TNB: Is Pakistan Safe for Climbers?Details on the arrests of the perpetrators of the Nanga Parbat massacre, analysis of the current situation in Pakistan and how it will affect climbers traveling to the region.
On June 22, 2013, approximately 50 climbers were acclimatizing for an ascent of the normal route on Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters), the world’s ninth highest mountain, located in the Gilgit-Balistan region of Pakistan. Twelve climbers (most of whom were sick), a cook and about a dozen local staff were staying at the basecamp while the rest of the climbers and porters camped higher on the mountain.
It was dark, around 9:30 p.m., and most people were asleep when 16 men dressed in the uniforms of the Gilgit Scouts (a paramilitary force first formed in 1889 by a British officer named Colonel Algernon Durand) arrived at the basecamp and started waking people up, yelling “Taliban! Al Qaeda! Surrender!” The men were carrying Kalashnikov rifles and knives and they kicked and poked the victims with gun barrels as they hustled them into a line. After lining up the climbers they told Sher Khan, a Pakistani climber, to speak to them in English and demand money. The climbers were then taken back to their tents where they handed over their money and electronic devices including laptops, satellite phones, radios, even solar panels. The militants destroyed the devices by shooting them, stomping them or smashing them with rocks. They then tied the climbers’ hands and lined them up again. At this point, the climbers were begging the militants, insisting that they were not Americans. Sher Khan pleaded, saying, “We are Muslim, Ismali from Hunza. We are Pakistanis. Why are you doing this?” A little later, the assailants separated Sher Khan from the others and told him, “Don’t try to look up. Stay on your knees.”
In an interview with nationalgeographic.com, Khan described what happened next: “Then after that moment, the shooting started in bursts. Three times. Brrr. Brrr. Brrr. Like that. Then the leader, this stupid ugly man, said, ‘Now stop firing. Don’t fire anybody.’ Then that son of a bitch came in between the dead bodies and he personally shot them one by one. Dun. Dun. Dun. Every body he shot down. And then afterward we heard the slogans like Allahu Akbar. Salam Zindabad. Osama bin Laden Zindabad. And one stupid person said, ‘Today these people are revenge for Osama bin Laden.’”
One other climber escaped. Zhang Jingchuan, from China, was bound and a militant fired a shot at his head but missed (one report mentions that the bullet grazed his ear). Jingchuan saw an opening in the confusion and bolted, running blind through the darkness, making for a trench 100 feet away where he hid out until the assailants left 40 minutes later.
Among the dead were several mountaineering greats like the Ukrainian climber Ivor Sverhun, 47, a veteran with summits of six 8,000ers. Yang Chunfeng, 45, and Rao Jianfeng, 49, both Chinese, had climbed 11 and 10 8,000ers respectively. Lithuanian climber Ernestas Marksaitus, 44, had soloed Broad Peak (8,051 meters). Sona Sherpa, 35, Nepalese, had summited K2 the year before. In all, 11 people were executed: three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two Chinese, one Lithuanian, a Nepalese, an American (Honglu Chen, 50), and a 28-year-old Pakistani cook who was apparently shot because he was a member of the Shia sect. (Tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims date from the death of the prophet Muhammad and the Battle of Sifin—first Muslim Civil War, 657 AD.)
The climber who escaped, Jingchuan, returned to the camp, found a satellite phone and called his Nepalese trekking agent, who then called the Pakistani police. Within seven hours, helicopters arrived and took away the bodies. The next day, both the prime minister and president of Pakistan condemned the attack and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon urged the government of Pakistan to take immediate action. Thousands of people from around the district (Diamer) gathered in the nearby town of Chilas to express solidarity with survivors and denounce the violence. Forty eight hours after the attack a crowd of locals and prominent politicians convened for a candlelight vigil holding placards denouncing terrorism and expressing solidarity with the bereaved. The Pakistani interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan fired the Inspector General of Police and the Chief Secretary of Gligit-Balistan and promised an inquiry into the causes of the attack.
Despite some speculation by climbers and pundits that the Pakistani intelligence agency might lack the will to investigate the murders since they are sympathetic to the Taliban, security forces were quick to respond.
Their first move was to ask the community in Diamer to form a Jirga (a group of elders that come together to decide disputes). These elders were dropped off in various valleys and known Taliban hideouts and then picked up later and debriefed. Four days after the attack 16 of the assailants were identified. Ten were residents of the Diamer Valley trained by militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a province that borders Afghanistan and harbors a contingent of Taliban driven out of their home country by the U.S. and Northern Alliance. These radicals came into the region, killed tribal leaders, began systematically disenfranchising Shias and imposed Sharia, a strict Muslim law.
FATA is 470 miles from Gilgit-Balistan and most climbers considered the mountainous area to be relatively safe, but in 2009 the government of Pakistan launched several attacks on FATA and its neighboring province Kyber Pakhtunkwa (KPK) in an effort to kick out the Taliban. These incursions worked to a certain extent but the war, known as the First and Second Battles of Swat, displaced 2.2 million people and many of the militants slipped away disguised as refugees. Some of these escaped north, only to regroup in Gilgit-Balistan.
