Alhamdulillah this is so beautiful- it's the report of a Canadian Muslimah journalist travelling with the Mujaahideen through Pakistan only a few days before Ramadhan of this year.
KHADIJA ABDUL QAHAAR: Live From Mohmand, Pakistan Aug 26, 2008
By Khadija Abdul Qahaar | J.U.S Islamic Media Center
With approximately 4 million Taliban on the Pakistani side of the British imposed Durrand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan and artificially divides the Pashtun peoples, Mohmand Agency is the heartland of the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan and a strategic centre for the jihaad that now rages in Pakistan.
To the north of Mohmand is Bajaur Agency, with Khyber Agency to the south, Malakand and Charsadda districts to the east and Peshawer district to the south east. In 2003 the Pakistani military bases were built just inside the Afghanistan boundary in the Yaqubi area opposite Mohmand Agency however it remains one of the main routes for Mujaahideen to enter Afghanistan.
As such, gaining access to the area was no small feat. Mohmand is entirely under Taliban control, with Shariah Law implemented throughout the region under the leadership of the Supreme Ameer whose name I will not disclose in this report for security reasons. In addition, the Pashtuns on both sides of the border practice a code of honour known as Pashtunwali. Pashtunwali is a system of living for the Pashtun people that is founded on the basis of early Islam. This is one of the main reasons that Emir-al-Momineen Mullah Omar would not hand over Sheikh Osama bin Laden to the Americans in 2001 as under this Pashtun creed, Sheikh Osama was a guest of Afghanistan and as such could not be handed over to foreigners. Fiercely true to this code of honour, even after the American invasion and the subsequent years of foreign occupation, the Pashtuns do not sway from Pashtunwali.
In recent weeks, with the US and the Pakistani army deploying throughout FATA, there are several layers of security that make entry for foreigners, even foreign Muslims, near impossible. To gain entry I needed not only to be trusted as a sincere Muslim but to be an invited guest of the Taliban. Furthermore, this meant that Taliban were responsible for my security and would be required to defend me against any and all enemies, which indeed they did as events unfolded.
My journey began with the assistances of Shah Abdul Aziz Mujahid, a well respected figure among the tribal peoples, the Taliban and government officials. A former member of parliament representing the NWFP, Maulana Aziz resigned from the government after Pakistani government forces stormed Lal Majsid and Jamiah Hafsah on July 10, 2007 killing over 1000 students, many who were Sisters. A strong supporter the Missing Person campaign, his Madrassa Jamia Madinat-ul-Uloom in Karak trains some 2000 Taliban students each year and his name is respected in many circles.
I had met Shah Abdul Aziz Mujahid in my last trip to Pakistan. A man of impeccable credentials, I contacted him and let him know of my desire to meet the true Taliban and see for myself what was going on in the tribal areas, now the primary focus of America’s war on terror.
It did not take Maulana Aziz long to get active in my project after I explained that I wanted to eat, breath and sleep with the Taliban in order to show that true face of those America’s calls “terrorists”. After contacting a key Muslim 'Alim in Mohmand Agency who I will refer to for this report as Mualana T and another influential scholar who I will refer to as Mulvi R, I was instructed to move forward from Islamabad to Peshawar to wait for further instructions.
And wait I did. The day I arrived in Peshawar there had been bomb blasts that shut down two major power grids and the entire city was in blackout. It was like entering another planet in some far away solar system. Over the next nine days, there were many other bomb blasts including attacks at the main bus terminal that killed dozens. For the record, while the Taliban were quickly blamed, neither the attacks on the power grids nor the bus terminal were Mujahideen operations. The power grid blasts were part of an ongoing royalty dispute with local villagers and the bus attack appears to be the work of foreign forces as the Taliban do not attack civilian targets, as I found out during my time in Pakistan.
