By Rahimullah Yusufzai
February 23, 2010
Pakistan has suffered many tragedies since military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s fateful decision to become an ally of the US in the so-called war on terror and there is nothing to suggest that our sufferings are coming to an end. Every tragedy is a story waiting to be told as scores of families have experienced pain and misery following bomb explosions, suicide bombings, air strikes, misdirected rocket and artillery attacks and US drone strikes.
One such tragedy occurred on February 15 in Gang village in Bajaur Agency’s Salarzai tehsil. The 80-year-old mother of Sahibzada Haroon Rasheed, a Jamaat-i-Islami leader and former member of the National Assembly from Bajaur, and his 20-year-old niece were killed when their house collapsed as a result of a powerful explosion triggered by the security forces while destroying the family’s hujra, or male guesthouse. The hujra was being demolished by the troops to punish the family for its alleged links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The demolition of homes of militants and those suspected of supporting and harbouring them has become a standard policy of the government not only in the tribal areas but also in settled districts such as Swat. There has been no debate on this important issue and it is unclear how many houses have been destroyed to date in the NWFP and FATA and whether this is the correct approach to tackling extremism and terrorism. In fact, army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had once taken the decision to stop this practice that punished the whole family for the crime of a single member involved in militancy and damaged more houses than intended, but the demolition of homes has continued with a greater vigour than before.
According to Major General Tariq Khan, the Inspector General Frontier Corps (IGFC) who is leading the military operation in Bajaur, there were ample reasons to take action against Haroon Rasheed’s family due to its ties to anti-state elements and patronisation of Talibanisation in Bajaur. He told this writer that Rasheed’s 27-year-old nephew, Asadullah, had been in the custody of the security forces since May 2009 for harbouring Taliban fighters and facilitating their activities in Bajaur. However, he insisted that the security forces didn’t intend to kill his mother, niece or any other family member. He didn’t rule out the possibility that the house fell due to the impact of the explosion caused by the troops while demolishing the adjoining hujra. However, he hastened to add that the collapsed house was old and in a dilapidated condition due to heavy rains and snowfall.
It had been snowing around noon on February 15 when army and FC troops arrived in Gang village, located about three kilometres from Bajaur’s principal town and headquarters, Khar. According to Rasheed, the troops accompanied by some US soldiers came in 15 military vehicles and armoured personnel carriers, searched several houses in the village and found nothing objectionable and then planted 72 kilograms of explosives to blow up his hujra. He explained that the hujra was sited in the middle of a compound containing his house and those of his three brothers and it was obvious that the adjoining houses would be damaged if the guesthouse was dynamited. He said he had shifted his family to Peshawar while his brothers and their families were all living in their homes in Gang. He alleged that the troops didn’t give sufficient time to his family members, including his old mother, and women and children to shift to a safer place despite requests by villagers and caused a huge explosion with a remote-control device while leaving the village.
The hujra was razed to the ground but the blast also brought down the verandah of the adjacent house, burying Rasheed’s mother and niece under the debris. Another woman, the wife of Rasheed’s relative, Salim, and her three-year-old son were injured and brought to Peshawar’s ICRC Hospital. The villagers later pulled out the two bodies and performed the burial rites in pouring rain and heavy snowfall in Rasheed’s absence. The former lawmaker has been unable to return to Bajaur due to a curfew and insecurity and is receiving well-wishers offering condolences to him at the Peshawar headquarters of the Jamaat-i-Islami.
This indeed is a tragedy as two innocent women lost their lives in an incident that could have been avoided. There are two widely divergent versions of the circumstances that led to the tragedy and prompted the Jamaat-i-Islami to call for countrywide protests. It is true that the security forces are operating in a difficult and dangerous situation, particularly in Bajaur where the military action started 18 months ago and has now entered a new phase with the advance of the troops into the Taliban strongholds of Mamond and Charmang. The troops have offered sacrifices in the battle against the militants and have made gains at a considerable cost. IGFC Major General Tariq Khan has been leading his men from the front, succeeding in raising the morale of his soldiers, many of whom deserted the FC and gave up the fight following ferocious attacks by militants during 2004-2009.
However, the occurrence of Bajaur-like tragedies, the accusations of human rights violations and extrajudicial killings against the security forces and the growing presence of US soldiers and spies in the area would continue to fuel the conflict and negate efforts to make Pakistan peaceful and stable. The lack of credible information about the situation in the conflict areas and the unawareness of most Pakistanis of the human suffering in places like Bajaur and Waziristan have prevented this tragedy from becoming public knowledge.
It is, therefore, necessary to probe the circumstances in which the mother and the niece of Jamaat-i-Islami’s provincial deputy head Haroon Rasheed were killed. Rasheed has challenged the government and the security forces to provide evidence of his family’s involvement in anti-state activities. Four members of his family, including his brother Muhammad Rasheed and his nephews Asadullah, Saeedullah and Khalid, are in the custody of the security forces and all stand accused of having links with the Taliban. The FC authorities even alleged that Rasheed’s hujra was frequented by foreign militants and served as a centre for the Taliban. These are serious allegations and should be backed up by evidence to make them credible.
In his defence, Rasheed explained that his house and hujra were located on the roadside and approachable by paved roads from three sides, including the one from Khar town. Besides, he pointed out that the famous Baba Picket built on a hill and manned by FC soldiers overlooked his house and was within the range of a Kalashnikov rifle. He maintained that it was impossible for foreign or even local militants to seek refuge or use his house and hujra as a hideout because it was visible from the Baba Picket.
Rasheed, articulate and determined, also raised fundamental issues with regard to the ongoing military operations in FATA and the rest of the NWFP. He claimed that more than 90 per cent of the 7,000 people killed in the military action in the region since 2004 were civilians. In his native Bajaur, he contended that 99 per cent of the 3,000 tribespeople who lost their lives in the military operation were women and children and, therefore, innocent. Rasheed is ready to face punishment if his family is found involved in anti-state activities but he also wants those making accusations against him and his relations to be made accountable if they are proved wrong. Moreover, he wants a judicial probe into the civilian deaths in the military action and the US drone strikes in the Frontier. He is seeking an independent probe by judges, political leaders, the media and human rights activists into the so-called "collateral damage" resulting from the military operations and is willing to defend his viewpoint on all forums. On his part, he believes his hujra was demolished and his mother and niece were killed to punish him for consistently opposing since 2004 the military action in the NWFP and FATA. He considers it as an act of revenge, a claim that the security forces and the government would never accept.
Is there someone in the government and the military to accept Rasheed’s challenge?
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahim firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The International News, Islamabad