By Riaz Ali Toori:
On a beautiful evening with an overcast sky, while I was travelling from Islamabad to the historic city of Taxila, Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance and an activist, asked on twitter to share everyone the era of 1990s which one had experienced as a child growing up in Pakistan. His tweet took me back into time forcing me to reminiscence about those golden and carefree days.
Parachinar of the 1990s was where fairies from the heavens just had to come down to dance around the springs under tall lush trees filled with sweet smelling flowers and delicious fruits. Birds and children would play and sing songs of liberty without ever thinking that soon this valley of roses would be converted into a valley of death, soon its soil would be stained with the blood of our neighbours, soon we would be receiving the beheaded and mutilated bodies of our beloved, soon the ferocious Taliban would attack us from all sides because we did not agree with their ideology of killing innocent people and setting their homes on fire.
I grew up in the 1990s when Parachinar was an earthly paradise. Though sectarian clashes did exist then but the curse of suicide bombings and merciless slaughtering of humans had not spread. Shia-Sunni clashes did take place occasionally when only small guns were used but never had it occurred to us that our minor tiffs would be exploited by the vested interests and our valley would become a picture of ruin and devastation.
Ours was an innocent age back in 1990s as students of a government school, we had to wear militia coloured shalwar-kameez as uniform and a black cap with a triangular red spot on its front. We had no knowledge about the world beyond our valley and had no clue that other parts of the country were very different from ours. We were not aware then that we did not come under the laws and constitution of Pakistan and that we were not being facilitated like other children from the rest of the country. We never thought that only we wore rubber shoes and cheap militia fabric school uniform. We did not know that being children of FATA we were the only ones perhaps to sit on mats (taats) made out of jute in schools.
We had very dim light in which we could hardly read our books. On a humorous note the light was so dim that even when lit, the bulb remained invisible. Telephone and other modern facilities were totally unknown. Only a few families owned a television and we eagerly visited their homes, not to watch programmes but to see what a TV looked like. The announcement, “Ye BBC London hai…..” still echoes in my ears. What is most astonishing is that at nightfall we would think the whole world around us would be deprived of light but now I know that we, the children of FATA were alone living in stone-ages amid darkness. The only source of light for studying late in the night were domestic lamps called “Diva”, made out of empty syrup bottles containing furnace oil and lighted by a cotton thread dipped in it. The smoke, directly emitting from these lamps would turn our red cheeks black and our nostrils would be filled up with carbon. Those were the days when we vociferously rote our lessons, mindlessly. I can still recall from memory the many stories that I learnt by heart, among them, “Ali Baba and Forty Thieves” and “Lazy Boy”.
Immediately after school, with books still in hands, taking goats, sheep and cows to nearby small hills for grazing in the meadows and riding donkeys, was our normal routine. Many a times, we fractured our arms from racing donkeys. Leaving the cattle grazing freely in the meadows, we would form groups and go on a fruit stealing spree to different orchards or pick corn cobs (sittas) from nearby fields, setting small fires called Dadda. We would bring heavy amounts of apricots, plums, cherries, nuts and other fruits of the season to the meadows and savour our booty seated near rippling streams. If we saw the village elders or the farmers watching us steal fruits, we ran as far as our legs could carry us, fearing that we were being followed but usually that remained a fear as no one came after us.
Nature has blessed Parachinar with an abundance of seasonal fruits, vegetables and crops that provide different hues of life in different seasons. Life was then easy and simple there. We had fewer expectations but high ambitions. Our schools were well-disciplined though lacking facilities but with hardworking teachers though less educated and less trained. As we did not have sweepers in our school, we took turns in groups of three to clean the classroom. The group whose responsibility it was, had to come early to school, sweep the floor and dust whatever little furniture there was. We had a “Drill Period” in which the school’s physical trainer took us to a playground for exercises. Football, volleyball and basketball were our favorite games. Annual Sports events were held with great zeal and excitement in which schools of the whole agency would participate. 31st March is a date I can never forget in my life as it was the day of result at the end of the academic year.
It was in the 1990s when Benazir Bhutto, as Prime Minister of Pakistan, visited Parachinar. She opened the first degree college for women now named Benazir Shaheed Degree College, launched a re-broadcasting TV station so we could be informed about the rest of the world and laid the foundation for an airport and paved roads to facilitate communication. It was first time in the history of the valley that women there were being empowered through education. The opening of Degree College later proved a milestone in educating the girls of the area.
Today when we have entered the 21st century, life in Parachinar is worse off than before and despite availability of modern amenities, there is no peace. Even today the children are tending sheep, goats and cows after school or watering their fields. Even today they study without electricity under less modified lamps with the only difference that most of the school buildings are lying in ruins at the hands of terrorists. Even today the children there do not know that the world around them is different from theirs where there is light, children sit at desks in schools and are not subject to corporal punishments. They bow their heads at the word “Pakistan” when it appears in the morning assembly’s anthem and prayers but still they are deprived of basic rights and facilities. Even today they are second class citizens and do not come under the Constitution of Pakistan. Even today for them, a bureaucrat, an ordinary officer of grade 18 called Political Agent can imprison a tribesman without any investigation and prosecution for sixteen years, is demigod of the area. Under the black law FCR (Frontier Crimes Regulations) enacted with the help of turn-coat elders of the area, the political agent of the agency can set the property of any tribesman on fire, and can destroy his home and business.
I thank Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi for taking me into the 90s when I was a school boy in my homeland, Parachinar then an earthly paradise but now burning in the hell of terrorism where the birds have stopped singing songs of peace and liberty and the people live in fear for their lives.
(Written by Riaz Ali Toori, A human rights activist from Pakistan’s Tribal Areas Parachinar where Human Rights are bitterly abused and violated by ongoing terrorism and blockade of all roads connecting it with the rest of the world, the area is totally ignored by national and international media)