding in the cubicle.

My army stood behind the stone balcony looking westward and prayed. Done with that, they plucked bunches of wild flowers that grew in profusion all around to stick them in the rims of their hats, behind their ears and even in the muzzles of their rifles. We became a veritable garden on the move. Feroz Khan asked if I had prayed and I told him my wishes were fulfilled and there was nothing more to ask for. He suggested I should ask for something new, so I went to stand behind the balcony with my hands raised. Now Feroz wished to know what I had prayed for. I told him I had asked for a thousand years of peace on earth. The man was visibly moved — strange for one who had spent his life in the paramilitary forces killing or training to kill other people. He regarded me for a long moment and then raised his own hands perhaps to endorse my petition.

We stayed on the top for some time and then returned the way we had gone up. Khalid Mahmood was still lounging beside the stream where we had left him and we walked back to Larimai and our pick-up truck. I thanked Zahir Shah and his merry band for the trouble they had taken leading me up the mountain and told the lot that if they were ever to find themselves in Lahore, they could count on me for hospitality. Soon we were jouncing back for Ladda and the rest of the world.

Exactly nine months after this journey, in March 2004, the Pakistan army moved into Waziristan turning the country into a no-go area. On many occasions since I have thought, sometimes seriously, mostly in jest: what would Zahir Shah and his friends be thinking of me? He would probably be saying, 'That bald man from Lahore with that excuse of a ponytail was a dirty sneak. He had been sent out to reconnoitre for our worthy Arab guests. How did he know they are hiding here when we never pointed out the compound to him?'

Many times I have thought too what would happen if Zahir Shah or any of his friends would run into me here in Lahore. Would they take up the issue? And what, were we to come face-to-face back in Waziristan? Would he and his friends pump me full of lead for playing dirty with them? One thing I know, they harboured no ill-will towards me. They were fun loving young men who adorned themselves with the flowers they picked on the way and sang their songs as they went. Except for Zahir Shah, nearly all others were clean-shaven and for the life of me I cannot imagine them having gone Taliban.

But who knows. Under pain of death they might all be bearded and turned into utterly grim and joyless men who would not be singing or dancing so that their belief remains pure. Who knows if some of them have notches on their Kalashnikov butts, one for each militiaman or soldier they have deprived of life. One thing is certain, however: it will be years before another hill walker from Lahore or anywhere else in Pakistan will go walking in Waziristan and return to tell the tale.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 6 December 2014 at 12:57, Blogger Muhammad Imran Saeed said...

There are "no man's lands" and "No-Go areas" (definitely not the ones in a metropolis that we are gradually getting accustomed to). Dear Sir, this fascinating trail of your footprints on both the kinds is one feat of achievement. The current piece took me to the forbidden lands and up to the mountain of Pir Ghal beautifully mapping out bits of a country that stays entirely un-mapped to most of us.
Reading through the piece, there's but one thing that sort of popped up in my head; one would never like to spend a winter night in this heartland may it be Serwakai or a couple of other isolated outposts on Jandola - Wana route. I happened to be there quite a few years from now, following the trail of 'Frontier Scouts' by Charles Chenevix Trench.
Dear Sir, In a way my comments are becoming a wicked means of infusing my memory shots in bad taste to some finely composed pieces and I must apologize for that. Again, thank you very much for such a nice piece from your travel memoirs.

At 7 December 2014 at 13:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Dear Imran, Your comments are always very welcome. Please keep them coming. This is a shorter version that appeared either in Daily Times or the Express Tribune. The original appeared in another publication in 2003.


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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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