The tragic sectarian clashes in Hangu and the surrounding areas in Pakistan’s Frontier Province last month that resulted in scores of deaths were entirely avoidable. The mayhem started on March 21 when a Nowroz procession by the Shias was fired upon by heavily-armed Sunnis. In the first attack, 10 persons were killed. Thereafter, in the cycle of violence, at least 27 persons and perhaps twice as many died.
There were rumours that there would be trouble during Nowroz celebrations. Hangu was tense since the firing in Ramadan when two Sunnis were shot and killed.
How the tragic cycle of violence escalated can be traced to two separate processions taken out by the Shias and Sunnis in Hangu during Ramadan. The assistant commissioner, Sher Azam, in a serious lapse of administrative responsibility, gave permission for both processions simultaneously (He has since been transferred to Mansehra).
The Sunnis organised a procession for Al-Quds on the last Friday of Ramadan. The Shias took out a rival procession to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Ali. A Shia fired on the Sunni procession killing two. Later, some Sunnis fired on the Shias.
The irony of the situation was lost on both groups. It was Imam Khomeini who had called on Muslims worldwide to commemorate the last Friday of Ramadan as Quds Day. This call was taken up by the Sunnis, at least in Hangu while the Shias did not have enough sense to join it. Instead, they fired upon it.
In the ensuing Shia-Sunni clashes, the Frontier Constabulary (FC) was called out to restore order. Curfew was imposed in Hangu and the situation was brought under control. A Sunni Supreme Council emerged, backed by the Sepah-e Sahaba who immediately made three demands: arrest and prosecution of the Shia who had shot and killed two Sunnis during Al-Quds rally; no Nowroz procession by the Shias nor any procession during Muharram, and no adhan by them on loud speakers.
While the last two demands were clearly unrealistic, the local administration’s failure to apprehend the culprit even though he roamed around in the town freely, inflamed Sunni feelings. The Sunnis’ deadline of March 13 for his arrest came and went without any action by the police. The Sunnis felt that the authorities were ignoring them and proclaimed that henceforth they will not be responsible for any unpleasant consequences.
Why the Shia who had shot dead two Sunnis in Hangu was not apprehended despite roaming freely has not been explained. The Sunnis, egged on by members of the Sepah-e Sahaba and some local ulama from the Miftah-ul Uloom mardrassa in Sangher locality of Hangu provided the spark for the latest mayhem. They had even called for a general strike on March 21 to coincide with Nowroz.
A group of heavily-armed Sunnis from the nearby villages of Sumarai, Bagato and Kotgai took up positions at the Nowroz Mela Maidan early in the morning of March 21. They did not fire upon the first group which comprised mostly Shia women and children. The second procession setting out at 8:30 am from near Hangu College for the Nowroz Mela was fired upon with automatic weapons. The shooting lasted until 1 pm before the FC, backed by army contingents, brought some semblence of order. When the shooting died down, at least 10 persons were dead, most of them Shias.
That, however, was not the end of the tragedy. Hangu is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains beyond which lies the Tribal area of Orakzai Agency. The tribals are all Sunnis. A call immediately went out to them for help.
A number of heavily-armed tribal lashkars attacked the Shia villages of Saidano Banda and Ibrahimzai, southeast of Hangu. Both villages suffered heavy damage. Hardly a house was left intact. The number of people killed has still not been determined.
Hangu remained under curfew for 10 days. The police, backed by the military arrested scores of people from both sides. The busy Kohat-Hangu road was closed and opened only on April 2.
Far from easing tension, a March 26 statement by the Frontier chief minister Sardar Aftab Ahmed Khan, compounded the problem. He asserted that Shia-Sunni clashes have been the norm in Hangu.
This is a stunning display of ignorance by the provincial chief executive. There is no history of Shia-Sunni clashes. In fact, Hangu is a very mixed town. Had the chief minister bothered to make a few simple inquiries, he would have discovered that many relatives of the wife of even the provincial governor, general Arif Bangash, are Shias. The governor and his wife are both Sunnis. Shia-Sunni marriages are not very common but there is no truth to the chief minister’s claim. It appears to have been made at the behest of the local administration in Hangu which clearly wanted to cover their own incompetence and criminal negligence.
Similarly, a March 22 mortar attack on a Shia locality in Shahukhel village on the edge of Orakzai Agency northeast of Hangu did not lead to Shia-Sunni clashes even though 11 members of the same family died. The Sunnis of Shahukhel came out in strength to express sympathy with the Shias and joined in the funeral processions. The missiles appeared to have been fired from the tribal area. A major clash was thus averted through the good sense of the Sunnis.
Prior to these clashes, the only other instance of Shia-Sunni fighting in Hangu was in 1980. On that occasion too, ulama from both sides had inflamed passions by making irresponsible statements. Now the situation has deteriorated. The emergence of the Sepah-e Sahaba and of militant Shias who are willing to kill innocent people without any provocation, has led to this tragic situation.
In addition to Hangu, the entire Kurram Valley from Kohat to Parachinar is dominated by the Bangash tribe who are a mixed bag of Shias and Sunnis. Travelling from Kohat to Parachinar, one finds Shia-Sunni villages spread in a chequer-board fashion along the route. Between Kohat and Hangu, there are three major Shia villages: Ustarzai Bala, Ustarzai Payan and Ibrahimzai. There are a number of Sunni villages in-between. The other major concentration of Shias is in Parachinar, home-town of the late maulana Arif Husaini.
Parachinar has had an uneasy history of Shia-Sunni relations because of the almost equal numbers of the two groups. This balance was upset with the arrival of the Afghans. This time, however, the local administration took preventative measures and managed to avoid the repeat of 1995 when more than 250 people died in such clashes.
Despite claims by the Tehrik-e Jafariya Pakistan (TJP) leader, Allama Sajid Naqvi, the Afghans were not involved in the Hangu shootings. The majority of Afghans in Hangu are ordinary people uninvolved in political activity. Most of the killings in Hangu and the surrounding areas were carried out by people from the Sumarai village who are Khattaks, and the tribals from Orakzai Agency.
In fact, some collusion of the Taliban-led government in Kabul and of the Americans cannot be ruled out. The latter are notorious for criminal activities worldwide. Not surprisingly, the US issued an alert to its citizens in Pakistan and requested additional security for its embassy and consulates on March 27. The Pakistan government, ever ready to oblige Uncle Sam, rushed in extra reinforcements.
The American connection to the tribals in Pakistan is a distinct possibility. During the Afghan war, the Americans established close contacts in the area and recruited agents. Aware that the tribals’ loyalty can be bought for a few dollars, the Americans have been quite generous in purchasing allies. In recent years, American commandos have also conducted military exercises in the area.
Two phenomena have occurred since the Afghan war: spread of drugs, and sectarianism in Pakistan. Hangu has been afflicted by both.
With the latest eruption of Shia-Sunni clashes, the tranquility of this picturesque town has been shattered, perhaps, irreparably. It will be very difficult to restore confidence between the two communities even if the vast majority on both sides are not involved in any sectarian conflict or hatred. It takes a handful of extremists to spark clashes.
(The writer, Zafar Bangash was born in Hangu and spent his early childhood there).
Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1998