As one day turned into two and then six and then 9, I experienced every possible setback. My translator Suleiman, a native of Peshawar, heeded the words of his soon to be wife and decided that the trip was too dangerous for him. He fled in the middle of the night after receiving his first weeks pay. From there, I went through three other translators who would first commit to the project but then decide for one reason or another, mostly fear of this world, that they would not take part in the project. For a few days, it seemed I did nothing but buy SIM cards and load up cell phones for those who would disappear the following day.
Meanwhile, I was getting anxious as I waited for the call to move forward and the bills were racking up. My driver Abid was costing 3000 rupees a day plus diesel out of station and uncomfortable sleeping in servant’s quarters, I had to rent additional accommodation for him. Translators, meals, medicine and the high cost of Peshawar in general were not helping my stress levels. Day after day I waited for the call but the call did not come. Twelve days in, I was close to aborting the project.
There were a variety of issues. There was of course the trust issue that was slowly being resolved in meeting after meeting with those scholars, mujahids and others who were trying to help me. I had my story Ashes to Light translated to Urdu and my certificates of Shahada from al-Azhar University copied. Shah Abdul Aziz would call and put me on speaker phone as he sat with natives of Mohmand agency and ask me to recite various Surahs of the Quran. Alhamdulillah, it was then that all the days I sat with the six year olds at al-Azhar in Cairo came in handy.
Another issue was the color of my skin. While Islam is a religion for people of all colors and races, a white English speaking Muslim from Canada and with Canadian kuffar troops now deployed in Afghanistan, it was entirely understandable that I was initially viewed with suspicion. Alhamdulillah this issue was ultimately put to rest at least in this region.
In addition, due to the American attack on Bajaur Agency, the Mujahideen where high up in the mountains that separate Mohmand and Bajaur agencies. In many instances the Mujahideen were simply out of cell range but further, they turn their phones off while travelling so it was very difficult to communicate. Most often, the Mujahideen communicate in the middle of the night so this further slowed progress. And of course there was the security issue; it would take between ten and fifteen Mujahideen to guarantee my safety and get me in and out of the territory safely.
When calls did come – it would be the same story. “Be patient - one or two more days,” my contacts would say. With rapidly escalating bills, a revolving door of translators and nerves on edge, each day seemed a week long. I thought to myself during these days whether I was actually ever going to get in or was this a repeat of Egypt where tomorrow never came and “inshaAllah” meant ‘if I have nothing better to do”. The only way I kept on was that I knew that the Pashtuns were noble people and that ultimately, it was Allah who would determine whether of not I moved forward. I held close to His rope. Many many nights I prayed into the early hours of the morning, begging and pleading with Allah to make the way clear.
Finally we had a breakthrough of sorts. A meeting was arranged between Maulana T, Mulvi R and Shah Abdul Aziz Mujahid. As it turned out, these individuals had never met before but rather knew of Maulana Aziz because of his stand against the Lal Masjid massacre. By the end of the meeting, all looked bright and I was once again told that all would be arranged in a ‘day or two”.
I scrambled for another translator and managed to come up with a brother who we will call Brother N for this report, a mujahid from the Afridi tribe at a whopping 1500 rupees a day. But I was desperate so the agreement was made. While the Pashtuns are renowned for their honour, they are also referred to as the lost tribe of the Jews for their keen ability to line their pockets with the money of others.
Still more time passed. As it turned out, I spent a total of fourteen days in Peshawar, before Maulana T and Mulvi Rehman returned to my guest house for yet another meeting and another lunch. As these men always travel in groups, the lunches alone were breaking the bank. The conclusion was of course the same with one small twist. After “Be patient madam”, Mualana T sent his entourage away and took my translator aside. “We are poor people please ask Madam for money, ” he requested.
