Pakistan Thursday, July 27, 2006, Jamadi-us-sani 30, 1427 A.H.
The Mazri murders
By Rina Saeed Khan
Rina Saeed Khan revisits the ‘vale of death’ deep inside the tribal Orakzai Agency near Kohat, where two women and two innocent children paid a heavy price last month for their religious affiliation, and for teaching the local women a handicraft to enhance their income-generating skills. Their only crime in this case was that they belonged to the wrong sect, and that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time
They came for them around midnight on a hot June night. The two women, Sayeda Jan and Umme Salma, were spending the night at a school in the remote Orakzai Agency near Kohat with Salma’s two young children, 10-year-old Laila and four-year-old Haider.
The school watchman had gone off for the night, and this helped tribesmen who attacked them –– they killed the children first, shooting them dead, and then the two women. They chopped up their bodies and slunk away into the night. “They slaughtered them like butchers,” says an area councillor in Kohat. “They wanted to make a horrible example of them.”
The murder of the women and children sent shock waves throughout Kohat –– not that it is known as a peaceful corner of Pakistan. Murders, feuds and sectarian killings are common here in this land of the tough tribesmen, with the district’s tribal areas bordering strife-torn Afghanistan. However, women and children have traditionally been spared violence unless they are involved in so-called questions of “honour”.
It appears that the women’s crime in this case was simply that they belonged to the wrong sect, and that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. During Muharram this year, there were violent sectarian clashes in nearby Hangu which led to one community burning shops owned by the other in retaliation for their attacks on religious processions. For weeks the main bazaar was shut and the roads blocked as sectarian clashes took place. The local administration finally took control of the area, but the situation still remains tense in the Hangu district.
Umme Salma and Sayeda Jan had gone to the predominantly Sunni Orakzai Agency on the invitation of the Barani Area Development Project (BADP), a local government project which had hired them to impart training to local women on how to make better handicraft from the indigenous Mazri tree.
Salma supported her husband and three children with her income by conducting training sessions, while Sayeda Jan, whose husband had abandoned her, needed money to support herself.
The Mazri tree resembles a dwarf palm tree and grows all over this rugged, arid terrain. In recent years, due to over-grazing and the influx of Afghan refugees, its growth has shrunk, and the NGOs are now working hard to encourage the local people to plant nurseries and grow more Mazri trees. For centuries, their leaves have been dried and then used to make a number of household products. Traditionally, rope or the baan is made from its leaves and is used in charpoys and stools.
Other traditional products include prayer mats, fans and baskets. Now, with the help of NGOs like the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, many local women of Kohat and Hangu districts have been taught to make more modern items like file covers, pen holders, wall hangings, bags and boxes for jewellery and makeup.
Sayeda Jan, in fact, had even travelled to the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, to attend a course in designing these handicrafts. She was taken there by the SRSP and learnt how to use more attractive colour schemes and make decorative designs.
“They had originally asked us for trainers for these tribal agencies to teach the local women, but in view of the current situation we refused,” says Faiza Ahmed, a social organiser at the SRSP, who knew Sayeda Jan. “The local NGOs pay as much as Rs10,000 for this kind of training, and I guess that is why these two women agreed to go work in the Orakzai Agency in spite of the obvious sectarian danger.”
The local women, many of whom are restricted to their homes in this deeply conservative and poverty-stricken region, can benefit immensely by making these handicrafts at home and then sending them off to be sold in the markets.
Using the new designs, they now need fewer Mazri leaves and make more efficient use of their time and fetch better prices for their products in the marketplace. The file covers, for example, are relatively less time consuming to make and yet a woman can earn Rs5,000 for 50 covers (at Rs100 per file). An intricately worked basket, by comparison, which takes all day to make and uses lots of Mazri, sells for around Rs50.
Thus, the modern training is invaluable for the local women, and many are keen to learn how to supplement their meagre income. With this extra money they can buy more things for their children and ensure that they can go to school.
“I make around Rs1,200 a month from selling these products. Before training, I would make Rs200 only. My husband is very happy now that I don’t ask him for extra money anymore,” says Naseem Bano, a local woman who has received training at the SRSP. Respect for the local Mazri trees has also gone up and the people are keen to ensure that their forests are conserved.
Sayeda Jan and Salma, both of whom were master trainers, had gone to Orakzai Agency to do just that: teach the local women how to make better Mazri handicrafts. Neither of them could have had an inkling of what was in store for them. “They didn’t receive any threats, no one warned them. If they did not want them there, they could have just asked them to leave”, says a local councillor.
“Now women are traumatised, and our men don’t even want us to go to the bazaars. I had wanted to set up an organisation under the name of Mazri Enterprise to help the local women but those plans are now on hold. The men say to me: ‘Do you want to be killed like those women?’ Incidents like this close the doors for all women.”
Some sectarian elements were up in arms, but quick action was taken by the political agent and the DCO to apprehend the culprits. “The government responded very fast. They arrested over 50 people in the area and took sniffer dogs to identify the men who were at the crime scene,” says Brigadier (retired) Haroon Rasheed of the Meirman’s Women’s Centre, another local NGO that held meetings shortly after the murders to highlight the issue and to express their outrage.
A special team was formed to arrest the murderers, and not surprisingly, the sniffer dogs led them straight to the home of a local cleric after sniffing out the crime scene. Despite the protestations over the use of “unclean” sniffer dogs, Mullah Ayub, his brother, Rauf, and his two nephews have been taken into custody. The clerics of Orakzai Agency have retaliated by decreeing that the use of sniffer dogs is ‘un-Islamic’.
The murders were committed on June 16 and now it has been over a month but the culprits have yet to be brought to justice. A grand jirga of the Aakhel tribe, on whose land the murders were committed, started proceedings in Ghiljo, the headquarters of the Orakzai Agency. However, the jirga is yet to suggest punishment for the culprits which is usually death for a death.
“There are many here who teach their followers that killing someone from the rival sect will send them straight to heaven,” says another social worker. She feels that the authorities have still not arrested the masterminds behind the killings and that many influential people were involved. Not only the entire wronged community, but all the women of Kohat and Hangu districts await justice.
Already the NGOs are getting threats from both sides. Some Shias accuse them of having gotten their women killed by sending them to such a dangerous area, while others insist that the women should stay home or else face more violence.
“It is already very difficult for us to work here in Kohat,” says a woman working for the SRSP. “They have such strange notions about us –– some actually think we are trying to westernise the women or convert them to another faith. It is only when they come here and receive trainings that they realise that we are only trying to help them earn their own income while respecting the local culture and traditions. After all, women have been making Mazri products for centuries. We are only teaching them how to do it better.”
Names of social workers serving in the tribal area and quoted in this article have been withheld to protect their identities