On the last day of the Shandur Polo festival, Akram and Waris realised something had gone horribly wrong near the border where they ordinarily worked. “The terrorists timed their attack on the Kalasha perfectly,” One of the policemen said. “Our minds were occupied with the task of keeping Shandur safe, all police forces had been diverted there, no one was thinking of the border or the Kalasha. Their harvest festival was weeks away, and thats when we normally go in to protect them.”
On July 30, a band of foreign militant crossed over from Afghanistan, ate meals with Nuristani shepherds, broke bread with Gujjar goat herders and then killed two Kalasha shepherds in a brazen pre-dawn attack.
On the 31st, while Raheel Sharif, chief of army staff, made statements about how “the people (of Pakistan) could now breathe freely… (because) the noose is tightening around terrorists,” the Kalash found themselves suffocating with fright and grief over the news of their recently killed relatives.
The Kalasha, an animist tribe whose population has dwindled down to just 3,700 people spread across the valleys of Bamburet, Brir and Rumbur must now confront the reality that militants and their local sympathiser threaten their right to exist. One policeman who asked for anonymity said, “They didn’t kill any of the Muslim shepherds they met, they were waiting for the big kill, the kafirs, the Kalasha, it was targeted. Also they allowed the two other shepherds to escape, the two others were Kalasha who have converted to Islam.”
“The first news was that there had been a theft of a large amount of cattle, and we concentrated on securing Shandur. It was the last day of the Shandur festival, and then the army announced to all forces that there had been a terrorist attack. But it takes a day to get back from Shandur.”
The policemen huddled over a cigarette they were sharing, each dragging hard on it before flicking it into the ravine below. They explain that it doesn’t matter how hard you ride or how fast you drive, the precarious mountain bends and rugged terrain will slow you down.
“So the attackers had time to get across the border to safety but they were so sure no one would come after them, that they would be able to hide, that they remained in the area. Inki himat daykho, zara jurrat ka andaza karo – imagine the audacity. Do you begin to see the complicity they have with the Nuristani people, they are now sunni and sympathise with the killing of kafirs, so they knew they could count on people to hide them. But they didn’t count on how enraged the army was.”
The shepherds, Khush Wali and Noor Ahmed, had taken their cattle to graze in the higher pastures, beyond the army checkpoints positioned to protect the region.
“This is what the Kalash do, we take our animals to graze in the pastures high above the valleys. Tthis is our way of life, so now every family is filled with fear. When the bodies were brought back, the mourning began and a silence came with it. We are a joyous people but the religious extremists see no merit in our singing and dancing, they label us indecent,” said Quaideazam, a Kalasha who works at Hindukush Heights. This is a boutique hotel in Chitral which also manages a fund, providing bright Kalasha youth with scholarships to pursue their dreams.
Just before the festival of Uchaw begins, the Kalash community leaders from Bamburet advised the families, whose loved ones had been butchered by the militants, to end their mourning and return to participate in welcoming the harvest season. A procession of town folk from Bamburet begins the walk to Krakaal early in the morning, trekking past idyllic looking pastures, gurgling mountain streams and little waterfalls. Several others come later piled into jeep taxis. The Kalasha ‘Qazi’ or religious leaders carry tiny flowers picked from nearby meadows in plastic bags. It is impossible to discern what is being said among the gentle muttering of the religious leaders as they hand out the minuscule offerings to the people waiting for them in the home of the deceased. “Hum yahaan soog khatam karnay ka liyay aain hain…We are here to end the period of mourning, and to put the pain in these flowers,” explains one religious leaders. The mourners take the flowers in their hands, some inhale the non-existent fragrance, and then tuck the flower into their headdresses and caps in a gesture that they accept the offering. They will move towards the healing process, helping their community embrace the harvest ahead.
Amid a kaleidescope of colours, and silent bent heads, a girl introduces herself, telling us she is an engineering student. “I am Nooria, daughter of the deceased. You are our guests, please eat something. Thank you for coming today. We will now look again in the mirror, cut our nails and put on our headdresses. Please do not feel any distress, we must go back to working to making life better, safer for others.”
Men emerge from the kitchen carrying platters of tea and biscuits that are distributed to the guests. Nooria speaks to us about broken bridges, the lack of road access, and the damage from floods, “That is what we must concentrate on. We see our hostels, modern and clean, and we wonder why we cannot bring that change to our village. But you have seen our bridges and roads, its hard to bring anything here. And hard to get out, and now these attacks… We are under threat all the time, from all angles.”