This bothered me for two reasons. I had just received news earlier that morning that the money I was counting on from my last project to fund this current work would not be forthcoming due to the fact that the film costs was grossly over budget. We had several Pakistanis working on the last project who claimed to be doing so “only for the sake of Allah” but who pilfered nearly 200,000 rupees from the budget. As the result, I was not to receive the funds that I was expecting and need to complete my project. Secondly, I knew this man of 250 pounds was not hungry and it just seemed to me that this is a repeated pattern. There is a complete misconception that all Westerners have money. I have long ago exhausted my personal funds and through the grace of Allah somehow I have managed to carry on but there is never any real money as is reflected in the current condition of the JUS website. I have not even had a home for the past three years unlike these people yet they still expect that I put money in their hands simply because I come from Canada. I experienced this consistently during the 18 months I spent in Egypt and it really strikes me as a form of racism. I am already giving all I have or manage to get to this work and unlike these Brothers, I have no family to fall back on. I have Allah and Allah alone.
All that said, I of course paid the money but I could not disguise the fact that I was visibly disturbed and Mualana T left quickly.
Surprisingly, the next day we received the call. Great news – Alhamdulilah, the green light had been given and we were to travel the following day. I reflected on the fact that maybe if I put money in their hands 14 days earlier I could have saved myself ten times that in guest house charges who also had their hands in my pockets.
The following morning, I took the last money out of the bank, packed in a hurry with Mualana and Mulvi rushing me along. As I packed the kitchen knife, I accidentally stabbed myself in the hip. Busting open the first aid kit, I patched up my wound quickly but frankly I didn’t even feel the pain. I was numb and my adrenal was pumping. We were finally moving ahead and that’s all that mattered to me.
Of course this was just the beginning of many more challenges to come. The next that arose concerned the van. Maulana T wanted to rent another vehicle with local Peshawar plates. Of course I could not afford that so we headed out of Peshawar with the van fully loaded and Maulana T and Mulvi R, along with their driver in the car ahead. They insisted we stop at friends to store a good portion of the luggage as we would need the room for the Mujahideen. This left us without food amongst other things were had prepared for the trip but again this was a mute point – we were finally on our way.
Entering Mohmand Agency there are two Frontier Corps checkpoints. I rode in the vehicle with Maulana T and dressed in a jilbab and niqab. I learned sometime later that Burqa was the style of dress for local women not niqab however the Frontier Corps were pretty much asleep at the check point. We were just waved through. Likewise the van breezed through even though it had Islamabad license plates. A few kilometres further down the road, we were joined by a group of Mujahideen who took us to the village of Mulano Mandi where we were greeted by the local Emir who we will call Emir Ullah for the purpose of this report to protect his identity. Inside a mud house, I interviewed Emir Ullah and later outside another Emir who I will refer to as Emir Shah.
Both Emirs were impressive but in particular Emir Ullah. A man of 30, soft eyed and soft spoken, small framed yet strong featured, Emir Ullah went out of his way to show me respect. What I didn’t realize at the time was that he had lost five of his own personal security guards during the past week yet he showed no signs of grieving. Death is a daily affair to these men. As I interviewed Emir Shah, Emir Ullah was glancing through my story a great smile came to his face.
After all was complete, we posed for pictures. Emir Ullah handed me a modified Kalashnikov for my “trophy” shots and we all laughed as I was unable to even hold it up. He then gave me a smaller one, double checking to make sure the safety was on and we laughed again – I told him through my translator not to worry – I was not going to shoot him! Emir Ullah then gave me a gift of a Burqa. As I held it up we all laughed again – the women in these parts on large and if I were to wear this garment, a good gust of wind would surely blow me away. I promised to get it fitted and that met with his approval.
Our next stop was to be Qandara village where we were to see the Madrassa and meet with the Supreme Commander of the TTP in Mohamnd Agency who I will refer to as Umar Saab for this report. With the camera equipment all packed away, I was summoned to the lead vehicle. Emir Ullah was to travel with us and assumed the role of my personal security. As we moved out, two heavily armed Taliban rode in the front, I and Emir Ullah to my right in the back, along with his weapon and ammo belt, and the van followed with approximately ten more heavily armed Mujahideen. Indeed I had full protection.
