Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, one of the more charismatic leaders in the history of this troubled nation, is said to have called it Pakistan's own "Switzerland". Humbled by towering snow-tipped mountains and covered by endless fruit orchards, Parachinar's natural charm is breathtaking. Its narrative for the last two years, however, has been anything but reflective of the serene beauty of its surroundings.
Strangled by recurring sieges laid on the town, and a plight concealed from the consciences of the outside world by a silent media, the lives of Parachinaris have been a tale of untold suffering. Since early 2007, violence has gripped the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which holds Parachinar, and the surrounding North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), leading to the deaths of hundreds. Even more have been left homeless and without means of sustenance with homes and local businesses regularly torched down just because their owners happen to fall under the wrong "sect". Despite the periodical nature of sectarian violence in these regions, the unrelenting wave of the recent outbreak has been by far the bloodiest in recent memory.
Tensions began in April 2007, when a procession of Shias came under fire from fanatical Wahhabis, who view Shia Muslims as heretics. What followed on from that initial attack however, has been a systematic attempt to wipe out Parachinar of its Shia presence. Shias represent a majority in Parachinar, constituting over 50 percent of the population. They also have a considerable presence in neighboring towns in the north-west of the country, with a strong and historic Hazara presence further north of the FATA.
During the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, the Kurram Agency (which hosts the town of Parachinar) came under increased focus for its strategic location as it provided the shortest route from within Pakistan to the Afghan capital Kabul. Jutting out into Afghanistan almost like an island peninsula, it was famously nicknamed the "Parrot's Beak" by US forces during the Soviet-Afghan War and was regularly used as a launching-pad by American-backed "jihadists" to strike out at the Soviets. As a result of this strategic importance, towns in the FATA region were flooded by inflows of Wahhabist and Salafist anti-Soviet "jihadists" well-known for their hatred towards Shias.
Following on from the early and comparably minimal killings unleashed in April, armed Wahhabi groups have since caved in on the local Shias of Parachinar from all sides. The Shia residents of Parachinar have repeatedly claimed that Wahhabi elements from Afghanistan have joined in the attacks against the town's Shias, but these cries have been met by deaf ears in Islamabad's Pakistani central government.
An all-out attack against the Shias of Parachinar has been underway for a long time now; even Sunni locals seen to be "friendly" towards Shias have not been spared in this maelstrom of killing. Gruesome images of beheaded and mutilated bodies, with arms and legs chopped off from corpses, have surfaced on the Internet since the outbreak of violence. Such showings of utter barbarity are not altogether unique. The collective massacres of Hazara Shias in next door Afghanistan – more notably in Mazari Sharif in 1998, where during a 48-hour period, over 8,000 Hazaras were mercilessly slaughtered – evoke similar images of ruthlessness. By the end of the killing spree then, corpses littered the streets of the city after express orders were given out by the Taliban government for the dead to be left unburied.
Eerily reminiscent of massacres conducted against Afghan Shias in the recent past, Riaz Ali Toori, a villager from Parachinar, protested in a letter to a Pakistani daily:
"Today Parachinar is burning: daily bodies of more than five beheaded persons reach Parachinar. The situation of Parachinar is getting worse day by day, and so is the life of all people living there. It's a matter of great sorrow and shock that Pakistan, in spite of bringing FATA into the mainstream of the country, has been pushed into fighting a continuous war and facing terror." (Letters to the Editor, Dawn, April 8, 2008)
Surprisingly, at a time when the "civilized" world is on a so-called offensive against "terror", coverage of the sorrow-filled plight of Parachinaris within Western media has been periodical at best. The reasons for this are unclear. Maybe it is because Parachinar, fatefully, does not sit over barrels of oil, or perhaps our probing of the historical context behind these massacres will lead us to discover that Parachinar is yet another piece of anecdotal evidence of the much disregarded "blowback" stemming from the Soviet era.
In July of 2008, the New York Times ran a piece highlighting the rise of "sectarian conflict" in Parachinar. By then, the town had already been subject to a siege that had spanned for months; food and medical supplies had been in severe shortage after the main Thal-Peshawar highway leading to the town was blocked off by armed groups. The article carried the story of Asif Hussain, a Sunni driver, in a relief convoy headed for Parachinar; the convoy was ambushed, and its drivers taken captive. Asif Hussain was let off after convincing his captors that he was Sunni, the other eight drivers were not as lucky. ("Power Rising Taliban Besiege Pakistani Shiites", New York Times, July 26, 2008)
Today, the violence has spread out over a larger radius extending all the way through to the southern tips of the NWFP. Attacks on Shias in Hangu, Chakwal, and as far south as Deira Ismail Khan have become a thing of the norm. Late in August of last year, a suicide bomber detonated himself inside the DI Khan hospital, killing thirty-two Shia followers who had come to claim the remains of one of their leaders slain earlier in the day.
As recently as last week, another suicide bomber struck a Shia mosque in Chakwal, instantly killing thirty and leaving hundreds more injured. The systematic targeting of followers of the Shia sect in various regions of Pakistan, more specifically in the north-west of the country, amounts to nothing other than a project of ethnic cleansing. According to a reputed scholar of the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing, Drazen Petrovic, it is defined as such:
"Ethnic cleansing is a well-defined policy of a particular group of persons to systematically eliminate another group from a given territory on the basis of religious, ethnic, or national origin. Such a policy involves violence and is very often connected with military operations. It is to be achieved by all means, from discrimination to extermination."
The above definition provides an almost perfect fit to the present situation on the ground in Parachinar. If international silence continues as it has over the last two years, the same story will have repeated across many towns in the FATA and NWFP.
That the Pakistani government holds principal blame for its failure to restrain the killings is indisputable and goes without mention. Wider global apathy to an ongoing project of ethnic cleansing, however, is certainly not comprehensible and deserves a great deal of mention.
Parachinar deserves better. And the people of Parachinar certainly deserve better. The least we can do is speak out and urge our leaders to press the Pakistani government to bring an immediate end to these massacres. Then, and only then perhaps, can it be said that we have extended a hand to the forgotten victims of Parachinar.