As Uchaw begins the picturesque valley of Rumbur, we watch the simple shuffling motion of dancers that the militants have declared “indecent.” The dancers move in semi circles. With their arms across each others shoulders, they reverse, stepping in tiny shuffles, then rush forward, depending on the drumbeat.
A Kalash activist disentangles himself from the dancing and leans over the railing at Grom, where the dancers have amassed on a platform perched over 120 steps cut into the mountain. He asks, “What is wrong with this? From the point of view of terrorists, everything is wrong, our girls are unveiled and confident, men and women mix freely. They threaten these freedoms, these simple basic rights of ours. If we send our girls to government schools, they feel pressure to cover up. They are told the Kalasha dress tempts the eyes of men, but it is long and covered. Perhaps it is colourful, but is that worth killing our culture, murdering our people?”
A group of elderly men in brocade robes in gold and burgundy are chanting in the midst of the young throng of dancers, recounting folk tales they feel the younger generation should internalise as part of their culture.
A middle aged Kalasha woman says, “This culture is dying and the Muslims are interested in converting us, we don’t mind if Kalash want to convert they should, but when they are forced we feel fear…” Her voice drops a notch and she continues, “It’s not just Taliban, we are scared of strict and angry Muslims who just decide someone is converted to Islam. Two youth from Rumbur were said to have been converted. The Muslims insisted they were converts but they were able to go to court and say they wanted to remain Kalash. Thankfully, the judge decided it was their right… but Rani was not so lucky.”
Just before the killings of the two shepherds in the pastures, Rani, a Kalasha girl was taken to a madrassa, made to recite the kalma, given a shalwar kameez to wear, and told she was now Muslim. When she returned to her home and put on her Kalash clothing, Muslim mobs showed up outside her home, pelting her house with stones in protest, insisting that she must remain Muslim.
In a meeting of Muslim leaders and Kalasha elders, the girl’s mother demanded that her daughter should be allowed to choose whether she is Muslim or Kalasha, but the gathering refused, saying they had witnesses to Rani’s recitation of the calm. She must now continue her life as a Muslim or prepare to face the consequences. In a few hours, 700 muslims from across the three valleys had amassed at her home, and began to hurl stones at hers and neighbouring houses.
“It felt like there was gun fire and explosions, the sound of stones on tin roofs is really scary. We realised there were no guns later but the mob looked like they were out for blood. We saw her uncle dragging her out. He said she is the sacrifice. They couldn’t endanger the whole village to protect her,” said a witness to the events.
Several Kalash youth and member of the press, particularly the Ishpata news filmed the stoning on their phones. Rani then made a statement to the press and police, saying she had converted of her own free will.
Luke Rehmat, founder of the Ishpata news was particularly concerned about the scale of the violence and the speed with which the mob had amassed. “Their numbers are swelling, while our population is shrinking. They are strong and they know how to get what they want. We are not weak, but we prefer peace as a community so we step back,” says Luke. “We are outnumbered here now, so the survival of our culture is tough. Up in the high pastures we must live in fear of those who sympathise with the Taliban and other foreign and local extremists. Here in the valley we live among those who dislike our culture and want to see us converted and assimilated.”
A three hour bone-rattling, knuckle-whitening drive from the valley of Bamburet, Quaideazam checks in people who want to work with the Kalasha. This is what he says to them: “Help the Kalash lead themselves, help them develop networks and systems which allow the Kalash to make their own decisions and govern their own existence. What we need most is schools where our children are not being brainwashed against our culture. Then we need improvement of our infrastructure so the Kalasha can get in and out of the valleys, work and earn, facilitate trade. And we need to stop struggling to justify the ‘decency’ of our culture. Until the local residents respect our existence, our culture is doomed to die out.”
But another activist says there is an institutionalised lack of respect or recognition for the Kalasha culture: “When you go to make a passport or Nadra identity card, you’re told there is no such thing as Kalash religion. Of ourse there is, we have minority status and this is what I practice so how can our officials says that. So then I went to the passport office and I was told, no there is no Kalash religion, you’re a sect. A sect of what? We are Kalash.”
In a country like Pakistan that is burdened by multiple conflicts, the Kalash represent an oasis of peace. A serene people with a unique culture that prioritises festivity and joy, they must be given every protection.