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A Game No More In Pakistani Pashtun Village

Lashkars, or militias formed by local villagers, have been formed to fight the Taliban in some of Pakistan's tribal areas. But the Taliban fights back.
Lashkars, or militias formed by local villagers, have been formed to fight the Taliban in some of Pakistan's tribal areas. But the Taliban fights back.
Villagers in the northwest Pakistani village of Shah Hassan Khel no longer gather to take in a volleyball match or two after a long day in the fields. The Taliban put an end to that tradition seven months ago with a deadly bombing that killed scores of players and fans.

But just because locals are eschewing one of their most beloved pastimes doesn't mean they are giving in to terrorism. They are showing their resolve to prevent the Taliban from encroaching on the village by joining the local civilian militia, or lashkar, in ever-greater numbers.

"It is because of the January 1, 2010, explosion that killed over 100 people, including the leading players, and rendered scores more injured," Mushtaq Khan, a village elder and head of the local lashkar, tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

Shah Hassan Khel is an impoverished place located in the Lakki Marwat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, near Pakistan's restive tribal belt. Farmers, labors, merchants, and government workers make up much of the village's population of 7,000. Residents are mainly Pashtun, the ethnic group that predominately makes up the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban that roam neighboring Waziristan and their counterparts in Afghanistan, 150 kilometers to the west.

After embarking on a months-long offensive to eradicate the militants in 2009, the government and security forces supported the formation of lashkars, traditionally formed to ensure security and to implement the tribal or Pashtun code, as a means of getting locals to take up arms against the militants.

Considering the proximity of Waziristan and its reputation as a safe haven for militants -- Taliban leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in the fall of 2009 took refuge there, as did Hakimullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain, and others -- Shah Hassan Khel was among the first villages in the region to form a lashkar.

Targeted By Taliban

"We took the initiative of raising the anti-Taliban lashkar because our village is located close to Waziristan and we've [worked] to block the entry of Taliban into our area," Mushtaq Khan explains.

Even though the lashkar was ill-equipped and underfunded, Khan says, it still managed to get the "bad guys" out of the area.

A paramedic treats an injured victim at a hospital in Lakki Marwat on January, when village residents say over a hundred were killed.
But that success also made Shah Hassan Khel a target. Terror came on January 1 when, as the tribal council that oversees the lashkar was meeting, a suicide bomber plowed his explosives-packed car into a crowd of about 300 people gathered around a dusty outdoor volleyball court.

According to Khan, 114 people were killed and scores injured. Police suggested the 250 kilograms of explosives were really intended for the tribal council.

Hours after the brazen attack, Taliban militants from the tribal areas claimed responsibility, saying that "the attack was their revenge against Shah Hassan Khel dwellers for organizing a lashkar against them."

One resident of the village, speaking on condition of anonymity, says no one in the village escaped the tragedy. "Two cousins of mine were killed in the blast and almost every family lost one or more members," he says.

"All players have been killed or maimed," he adds. "No one among the leading players is left alive or able to play the game."

Fighting The 'Cancer'

But while fear is evident, the wish for revenge predominates.

Lashkar leader Khan, who lost three cousins in the attack, describes it as a "cowardly act." The Taliban, he says, opted to "kill innocent and unarmed civilians" rather than fight the lashkar face to face. "Now," he says, "our mission is to chase them and fight them till the last."

Today, the lashkar operates in and around the village with fresh volunteers -- mostly young men who a year ago might have been seen playing or watching volleyball matches.

One of the key leaders of the lashkar, 45-year-old Ramdullah Khan, describes the wave of Talibanization in the region as a "cancer [that] has robbed our people of our small pleasures like volleyball."

The goal now, Khan says, is simple: "We want to eliminate them or let them eliminate us."

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