A fragile peace is taking root in Pakistan's western Kurram tribal region after nearly four years of sectarian warfare between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims.
Some have criticized a recent peace pact by saying that it is less about forging a lasting peace than about facilitating insurgents' infiltration into neighboring Afghanistan. But the local population appears committed to making it work.
Success could have far-reaching implications. If peace is possible in a hotbed like Kurram, then it could serve as a model for millions suffering from war in other tribal areas.‘Many People Were Injured’
Resident Noor Janan’s situation is typical. He lost his budding business in 2007 when clashes broke out between Shi'a and Sunnis in Parachinar. Rioting in the small border city, which serves as the headquarters of Kurram, soon devolved into sectarian war.
As the Sunni population of Parachinar was forced out, the city’s mostly Shi'a population was hemmed in -- trapped by retreating Sunnis who blocked the main road to the outside and set siege on the city.
Janan's priorities changed remarkably. For the past four years his main obligation has not been to look after his wife and four children, but to man frontline trenches and care for the sick and the injured.
Children displaced by fighting stand in line and wait for handouts in 2010.
"Many people were injured and many houses were destroyed,” he said. “I did all in my power to help my people."
Janan is Turi -- a tribe of 500,000 whose adherence to Shi'ite Islam makes it unique among Pashtuns. The Turis occupy a sliver of tribal territory known as the Parrot's Beak that extends westward across Afghanistan's eastern border. On the Pakistani side, Parachinar is positioned within striking distance of Kabul, which is just 100 kilometers to its east.
For the most part, the Turis lived in harmony with neighboring Sunni tribes for centuries, with a handful of exceptions. In the 1980s, predominantly Sunni Afghan Islamist guerillas attempted to overrun the strategically important region.
In 2007, a fierce sectarian war broke out when the Sunni Taliban attempted to conquer the Parachinar. More than 3,000 people have died and thousands more injured in the ensuing fighting. Some Sunnis blame Iran for the development, claiming the clerical regime supported and radicalized their Shi'a neighbors.
Both Sides Committed
Animosity remains high, but a cease-fire worked out in early February and backed by Islamabad offers proof that Shi'a and Sunni alike are committed to peace.
Middle-aged businessman Munir Khan Orakzai, who represents the Sunni population of the lower half of Kurram in Pakistan's parliament, said that both sects realize that they have fought a useless cause that killed many innocent people. “There can be no logical end to this [sectarian violence],” he said. “That's why people concluded this agreement."
Tribal elders and government representatives attend a peace conference in Parachinar in 2008.
A peace agreement was signed before, in 2008, but it lacked government support and rival factions had one eye on possible military gains.
Under the new agreement, Islamabad is promising rehabilitation for the thousands of displaced families, and the deployment of additional troops to guard key routes. Work Of The Haqqanis?
Skeptics abound. Pakistani pundits suggested that the deal was worked out by the Haqqanis -- a large Pashtun family from Afghanistan whose elderly patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani emerged as one of the most effective guerilla commanders in the 1980s.
His son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, now controls thousands of fighters and facilitates relations between Al-Qaeda Arabs, extremist Afghans, Pakistanis, and Central Asians out of his sanctuary in North Waziristan, which adjoins Kurram to the south. Considering the Haqqanis anti-Shi'ite bent and outsider status, any role in an agreement would be rejected by Kurram's Shi'a.
Sajid Hussain Turi, a young lawmaker representing the region's Shi'ite population in the Pakistani parliament, adamantly rejected any Haqqani role. “We, the Turis, have lost 1,200 people and more than 5,000 of our people were injured in this,” he said. “There is no question of involving people in this process that would ultimately harm us."
Turi said that the weakened position of the Taliban, in disarray after years of military operations, opened the door to peace. He said that even local Sunni allies of the Taliban now see the futility of their military campaign.
Key intermediaries have high hopes for sustainable peace in Kurram. Waris Khan Afridi, a respected tribal leader from the neighboring Khyber tribal district, was among the mediators who put in countless hours bringing the two sides together. Unforgettable Scene
On February 5, Afridi led the first civilian convoy of hundreds of vehicles to mark the break of Parachinar's siege. He described an unforgettable scene of thousands of Sunni and Shi'ite villagers welcoming his entourage. "It was like they all were freed from prison that day," he said.
Now, Afridi said, Pashtun tribes in neighboring tribal valleys are poised to follow the Kurram example. "We have always said that force is not a solution for anything and that the military operations will not solve our problems,” he said.
“Peace in Kurram,” Afridi said, “will positively affect all the tribal areas, the [neighboring] province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the whole country."