Saleem was seven when he was taken out of school for a little while, “just till things get better” as his uncle warned him very seriously. His family firmly believed in education and his father, a university professor, was killed in the violence that erupted in Gilgit in the 1980s. After his father’s death left an eerie hollow in the family, Saleem’s safety became the central concern of his mother and uncles. He usually enjoyed vacations, but these long holidays were definitely futile for him, as he was not allowed to play with the outside kids. For a year, until he went back to school, he did not know what it meant to lose a father. Eventually he came to think of it: “I almost felt like an orphan,” Saleem said, “My father was taken away from me, in the name of God. I could not blame God for not giving me a father, since he had given me a father. It was the people who took his life, not God.”
It was the ghastly treatment that Saleem received from his classmates – which came in the form of either complete neglect or too much attention – that made him start asking questions about his religious background to his mother and uncles who raised him. “Mom, are we Kafirs (unbelievers)?” asked Saleem, then eight years old. Gradually as he grew up with more of the same sort of treatment, he grew to understand the very harsh difference between a Muslim and a Muslim – both from exactly the same derivation but differentiated based on their sectarian prefixes, i.e Shia and Sunni. “God invented Muslims, and man invented labels,” Saleem said with a wounded voice. He said he didn’t get the point of this.
His childhood evaporated between eruptions of violence in Gilgit, where he saw bleeding bodies of Sunni and Shia alike on the streets. He can’t forget the violence he witnessed in the 1980s, which took the lives of his neighbors, teachers and tandoor wala (baker). The heartbreak was tough to take then and its effects endure today.
Gilgit-Baltistan is sparsely populated, with just around 870,000 people according to the 1998 Census (the last to be held). This population comprises a conglomeration of numerous ethnic groups and tribes. According to the latest available estimates, the population of the region is now approximately 1.5 million, with around 39 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, 18 percent Ismaili and 16 percent Nurbakhshi.
The violence started in 1988, when a dispute arising on the Eid moon sighting triggered sectarian attacks in Gilgit-Baltistan. Sunni Lashkar, a group comprised of hundreds from the northwestern cities, united against Shias. The subsequent violence claimed hundreds of lives. Villages were ransacked and torched, along with people. Even livestock were slaughtered. Both Sunnis and Shias were killed in the hundreds. Over 4500 people have been killed in Pakistan due to sectarian violence since 1989.
As the violence got worse, in 1999, under General Musharraf, religious extremists gained power in the Northern Areas including Gilgit, Chilas, etc. Extremist organizations like Sipah Sahaba, Al-Ikhwan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Harkatul Mujahideen opened their offices in areas where they could strategize over a sectarian divide. Gilgit has lost hundreds of lives in the resulting violence.
In Gilgit, a small city where everyone recognized everyone else in the town, it was tough even for those who fought against each other. Fear caused murder and fear caused death. Saleem did not realize when and where his life vanished.
It shocked him to learn about the cruelties that man would inflict on his fellow man. At 14, he started writing poetry. He laughed at the odd thought of how a stranger on the street would kill another stranger. “You might want to kill someone, yes, when you really know them well, and there is something about them you really dislike, or something they have done that really disappointed you, yes?” said Saleem calmly, almost grievingly. “But how can you kill someone when you don’t even know who they are? Who knows, [maybe] if you would have gotten to know [each other], you would have gotten along really well, and you wouldn’t have felt the need to take away a dad from an 8 year old. I mean really that makes more sense, don’t you think?”
At 17, when Saleem was in college, he wrote a poem called ‘Ghair Dushman’ (The Enemy Stranger) which dealt with the insanity in violence. He cynically criticized the “custom” of fighting a stranger without having knowledge of the real reasons behind the fight. He remembers vividly the details of how, where and how badly he was beaten up by college mates who called him ‘Kafir’ as if it were his first name.
He was indeed dismayed by the repeated killings, the unknown reasons and doleful slogans that fueled the insensitivity in that religious rivalry. “Each fought against potential friends,” he added.
In his teenage years, Saleem got “bhaghi” (rebellious) – according to his uncle, who learned the word from one of his clients from a big city. This was lucky for Saleem, since the word did not shame him in front of his friends who spoke Shina – the local language to most Gilgitis. Saleem was warned several times by his uncle: it was quite “sinful” when he got into drugs, quite “illegal” when he unlawfully crossed the China border, with some Chinese friends he made on the Karakoram Highway but without a permit. And it was quite “unforgivable” when he eloped with a Sunni girl from Ghizr. Saleem was Shia but he did not have reservations about falling in love with a Sunni girl.
Exactly how menacing can that word “unforgivable” be? In the coming months, when all hell broke loose for the couple as well as their families, it was clear that there was no going back.
Saleem grew disgusted with the irrational hate against minorities, within and beyond Gilgit. It was, as he emphasizes, the couple’s best decision to go and live on a highway. Yes, she fell in love with him too – she also did not have any inbuilt sect-check. Although both of them had been brought up in the same society, they were averse to letting sectarian differences color their view of one another. Violence only bred more violence.
Running away from home meant a lot to both of them and burdened them both in separate ways. But it also liberated them from being harassed by closed-minded sectarianists for marrying across sects.
The violence had chastened Saleem, but personal attacks on him shattered his hope and restraint. His physical pain reminded him intensely of his father whom Saleem wished could have known better – “I can’t promise if he would have been a great father, or if I would have been a great son, but I would still prefer to be raised by him.” Saleem cleared his mind and then his throat, “that’s when I had first decided, I did not want to live with these people here.”
The escape was worth it. Saleem founded a small food shop on the road that connects Dassu to Kohistan. He immediately saw an opportunity and looked for a house nearby for his wife and himself. They now live en route to Kohistan, at an altitude of 2440 meters. The beautiful valley of Dassu can be viewed from the hill top where his two-story tiny brick house sits, slightly above where he sells chips and drinks to travelers who stop by.
“The moon strikes more silver, and the stars are much larger,” Saleem says, when they lay down on the tiny, dusty, unmade rooftop of their small 150 square foot home in the middle of nowhere. Here the air smells like its been freshly washed every morning. Dozens of species of birds chirp and coo, only sweetening their love story. This love has inspired profound changes in them. It has washed from their memory the thought of violence. Saleem is glad that his children will grow up in the same oblivious world. “Seeing better things helps you do better things. I would be able to give that to my kids. But if someday things get better and people stop killing each other, I will definitely go back to show them where I was born, and where I met their mother.”
Before I left the lovely couple, there was one thing that satisfied and calmed me: that in spite of all the violence and troubles, humans at the end of the day, are humans, whether in Gilgit or elsewhere. As long as they choose to love, they will love. And their desire to love will always be greater, than their desire to fight, no matter how invisible.
When I asked him if he would write poetry again, he smiled and said, “Naa. It’s so peaceful here that I’m almost oblivious to the rest of the world.” He said there is no violence in his life to provoke him again.
Saleem then chuckled at the thought like a three year old who had never in his life seen a world of misery.