Peshawar: “I want to become a mujahid (holy warrior) when I grow up,” says Nazir – not his real name – when I ask him how he feels about living in a place away from modern life in the cities.
“As a mujahid, I can have my say (in the affairs of the village),” comes the terse reply when I say what good would being a mujahid do. “I will be able to scare away unwanted people and punish the errant.”
We are in Bazaar Zakakhel, a neighbourhood of Khyber Agency, one of the seven tribal agencies along the border with Afghanistan. Nazir and I stand in a small clearing surrounded by mud-houses, carrying out our little conversation about his plans to become a mujahid when he grows up. There are black flags hoisted on the houses, fluttering in the early fall breeze.
On this bright day in Bazaar – in a tribal agency separated from the mainland Pakistan not just by boundaries or its semi-autonomous status but an absence of elected government, courts and police to maintain a semblance of the state’s writ and human rights – under the shadow of black flags representing a pro-government voluntary force fighting the anti-state militants active here, it is easy to understand Nazir’s ambition.
The pro-government Tauheed-e-Islam, a militia of local tribesmen with a world view not much different from the Taliban, is here to establish the state’s writ and restore peace in an area devoid of infrastructure, roads and other civic amenities. For the last few years, the Pakistan army has been fighting against militants in the Khyber Agency, carrying out military operations Khyber One and Khyber Two in quick succession. The conflict has displaced scores of people to the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in mainland Pakistan, where they have been living in camps for the internally displaced people established in Peshawar’s suburbs, like the one in Jallozai where once lived the Afghan refugees.
Here in Bazaar Zakhakhel near the Pakistan Afghanistan border, a main route for smuggling of goods and narcotics from Afghanistan, the locals are terrified of the pro-government Tauheed ul Islam (TI) operating in the Bazaar to check activities of the anti-state militants in the area. The local people seldom dare to speak openly about the lashkar and its volunteers. Even though it is a local lashkar meant to establish peace, the pro-government militia bears the same demeanour and outlook that defines anti-state militants like the Taliban that it is supposed to keep at bay.
“Members of lashkar detained me when they found songs on my mobile phone and I was flogged for listening to music,” a young man whose name is withheld due to security concerns told News Lens.
He said members of TI seized his memory card and his mobile phone. Cell phones with songs and music are considered a crime in Bazaar Zakhakhel.
A resident of Bazaar said that a majority of people joined TI due to unemployment. “After joining the lashkar, the TI Ameer bears all expenses of his mujahid,” he said.
With the fear and awe that the lashkar inspires in the local people and the harsh manner in which it imposes its writ, it is easy to understand why an impressionable boy like Nazir would want to join its ranks. Around here, there are markers of the lashkar’s authority, reinforcing its status as a force in complete control of Bazaar where more than 2500 families reside.
There are TI checkpoints established in the village, keeping an eye on vehicles inside Bazaar and those entering it, to check illegal goods from entering the Khyber Agency.
“Whoever commits a crime is named and shamed in front of residents of the area so that they would not repeat the same mistake in future,” said a tribesman in Zakhakhel.
He said the pro-government Tauheedul Islam imposed fines and punished those involved in crimes. “The decision to punish those who have committed crimes are made by a Qazi in the Markaz [TI’s central office],” he said.
TI is led by Ameer Haji Bilal and Haji Qumandan. They appoint subordinate leaders to govern the local areas.
Despite the threat of militancy and long years of conflict, people here want education but “unfortunately the number of state-run schools is far less than what we need,” according to a local resident, not named due to security concerns. “Girls education is the need of the hour but there are no female education institutions in the area.”
Another resident of the area said there were four schools in the village – two high schools and two primary- but there were no teachers to staff the schools. “The children go to religious seminaries instead of schools,” he said.
Another villager said the “the environment of a religious seminary is far better than that of a school.”
A middle-aged tribesman sporting a long beard said in case of medical emergency they had to rush patients to hospitals in Jamrud and Landi kotal because of lack of health facilities in the village. “In most cases patients die before reaching the hospital.”
People living in the Bazaar said they were suffering because of absence of basic facilities like health, electricity, mobile phone services, education, sanitation, clean drinking water and roads. This despite the big route passing through the village used for transporting foreign goods – including black tea, electronic goods and cloth – from Afghanistan to Pakistan that could generate revenue for local development. Villagers bring foreign goods on camels and donkeys through mountain passes between Afghanistan and Pakistan and pile it on trucks parked in Bazaar for transportation onwards.
