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Weighing Life Against Life Against the Himalayas

Horror on the Roof of the World

by UZMA ALSAM KHAN

Among the many casualties of the War on Terror, one of the most unmourned is the human impulse to revere beauty. Where does it come from, that sense of wonder upon witnessing the migration of butterflies, or a vast, kaleidoscopic sea, or a mountain too tall and steep for snow to stick, giving it the name of Nanga Parbat, Naked Mountain? The sense is a gift, perhaps from God: a reminder that we are tiny, so tiny.

Nanga Parbat is, at 8,126 metres, the ninth tallest mountain in the world. In Pakistan it is also known as King of the Mountains, and as Killer Mountain, for the number of climbers to perish while trying to summit the peak. In the Gilgit-Baltistan region and beyond, the mountain is absolutely revered, as indeed are all the mountains of the north. Many are graced by multiple names and personalities, folkloric tales, and spiritual devotion. Their presence dominates the physical and imaginary landscape of the tough and tolerant men and women who inhabit the valleys, and this relationship is monumentally old. Older than Pakistan, the United States, or any nation-state.

On the night of Saturday, June 22, 11 men were slaughtered on Nanga Parbat’s base camp by a group of militants. In order to reach the camp at 4300m, the militants forced two local men to guide them. Even the trek to the camp is a treacherous one; it has one of the fastest elevation gains in the world, is encased in melting glaciers that hide deep crevices, requires crossing streams that can be high and bitterly cold, and maneuvering narrow paths bordered by giant boulders and ice walls. It is not a walk that can be taken without somber awareness of the smallness of human size. Unless you think your mission is greater. So great that local men with a level of skill and expertise that is in fact a kind of greatness should be threatened into playing a part in it. Before Saturday night, never had a murder been committed against foreigners here, let alone one in which local inhabitants had been made complicit. In bloodying their mountain, and their hands, an entire history and culture has been defiled.

According to most sources, one of the two local guides, Sawal Faqir, was able to hide a satellite phone and eventually call the police. The other guide and 10 climbers were blindfolded and shot, in the lap of the insurmountable mountain. A few steps away lay a monument in honour of the first foreigners to die here: four climbers and six guides in 1934 of altitude sickness and frostbite, and seven climbers and nine guides buried under an avalanche in 1937.

A faction of the Pakistani Taliban called Jundul Hafsa says it carried out the attack to avenge the death of their deputy leader, Waliur Rehman, in a U.S. drone attack on May 29. It is threatening to continue targeting foreigners unless the drone attacks stop.

What it is not saying – and what no self-appointed avenger of the US-led war has ever said – is that these attacks primarily hurt Pakistanis. And on every level: through murder, the sacrilege of a land, the dishonoring of a culture that for centuries has survived peacefully on the land, as well as through the destruction of a tenuous economy. The mountains of the north dominate not only the physical and imaginary panorama of the valleys, but also the financial one. Many families in Gilgit-Baltistan depend largely on the summer tourist trade to survive during the rest of the
thinner-than-skin year. The trade had already been suffering since 9/11, due both to the violence spreading elsewhere in the country, as well as the earthquake of 2005, which killed 100,000 people, and displaced over 3 million. Many of the displaced families have still not returned; those who have, or those who stayed, had very gingerly been recreating a home, and a sense of hope. This year 50 groups had applied for climbing permits; a modest improvement. After Saturday’s attack, most groups have cancelled. Local families will be forced to look elsewhere, further jeopardizing their relationship to each other, and to their land.

Add to this the toll the war has taken on other parts of the country, and the numbers look like this. Upward of 49,000 Pakistanis have died in the past decade, a figure that includes attacks by the Pakistan army in the seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in Swat, includes bomb blasts by militants across the country, and includes suicide attacks. It does not include deaths caused by US drone strikes. Both Pakistani and American newspapers have reported that the drone war is resulting in 50 civilian deaths for every 1 “suspected terrorist” killed. Though the total number of civilian deaths since the start of the drone war is never reported, estimates are anywhere from 1,000-3,000. So we are looking at around 52,000 Pakistanis killed since 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11.

Or 17. 3 Pakistani corpses for every 1 American corpse.

The Jundul Hafsa has not only created itself to avenge the death of one man by US drone attacks, but also to further imbalance the above ratio. To them, everyone else is as worthless as “bug splats,” a phrase coined by those who activate the drones, “since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.” In the words of President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser Bruce Riedel, “You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”

How many more have to die before the lawn is mowed enough? Of those who survive, how many more must leave their homes, their work, and their mountains? And for how many more will reverence of the beautiful and ancient become as rare as life itself?

While the Taliban use the strikes as a pretext to kill, the US uses the killings as a pretext to conduct more strikes, into more parts of the country,
and into more countries. There are more Taliban factions today than in 2001, or in 2008 when President Obama first expanded the use of drones. (Bush ordered 50 drone strikes in eight years; in only his fifth year, Obama has already ordered 400.) If the purpose is to kill militants, it can’t be said enough: the strategy isn’t working. If it is to ensure the war never ends, it is. But just how far will the war expand? One wonders if even the naked slopes of Nanga Parbat have got to be mowed.

Uzma Aslam Khan is the author of four novels, including Trespassing, The Geometry of God, and, most recently, Thinner Than Skin, which is partly set in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012. Khan has also contributed articles to various journals around the world, such as to Drawbridge UK, First City India, Dawn Pakistan, and Counterpunch. Visit her at http://uzmaaslamkhan.blogspot.com/