KURRAM Agency is passing through critical stage. Divided on sectarian lines, Sunnis have been segregated from Shia population. The most dangerous aspect is that the paramilitary forces, levies and administrative staffs operating in the area have also been divided on the same grounds, making the sectarian divide more complex. The situation is similar to that of Beirut, Lebanon where population was divided on sectarian ground through Green Line in mid 1970s.
Uncertainty and confusion haunt the region. The 40-minute flight of a chartered Cessna-414 aircraft from Peshawar to Parachinar is quite turbulent as it crosses the lofty mountain ranges wrapped in a misty haze.
Travelling by road to Kurram from Kohat has become impossible for half a million people and their extended families living in other cities and abroad. The Kurram tribesmen had been taking a detour to Afghanistan to travel to their native areas for the last three years. But the detour has also become unsafe for the people as they feel scared after the killing of 14 passengers in Paktia province of Afghanistan. Insecurity has forced residents of the detached Kurram to use luxurious means of air transportation.
Cessna planes are the only means of transportation for Kurram people. Five companies based in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar are making their fortunes in the conflict-hit area by providing chartered service to the local population and an average of 100 passengers fly between Peshawar and Parachinar daily.
The Parachinar Airport built by the Army 18 Engineer Battalion during Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1986 is without basic facilities like wind socks, meteorological office and fire fighting equipment. Pilots have to land and take off at their own risk.
Interestingly a cop of the Kurram Levies Force performs as aircraft marshal providing hand signals to the cabin crews for taxiing and parking of the aircraft.
The departure and arrival lounge looks like a mini PPP secretariat as it has been adorned with party's tri-coloured flag and portraits of their assassinated leader. PPP jiyalas have named the airport after Benazir Bhutto.
The twin-engine aircraft has a total capacity of eight persons including two crew members, but nine persons including two kids are stuffed into the plane at Peshawar International Airport and safety rules are breached for extorting money.
During a flight to Parachinar, I saw an eight-year-old child stood along the crews' seats during flight while another passenger despite paying full fare (Rs8,700) was sitting on the floor. There is no other way out for these helpless people to avoid this exploitation.
People used to travel in buses and trains, but never saw passengers traveling in the aircraft without being provided seats. After a few minutes flight from Peshawar, the minor became dizzy and a God-fearing passenger accommodated him on his seat.
Parachinar, the administrative headquarters, was a peaceful cosmopolitan town housing 40,000 inhabitants of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, Sikh, Punjabi, and Dari speaking Hazaras were living side by side peacefully. There was tolerance among the different communities.
Churches and temples still exist there. But after three years I found people of this secluded valley completely different. Hatred has replaced tolerance. Violence has caused widespread destruction. Several settlements have turned into ghost towns. This prolonged conflict has changed the demographic structure and social fabric of the area.
About 50 hamlets of houses have been destroyed and more than 3,000 people have been killed in clashes. One can see red and black flags on the graves of those people who have fallen prey to the violence. The bullet marks on the buildings and damaged infrastructure shows the intensity of the fighting that raged in November 2007. It seems that two regular armies had fought pitched battles in the area.
The area has been divided on sectarian lines. People belonging Shia and Sunni communities cannot enter each other's areas. In some areas of the agency the Taliban's writ still prevails. Rival groups have constructed concrete bunkers. Even anti-personnel mines have been laid in some of the areas around the villages, making life more dangerous.
The lame duck political administration and other stakeholders have focused on accumulating wealth through cross border smuggling and escorting food convoys from Thall to Parachinar. Lower parts of the Kurram adjacent to North Waziristan Agency have become smuggling hubs. On the other hand, the federal government has adopted meaningful silence over the deteriorating situation in Kurram.
The political administration and law enforcement agencies have lost confidence of the local population. People in upper and lower Kurram have set up peace committees. Volunteers are checking vehicles on the main roads. Interestingly, Afghans and other outsiders frequently visit Parachinar and roam freely in the area.
The crisis in the agency, local residents said hadn't been truly reflected in the media reports churning out since 2007 as they argue that the crisis is not of sectarian nature, as being projected in the media. They blamed government, Taliban phenomenon and the 'new great game' for chaos in the area.
Official statements had also stated that "third party" was behind the crisis in the strategically important region. But "third party" has not been named so far. Whatever is the reason, but one thing is clear that the conflict has been imposed on the people of Kurram from outside. Certainly this is state's responsibility to pull people out of the crisis.