Taliban threat closes in on isolated Kalash tribe
For a decade the Kalash, a mountain tribe nestled in a stunning valley deep in the Hindu Kush, managed to avoid the Taliban scourge ravaging the rest of north-western Pakistan.
Visitors streamed into the valley to experience a unique non-Muslim culture in which the women eschew veils, the men make wine, and everyone worships a complex array of gods. Pictures of Kalash women adorned in an explosion of colourful beads became an icon of Pakistan's (admittedly struggling) tourist industry, and a hint at the country's tolerant vision of itself.
But the advent of some unwelcome visitors are putting paid to all that. Over the past month Pakistan's army has deployed to the Kalash valley for the first time.
Soldiers prowl the valleys at night, firing deafening volleys of gunfire that echo between the valley walls. A military camp and new police station have sprung up. Vehicles with spies from the military's secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence, jolt down the rutted roads. All are protecting, they say, against the Taliban.
In late August Pakistani Taliban fighters based in Afghanistan mounted a ruthless night-time ambush on border soldiers and police in Arandu, just south of Kalash. "They crossed the river on inflatable tubes under darkness because the bridges were guarded," said local farmer Sher Zameen, who came on the scene a few hours later. "Then they opened fire on the soldiers as they slept in their tents." Some 35 soldiers and police were killed.
The ruthless assault shattered a decade of relative calm in Chitral district. Located in the topmost corner of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Chitral had managed to dodge the trouble that racked the rest of the northwestern province – until now. It spelled disaster for the Kalash, thought to number just 3,500 people, whose idyllic mountain homeland borders Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan, and is feared to be next in line for an attack.
Tourism, a major source of income, has collapsed, with local police insisting that the trickle of foreigners who dare visit be accompanied by armed guards. And the otherwise peaceful Kalash are unnerved.
"I don't know why the army needs to deploy here," said Abdul Khaliq, a tribal elder who lives close to a new makeshift army base in the heart of the valley. "It's making people scared and tense. They should be up on the border, not down in the village."
Until now, the Kalash's greatest worry was proselytism. Muslim communities in nearby valleys have for years urged them urged the Kalash to abandon their religion and culture, which are quite distant from Islam. Many have succumbed, sometimes for professional advancement or to have an easier time at school or in the army. Among those left, there is proud defiance.
"People tell us we should become Muslim. We tell them to become Kalash," said Khwanza Bibi, a 28-year-old health worker, cracking a fistful of freshly harvested walnuts.
Their cultural defences were also strengthened by an unusual connection with Greece. Some scholars, pointing to the Kalash's fair-skinned features, believe they are the descendents of Alexander the Great and his invading armies.
Others dispute the theory, but nonetheless a steady stream of Greek volunteers, armed with Greek government money, mobilised to protect the valley and its rich culture.
A towering wooden museum and school – by far the largest in the main valley, Bumburet – and smart communal centre where Kalash women live during menstruation and childbirth, are the product of this friendship.
But even the Greek connection has been stymied by the Taliban.
Two years ago militants kidnapped Athanasios Lerounis, a Greek volunteer, and spirited him across the border into Afghanistan. Lerounis was freed several months later, after payment of a handsome ransom and the release of several Taliban prisoners from a Pakistani jail, according to a senior Pakistani official.
Today policemen are billeted at the Greek museum, smoking and eating in a room near the bustling primary school in the same building. The teachers are angry.
"It's not good," said one, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If the Taliban attack the police, then our pupils could get caught in the crossfire."
Then again, the Kalash have long experience dealing with odd visitors. In 2002 a Spanish zoologist who had taken a house in the valley, proclaiming himself to be a Kalash, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. Police suspected the man, who is buried in a local graveyard, of being a spy. The case remains unresolved.
Last year Gary Faulkner, a construction worker from Colorado, booked into a local hotel, armed with a sword and a pistol. In the dead of night the middle-aged American started trekking into the mountains, headed for the Afghan border, in search of Osama bin Laden, but was later arrested and sent back to the US.
"Gary was a very friendly guy. He said he had earlier worked as a killer for the government. Now he was gong to get the big one – Osama," recalled one local hotelier with a chuckle.
The recent woes have been triggered by events in Afghanistan. Since 2009 US troops have pulled out of Nuristan, the mountainous province across the border, leaving the area largely in insurgent hands.
Local militant numbers were boosted by an influx of Pakistani Taliban from the valley, where the army conducting a sweeping operation in 2009 that drove them out.
Then this year the Taliban started to strike back, using rear bases in Nuristan and Kunar to carry out brutal cross-border raids, such as the one in Arandu. Pakistan's military responded with crudely-aimed cross-border artillery barrages that have killed dozens of civilians in Afghanistan, further straining relations between the two countries.
The complex war politics mean little to the Kalash, who have traditionally felt little connection with the Pakistani state. "It treated us like animals, and this valley like a zoo," said Khaliq, the tribal elder. Now, with winter closing in, they hope that nature will protect them.
Over the coming months snow up to 15 feet deep will carpet the mountain passes leading from the three Kalash valleys into Afghanistan. For many Kalash, it can't come soon enough.
"We'd never even heard of the Taliban before this past couple of years," said Purstam Gul, a 47-year-old woman cradling a child in her arms.
Then she turned, and gestured towards a white glimmer on a distant peak. "The quicker it snows, the better for all of us."