I woke up early. We had a long journey ahead of us, so after a quick breakfast consisting of the best, lightest cheese omelette I’ve ever had, and the warming milky-ness of dudh patti chai, we left the officer’s mess where we had spent the night and got into the 4 by 4s waiting for us outside. I looked behind and noticed an armed soldier sitting at the back of our jeep. Him and his rifle, ready to defend us should the Taliban want to spoil our trip to the border.
In the early hours of the day the air was crisp but the blue sky brought a promise of a sunny warmth. We drove through an empty road, every now and again passing men hiding from the winter cold under wide beige shawls. A long queue of bearded men waited in line by the side of the road to register for the national IDs. We had just left Peshawar and were in the semi-autonomous Khyber Agency. An area governed by its own, tribal, rules. We were entering a world I didn’t know.
The Agency, also known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), is an area with difficult past and complex legal status. Although the region is formally controlled by the government of Pakistan, in reality the majority of Pashtun population living in the region is subject to laws agreed by the jirga, the assembly of the tribal elders. FATA also does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, following instead a special set of laws known as Frontier Crimes Regulation. Under the FCR, jirga can decide on the appropriate punishment for the committed crime, forfeiting the accused person’s right to the judiciary trial. With the increasing Talibanization of the region since 2001, Pakistan has steadily strengthened its military presence in the region. Interestingly, over three quarters of the people living in the area claim to support the army and its fight against the radical militants. According to a survey conducted in 2010 by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow, around 70% of the FATA population supports Pakistan’s military activity targeting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The route to Afghanistan is a lonely one. Vast open spaces, sandy landscape with occasional passer-by rushing to their every day chores or a solitary mosque. Every few kilometers a chaotic village market buzzing with hurried buyers. Other than that, silence. The vast tranquility of this place filled me with a strange peace. Blue sky and sunshine embracing the rocky scenery gave the route a serene feel. It was hard to believe that this oasis of calm where people just go about their daily routines is known more for the terrorists than its beauty.
In the valleys we passed children were playing cricket. Even in the most remote areas little boys know how to use a bat and the ball – in Pakistan following this sport seems to be unanimous with the national pride and the chants of “Pakistan Zindabad” – “Long Live Pakistan” are just as likely to feature a national rally as they are to be heard at a cricket match.
Aside from the occasional kids, we saw mostly men. A few women here and there rushed somewhere accompanied by another woman or by a group of kids. Their colourful vails providing an interesting contrast to the monochrome background of mountains and men. Despite the colour, however, these mothers, wives and daughters shared a certain roughness that the terrain seemed to instigate in its people.
Were they happy? Or is happiness something they don’t have the luxury to ponder on? They reminded me of my grandparents – generation of people brought up to be tough. People who rarely give in to sadness because their life has got no space for expectations. People who grow old appreciating the little things in life – a calm evening with the family, a tasty meal, a chat with the neighbour. Sometimes because there is nothing else to enjoy. People who don’t complain but carry on in silence. How I wished I could have stopped the car and hear their stories.
But we kept on going. After all, isn’t that what we always do?