As we travelled over open plains with nothing more than tire tracks for roads, it was soon time for Mahgrib prayer. In these parts, the women do not pray behind the men so the Mujahideen prayed on the flat lands after making wudu in the ground water and Emir Ullah placed a prayer mat for me on the high ground. It was an overwhelming sight and I was filled with awe as I saw the Mujahideen praying in the foreground and the mighty mountains of Afghanistan so close that it appeared that could reach out and touch them. That is when the magnitude of it all hit me. After six long years, here I was, with the Mujahideen close to the border of Afghanistan praying to our Mighty creator in the wide open spaces of Mohmand Agency. This scene has been in my heart and mind ever since and it will surely never leave my memory.
The journey to Qandara village was arduous with many difficulties on the way. I moved to the van to film only to learn that the Mujahideen would not allow this as it may give away some of their strategic places were weapons and ordinances are stored. The car got stuck and I was surprised when the slightly built Emir Ullah was the first out to resolve the problem while the hefty Mualana’s sat inside the van. In fact, throughout the trip this is what impressed me most about Emir Ullah. Even though he was the Emir, there was no feudal system here. He was always the first to resolve whatever the problems that arose. The car also ran out of gas and it was emir Ullah who walked to get the gas tank to fill the vehicle even though he could have easily dispatched one of his men to carry out the task.
Traveling at approximately 15 km per hour, by the time we arrived at Qandara it was midnight and the Supreme Commander had left. We decided to bed down there for the night, with the Mujahideen and my driver and translator sleeping inside the Madrassa and I was to sleep inside the van. I was brought cookies and tea and just as I was about to curl up on the seats of the van to sleep, I heard a knock on the van door. When I opened it, my translator brought in Abu Malik, the principle of the Madrassa who was weighted down with notebooks from the students who wanted my autograph that I gladly gave before turning in for the night.
The next morning I awoke and still in the absolutely filthy jilbab that had been dragged through the muddy plains the day before, I took my "bathroom bag”, a bag that consists of the luxuries I am accustomed to like toilet paper and toothpaste, washcloth, towel and water for washing, and made my way to the “bathroom” which was a small enclosed space with a hole in the mud floor. No sooner had I finished cleaning myself I heard a large helicopter and moments later loud gunfire. As I returned to the main Madrassa area, I was told that a helicopter gunship had fired on a Taliban check post just two km away and one of Emir Ullah’s men had been wounded.
With a blanket over the front window and the drapes in the van drawn, I was able to put on fresh clothes. I was then ushered into one room in the Madrassa where the Mujahideen, Emir Ullah and the principle of the school sat and shared tea. At the end, Maulana T ask that I recite some Quran for them and I obliged, receiving great smiles, ‘Mashallah’s” and Allahu Akbar’s”.
Qandara is home to the future generations of Taliban from the area. From birth, these children are nurtured as future warriors. Once they are old enough to read, the children, both males and females, undertake formal studies in not just Islam but math, physics, history and Arabic.
Seeing the principle Abu Malik in the light of day was a wonderful experience. A tall man of great stature, Abu Malik’s face radiates with the light of Allah rarely seen on humans. Speaking English, he took me on a tour of the school and we filmed the students taking lessons in Hadith. One highlight of our conversation is that Abu Malik repeated over and over gain “why is America attacking us? We just want to live simple lives and worship our God in peace. Why does America not want the peace?”
And for this I could offer no answer.
Following the tour of the school, Emir Ullah instructed that we were to prepare to move out to meet with the Supreme Commander. I asked if I could film the journey but again I was turned down however Emir Ullah cooperated where he could and allowed me to film a Taliban check post that was located a few kilometres up the road. Here Taliban search vehicles for banned substances such as music tapes and drugs and insure that no kafirs enter their territory. When we arrived at the check point, I witnessed a truck carrying wounded from the attack earlier in the morning. I was also introduced to yet another Emir who I will refer to as Emir K for the purpose of this report. Oddly Emir K did not reply to any of the questions I ask him through my translator and while I put it down to nothing more than the fact that he was an unsociable fellow, his agenda soon became clear.
