In Pakistan, around 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) — those who have been forced to flee from their homes but stay within their country’s borders — observed the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast) in late July as the military offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters was in its second month.
The operation followed the failure of peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban, which is trying to enforce its own version of Shariah (Islamic Law) and has claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on police, army and other key installations within the country.
Church leaders in Pakistan long feared the ripple effects of the Arab Spring — the term given to the wave of pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East aimed to bring down entrenched authoritarian regimes like those in Syria and Egypt — on the already pro-Islamic states where religious leaders enjoy great power both on streets and in the courts. Despite current media reports depicting non-Muslim IDPs of Pakistan in a better situation as compared to the persecuted Christians in Iraq, Egypt and Syria, the situation is far from normal.
Christian sanitary workers in North Waziristan, Pakistan, had to perform a gruesome task before the country’s army began its offensive to fight back against the Taliban and other militants.
“We have disposed hundreds of dead bodies dumped in bazaars — all of them headless. So much blood, so much cruelty; it was very hard to collect all the body parts,” said Kamran Sadiq, a Christian sweeper from Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan.
Death to spies
Sadiq, who has taken refuge in a high school in the dust-laden city of Bannu, which borders North Waziristan, gave an account of what life is like under the Shariah. “Uzbeks, Tajiks and Arabs rule the local markets and are very rich. They abduct anybody on suspicion of spying for the U.S. or Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Our women cannot step outside without a burqa. Beheadings are announced beforehand and also done publicly. A warning note in Pashto — [an official language of Afghanistan] — is usually left with each body,” Sadiq said.
According to Sadiq, the warning note carried a statement similar to this: “We warned him three [or] four times to correct his ways. People get the example. Anybody working as U.S. spies will face the same fate. His confession video is now available in the Miranshah market. We have proven that he was a culprit.”
Sadiq, sitting on his cot under a blackboard at the high school now serving as a shelter, said his first experience with the horrific violence was shocking. “I did not eat the whole day when I saw the body for the first time in my life,” he said. “It all started amid U.S. drone strikes in 2004. The images kept haunting me, but it became a norm later.”
The parish priest of Bannu, who wished to go unnamed, shared that he was invited by one of his parishioners to watch the beheadings during one of his pastoral visits to Miranshah.
“Of course I declined. This is one of the other reasons I do not inform my family about my mission here,” he said while overseeing the distribution of relief aid at a missionary school.
|Perwaiz Masih (left) and a friend sit on
a cot at St. John Bosco School. Photo courtesy of Kamran Chaudhry
Sadiq is among 87 Christian families who have been relocated to two separate schools in Bannu by the Church of Pakistan and the Catholic Church. The local government is providing meals to the families in the schools, where two separate teams of four police officers guard the grounds amid the prevalent terror threat.
Despite the scorching heat, shortage of space, health issues and financial woes, those forced from their homes have no complaint about living in Bannu, which is among the only cities in the country that hasn’t made drastic cuts to its citizens’ access to electricity.
The situation is almost the same in both schools, where three to four families are living in each classroom. Sadiq and his two other married siblings reside in the colorful Prep Class of Pennell High School. The gas stove placed near the class cupboard, filled with cooking utensils, further adds to the temperature of the room. “All the shops are closed due to [a holiday]. We are having fried tomatoes and onions today,” he said.
All of the non-Muslim IDPs said that military operation was necessary in the mountainous regions of northeast Pakistan, which had become sanctuaries for the foreign and local terrorists. Those living in the shelters said it has been a confusing time, not knowing whether to obey the commands of the government or those of the Taliban. There was a mandated daily curfew, and business had come to a halt, according to many of the 23 Hindu families living at the Ram Mandir temple in Bannu.
The analogies came freely. Cleaning is a must if there is trash, a sweeper said. You must wash a cloth if it’s dirty, said a tailor.
But Perwaiz Masih, a father of five, is slightly less optimistic about the future. “The seed has been sown,” he said. “I do not think the army can finish them; I know those people.”
Among 37 displaced Christian families living at St. John Bosco Model School in Bannu, at least three individuals have survived hostage situations in Miranshah. Masih is one of them, as he was held for nine days in 2012 and was released after being found innocent by the Taliban.
“I was returning home after purchasing vegetables when suddenly a giant Taliban [rebel] forced me in a vehicle and injected something [into] the back of my neck,” Masih said.
“I was blindfolded and have no idea where I was kept. The quarters were located at a distance, and I could not hear much. On the ninth day, I was praying in my heart while eating chapati (staple bread), and my Christ listened. After much questioning, they asked me to pack my belongings and left me in a bazaar,” Masih said.
“We are weak people living under their shadows. I later learned that our community made several group visits to the influential Maliks (tribal leaders) requesting my release. That’s all they could do,” said Masih, who broke down after the interview.
“I have become a bit hot-tempered since then. Another Christian has been kidnapped for a year, but nobody can snatch our Christian faith,” he said, kissing the rosary around his neck.
Kamran Chaudhry writes from Pakistan.