On June 30, a week after the attack the first arrest was made, but by July 15 only four of the attackers were in custody. Some people speculated that Pakistan wasn’t trying hard enough to bring the terrorists to justice. For example, Senator Haji Mohammad Adeel publicly expressed his concern that the intelligence agency wasn’t making faster progress. In a meeting before the senate, Chief Secretary of Gilgit-Balistan, Mohammad Younus Dhaga stated that, “it was unexpected that foreign tourists would be targeted in the area, since no tourist was killed there since 1854.” Mohammad Adeel fired back, saying, “It is the intelligence agencies’ task to assess areas, while being cognizant of the overall security atmosphere.”
A little over a week later, the Taliban killed a policeman and two army officers, all of whom were investigating the attack. These killings prompted the army to move into the area, secure it and round up suspects. This operation lasted until August 11.
Then, last week, on August 19, it was announced that 20 individuals—supposedly everyone involved with the Nanga Parbat massacre—had been arrested.
The central question for climbers is, of course: Now that the Pakistanis have arrested the perpetrators, is it safe to go to Nanga Parbat and Pakistan? The answer is complicated since most climbers didn’t really consider the region dangerous until now. For example, Steve Swenson, a veteran of 11 expeditions to Pakistan, wrote on his blog that he’d always considered the areas where he climbed to be safe, “but all that changed on June 22nd … ”
Many sources pointed out that before this attack, the Taliban in the Diamer district had left tourists alone, focusing their attacks on the Shias. For example, in February 2012, around a dozen gunmen dressed in military garb stopped a bus headed for Gilgit—one of the jumping off points for treks and climbs in the Karakoram. The militants boarded the bus and demanded identification. After checking the identity cards, they dragged 15 Shia men and three children off the bus, tied their hands behind their backs then sprayed them with bullets fired from an AK47 assault rifle. According to police, the militants responsible for this atrocity were also responsible for the Nanga Parbat massacre.
This kind of sectarian violence has been periodically occurring throughout the region for a long time as Sunni extremists (like Al Qaeda and the Taliban) have sought to eliminate Shias who they view as infidels. It’s worth noting, however, that most terrorist attacks in Pakistan have not been targeted at Shias, but are more random in nature. Since 2001 terrorist attacks in Pakistanhave killed 35,000 people, including over 5,000 people killed (13,000 injured) in suicide bombings.
On the day after the attack, two groups claimed responsibility for the Nanga Parbat killings. A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban claimed that the attack was retaliation for the killing of Waliur Rehman in a drone strike. Another Pakistani militant group called Jundallah also claimed responsibility. “These foreigners are our enemies and we proudly claim responsibility for killing them, and will continue such attacks in the future,” Jundullah spokesman Ahmed Marwat told Reuters by telephone.
It’s hard to verify responsibility for these kinds of attacks since the organizations are all loosely affiliated, but one thing is certain: militants in the Nanga Parbat region are shifting their modus operandi and attacking foreigners.
Perhaps, given the stated objectives of the Pakistani Taliban and Jundallah, this shift shouldn’t be surprising. These militant groups are primarily Pashtun, an ethnic group characterized by a common language (Pashto) and share a Deobondi interpretation of Islam. Deobandi is a revivalist movement in Sunni Islam that developed as a reaction against the corrupting influence of British colonialism in India in the 1860s. From the beginning, the Deobandist ideology was anti-colonial and, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979 to 1989), groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda have interpreted this form of Islam radically, calling for global jihad and justifying attacks on any group or people they consider kafir (a person who rejects God in Islam).
Obviously, this is not good news for mountaineers hoping to visit Pakistan right now. Although the Pakistani government, intelligence agencies and security forces have done an admirable job in tracking down and capturing the militants involved in the Nanga Parbat massacre, the radial Sunnis don’t show any sign of abating attacks. In fact, it appears as though they are infiltrating the mountainous areas once considered safe and assaulting tourists, justifying the atrocities with twisted interpretations of Islam and as retribution for foreign invasions, drone strikes and just not being Sunni Muslim.
One of the most tragic aspects of the situation is the fact that almost every climber who has visited Pakistan has been overwhelmed by the extreme kindness and generosity of the people. Ironically, the unwritten code of conduct followed by most Pashtuns, the Pashtunwali, has 10 basic principals, five of them explicitly involve showing regard for outsiders. The very first principal is hospitality: “A Pashtun must show hospitality and profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status and do so without any hope of remuneration or favor.”
In his conclusion to his blog post, Swenson eloquently commentedon the situation with regard to the safety of climbers:
“So what does this mean for climbers and trekkers who are interested in going to Gilgit-Baltistan? These are very personal decisions that need to balance the desire to go to a spectacular mountain place, support our local friends there, minimize security risk, and not subject our family and friends to excessive worry. I can provide the following information on minimizing security risk based on my experience there and information obtained from people who are there now:
•Hire a good agent who can arrange safe places to stay and do a lot of your local shopping so you can stay in your hotel.
•Do not travel by road from Islamabad to Gilgit or Skardu.
•Keep a low profile and don’t advertise that you are an American.
•Avoid any places where there are militant groups as they have now decided to attack foreigners. This would put Nanga Parbat off limits unless the Government provides adequate security personnel to guard the valley 24/7.
•Gilgit has seen periodic bouts of sectarian violence so extra travel precautions are warranted. Consider staying in Karimabad instead.
I am hopeful that these issues will get resolved so we can continue to visit this spectacular part of the world and support our friends who have done such a wonderful job taking care of us over the years.”