According to locals, businessmen and smugglers make deals with TI high-ups to safely transport goods to Jamrud, a border town in Khyber Agency.
A resident of the area said that 10 trucks of foreign goods were transported from Afghanistan through Bazaar Zakhakhel to Jamrud under TI supervision on a daily basis. “Members of TI get 0.1 million rupees for protection provided to these trucks from Bazaar to Karkhano Market.”
He said that the political administration received its own share on the trucks. “There are many checkpoints manned by the levies khasadar force between Bazaar to Karkhano Market. A common man cannot carry smuggled goods through these routes without permission of the political administration.”
A high ranking custom official told News Lens on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media that each truck loaded with smuggled goods meant a loss of Rs 10 million to the national exchequer.
He admitted that members of different peace lashkars like TI operating in Khyber Agency brought trucks of foreign goods to Jamrud daily. From there, labourers including women transport smuggled goods to Peshawar through various routes. He said customs officials could only seize illegal or smuggled goods on mainland Pakistan. “We seize these goods in Peshawar but due to shortage of manpower, we cannot patrol all routes to stop smuggling.”
He said despite shortage of staff, the customs authorities had seized goods worth Rs 200 million from November 2014 to June 2015 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
He said the government was least interested in stopping smuggling in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because the central government, the civil and military bureaucracies collected huge amounts of funds through it.
“Without unaccountable funds, these three bureaucracies cannot run the “royal official” culture, its protocols, its perks and privileges,” he said.
Since the conflict came to the borderlands, the Zakakhel tribe whose lands and homes have fallen under the sway of militant groups has suffered greatly. “The history of this place is full of sacrifices by the Zahakhel people over the last fifteen years,” said an elder tribesman in Bazaar Zakakhel. “The tribesmen have suffered from bombings, killings and displacement before and after the Lashkar-e-Islam regime.”
Lashkar-e-Islam is a banned outfit led by the notorious warlord Mangal Bagh. He ruled over the villages here for ten years before his organization was replaced by TI that emerged in 2010 as more powerful group in in the Zakhakhel area. “More than 200 people sacrificed their lives in war against Mangal Bagh but our sacrifices for the state remain unsung,” said a resident of Zakhakhel.
Now more than 3,000 members of TI patrol the area, he said, keeping a watch on anti-state militants like Mangal Bagh’s Laskhkar-e-Islam. TI leaders and members collect fee from vehicles carrying goods and banned items to Jamrud through the area under its control. Those who bring drugs like hashish, opium and heroin from Afghanistan via this route pay Rs 1200 per kg at TI checkpoints. Tons of hashish is smuggled on a daily basis through the village routes, according to a villager of Bazaar Zakhakhel.
Laws imposed by TI are followed by everyone in the area or else “exemplary punishment” is meted out to those who do not. There are different punishments for different crimes. Even though there is army in the region fighting militancy, it is the TI that imposes the daily curfew that stops villagers from venturing out after 9 pm.
The communication system is poor, with only a single point in Bazaar Zakhkhel where signals can be received on a mobile phone.
Shahab Ali Shah, political agent for Khyber Agency, told News Lens in a telephone interview that the administration avoided commenting on the matter of peace lashkars in the tribal areas as part of security strategy. He said the government was trying its best to restore the state’s writ in Bazaar Zakhakhel and other parts of Khyber Agency and “talks are underway in this regard.” He said the political administration was going to establish its own checkpoints in the area.
Shah said TI had fought the banned outfit Lashkar-e-Islam and it worked in close consultation with elders of the Zakhakhel tribe. He said a terminal had been established at the Torkham border which would check illegal movement of goods. At least Rs 500 m has been allocated for development and prosperity of Zakhakhel area, he said. “Schools, mining projects, colleges and hospitals would be built under various projects,” said Shah. “After establishment of schools, health centers and infrastructure in the area, a number of vacancies would also be created that would strengthen the economic condition of tribesmen.”
However a journalist from Khyber Agency said that the Bazaar had become a “no go area” for people from outside. “The TI, an armed faction, has formed its own state in Bazaar Zakhakhel area and they are involved in crimes like extortion, smugglings and illegal punishments meted out to residents of the area,” he said.
He said the TI were harassing tribesmen in the entire Landikotal and forcing people to follow its laws and decisions. “TI has established its own court in Bazaar Zakhakhel area including the Landikotal bazaar of Khyber Agency,” he said.