Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2020
If you spend a few days in Hunza Valley, you are struck by its natural beauty. Karakoram’s unique mountain range, high peaks, glaciers, lakes, orchards, flora and fauna take your breath away at every curve of the road, every nook and corner. But what really wins your heart are its people: soft spoken, friendly, hospitable and educated. The literacy rate in Hunza is 97 per cent —the highest in Pakistan — and most of the young have professional degrees.
Women are empowered. You find them going about their tasks, with their heads covered and chins up, on the Karakoram Highway, running dhabasand resorts along with their husbands, managing orchards and maintaining households. You even find a classy café — Kha Basi — near Altit Fort, Karimabad, run by a team of 10 women! Hunza is a valley where women travelling alone or in groups of two or more feel safe. I thought: how wonderful, if you want to feel good about Pakistan, visit Hunza Valley.
But behind the shimmer and the glow of natural beauty and the people, there lurk shadows: Karakoram is in one of the world’s most geologically active areas, and is prone to earthquakes, landslides, rock avalanches and glacial lake outburst floods. The people, apparently calm and content, carry grievances since decades, and for the last nine years, a certain pain.
It all began on Jan 4, 2011. A massive landslide blocked the Hunza River at Attabad village. Downstream, 100 kilometres of the river dried up. Apart from Attabad and Sarat villages in central Hunza, which went under water, most parts of Ainabad, Sheshkat, and some parts of Gulmit, Gulkin and Hussaini in upper Hunza, 22 km of the Karakoram Highway, and six bridges were gradually submerged by May 2011. The formation of Attabad Lake displaced around 6,000 people whose houses, orchards and farms, properties and assets, schools and health facilities disappeared in the waters leaving them shelterless, without livelihoods and access to education and health services. Temporary shelter was provided by the Aga Khan Development Network.
The disaster was not sudden. The National Disaster Management Authority and the Geological Survey of Pakistan had predicted in 2009 that a landslide might block the Hunza River. A few days before the landslide, Attabad and Sarat were evacuated as cracks had started to appear. The disaster had grave physical, social and environmental impacts. Upstream communities were isolated. With the submerging of the Karakoram Highway, the only way of transportation was by boat through Attabad Lake for five years. In winter the lake froze and a special boat was required to cut the ice and move. It was not until 2015 when China and the Pakistan Army built an alternate 22 km of the KKH with five tunnels that road transportation was restored.
The government, despite the 2009 prediction, had not devised any strategy to deal with the impacts of the disaster, including providing rehabilitation and compensation to the affected populace of two tehsils — Central Hunza and Gojal (upper Hunza). The IDPs, whom this writer met, complained about the inadequate support by the government. This view is validated by Islamabad researchers and professionals in their article published in the European Scientific Journal in March 2014. They noted that “…after the incident, initially there was insensitivity and apathy towards the affected people…”. The local government restricted support to Central Hunza tehsil and ignored Gojal tehsil where the impact was gradual. This resulted in street protests organised by political activists, notably Baba Jan who is a member of the Awami Workers Party.
According to the IDPs, each family was given Rs600,000, irrespective of the extent of the loss. The government compensated 457 families but left out 25, so the protests continued. On Aug 11, 2011, the police opened fire on the peaceful protesters and two persons — a father and son — were killed. This police brutality enraged the people and they damaged the police station. Fourteen men, including Baba Jan, were put in jail, charged under the Anti-Terrorist Act (ATA). They were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014. Since the last nine years the families of the incarcerated men are struggling to get their loved ones freed from this unjust imprisonment. If you listen to the heart-wrenching stories of these families, as this writer did, during their recent six-day sit-in on the KKH at Aliabad, you wonder if there is any place left in this country to feel good about.
A senior community leader in Minapin, Nagar valley, says that Pakistan has made a big mistake by slamming the ATA on the peace-loving, politically conscious people. Hunza and Nagar were the first princely states to accede to Pakistan in 1947, and since then have wanted to be fully integrated into the country, despite the many grievances and grudges they hold against the state. Unfortunately, the government has done little to develop the region, except for building roads and schools. It is the Aga Khan Foundation that has provided much-needed support to the local communities, he said.
Dissatisfaction among the youth is widespread. They are not happy to go out of the region to acquire professional education and want the facilities in the region. Employment opportunities are generally limited to tourism and teaching. The area has no representation in the National Assembly and the lack of participation in the government has led to political alienation, a young man in Mominabad reflected. I found the people indifferent about the November elections of the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly under the new GB Order 2018. The people do not expect much from the new Order. They believe autonomy and enhanced participation will remain elusive till the area is constitutionally integrated.
Till that moment comes, it is crucial that the unjustly incarcerated men, including Baba Jan, be released soon as recently promised by the government. Nothing alienates more than the unjust, barbaric treatment meted out to people by the state. Our people, perhaps, can endure decades-long marginalisation, exploitation and neglect but not the unjust application of the Anti-Terrorism Act.