With our van packed full of Mujahideen and following Emir Ullah who was in the lead, we once gain traveled forth in search of the Supreme Commander. While he had agreed to see us, with the actions earlier in the day, Taliban forces were mobilizing and therefore everyone was mobile. Cell phones were on and off and the situation was very fluid.
We had been directed to a mud house some 30 km from Qandara by Emir K where he insisted the Supreme Commander was. When we arrived after another arduous journey, the Mujahideen, the Mualana’s and Abu Malik, the principle of the Madrassa who wanted to accompany us, all went inside leaving me alone in the van. After what seemed to be a long time, the men finally appeared. As it turned out, the house had been a diversion where Mujahideen under the command of Emir K attempted to kidnap our entire group. The alleged crime was that Emir Ullah had brought a foreigner into Taliban territory. After phone calls from Emir Ullah to the Supreme Commander, Emir K’s group was rebuked and we were free to go. It was then I realized just how dangerous this terriitory really is – with rivalries between Emirs and lack of communication that can take a live in a split second.
Emir Ullah commanded that we carry on in a calm and determined manner. We travelled for another several hours through river beds where the van also got stuck. From the time we had left Peshawar, none of us had eaten anything other than a few biscuits and with the midday sun beating down on us as we crawled along each kilometre, no one complained. To the contrary, with nasheeds blaring out of the vehicles, and smiles on everyone’s faces, our convoy carried on until we reached the home of the Supreme Commander. Once again the men went in and I waited in the van. After some minutes, Emir Ullah came with my translator to explain that the cousin of the Supreme Commander had been killed and his martyred body had just arrived at the house. My translator explained that the Supreme Commander’s face was dark in mourning and that we would not be able to meet with him that day.
Then events changed suddenly. While I was not privy to the details, Emir Ullah was summoned to stay with the Supreme commander, no doubt to undertake a retaliatory strike. My heart sank – I hated to leave this mountain of a man. In the van we talked about my plans to return to meet the Supreme Commander and to travel with Emir Ullah to the battlefield, all of which he offered his complete support. As we said our goodbyes, he paid me a great honour. He said that with the commitment I had shown to telling the true story of what is going on in these border areas by travelling 10,000 miles to the border of Afghanistan was a sure sign that Allah was leading me and that with the courage I had shown, the Mujahideen could surely not loose with the support of such a great Sister. As Emir Ullah made dua for us, his comments struck a chord that left tears streaming down my cheeks that were hidden under my niqab.
With two Mujahideen accompanying us, we returned once again to Malano Mandi where we dropped off Abdul Malik the principle of the Madrassa and the last two Mujahideen. There we were the last of the Mujahideen and Maulana T and Mulvi R and my team took an alternate route back to the so-called settled area of Peshawar however this was not without incident either.
About one hour into our return journey, we were stopped at a Taliban check post. The Mujahideen searched our van and grabbed my handbag, searching every nook and cranny for contraband. I have to say that I found this a bit offensive. The Maulanas argued with them that we had clearance from Emir Ullah but they did not belief them for some reason. This I found odd as they are from the same agency and both Mualana T and Mulvi R are well known there. Eventually Maulana T had to leave his ID card with them on the basis that if “any trouble occurred within the next 24 hours, we are coming after you!”
As I thought about this afterwards, I realized that I could not blame the Taliban for their somewhat harsh approach. This is their territory and indeed they must protect it for the Muslim Ummah has very little true territory left.
As we entered the city limits of Peshawar, I was overwhelmed with feelings of sorrow for I felt more at home in the rugged plains of Mohmand Agency than in the settled area of Peshawar. It was then that I realized the full meaning of the righteous words of Allah. Indeed we are strangers in this world.
Khadija Abdul Qahaar
August 26, 2008