Darra Adam Khel, just south of Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, has always been a dangerous transit zone between Afghanistan, Peshawar, and the southern most regions of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Until recently it was also part of the Taliban heartland.
The Pakistan army has beefed up its presence here thanks to a massive increase in United States military assistance — and political pressure. Yet even now nervous government paramilitaries, themselves members of local tribal societies, man checkpoints surrounded by dusty sand bags and rusting barbed wire.
As I entered Darra Adam Khel, however, it became immediately clear that the military presence had not improved the security situation. On either side of the main road leading into main town centre stood the husks of burnt, partially demolished buildings. They were army garrisons destroyed in suicide attacks.
Writing 100 years ago, the former British army officer Colonel HC Wylly who fought tribesmen along the Pashtun frontier in the late 1800s, described the people of Darra Adam Khel as "one of the most powerful and numerous of the Afridi clans".
Things have changed little in the intervening years. Then, as now, the British paid off local tribal chiefs to ensure safe passage of goods to and from Peshawar. Darra Adam Khel is also famous for its ancient gun and ammunition cottage industries.
More recently, an arsenal of human weapons has been sweeping through the town too: many young men and boys, bereft of employment or social status, have been recruited as foot soldiers by local militants aligned with the Taliban.
In one of the town’s humble dwellings, I spoke to the father of one such boy.
Father of eight Ayub Khan drives and maintains oil tanker for a living. Although barely in his 40s, his parched, heavily lined face reflects a hard life.
There is much sympathy to the Taliban here, and it is driven mostly by the fact that local preachers, as part of a well organised network created by the militants, have played on local resentment towards corrupt civil and military authorities. If there is any semblance of government here, the experience for most has historically been negative.
The story of Ayub’s eldest son is a case in point.
On completing high school his son sat the police officer entrance examination. Yet although he managed to pass the exam, police officials privately told Khan that unless he paid a 35,000 Rupee (AU$490) bribe, his son would not be selected. His eldest son now helps him drive and maintain oil trucks.
"What is the benefit of getting a [secular]education if you can’t get a job," Khan asks me.
"I was so angry," he continues, "I straight away removed my [other]children from [public]school." Ayub enrolled the kids in a local madrassa (or religious seminary) where, along with receiving an education based on scripture, kids are fed and supervised while parents, desperate to make ends meet, are busy at work.
One of his sons, Majid, proved to be a particularly precocious talib, or madrassa student.
After four years in a madrassa, early last year, 12-year-old Majid suddenly disappeared for 13 days. "I had no idea where," Ayub tells me. One of Majid’s friends told his father that the boy had been sent to Paktika, across the border in Afghanistan, by the Taliban.
Two weeks later, Majid returned home. "I thanked God for returning him to me," Ayub recalled, his face weighed down with grief. "We were overjoyed to see him again, so much so that we slaughtered a goat and [the family]had a big feast."
Ayub decided to keep the boy close to him lest he run away from home again. Majid helped clean oil tankers with his father. Each day, for the next 45 days, Ayub would plead with him to stay with his family. "I would say, ‘please my child, don’t go again’."
Majid would often tell his father not to arrange his marriage or build a home for his future bride and family. "He would say to me always, ‘I don’t need anything more from this world.’"
One Friday, the day when Muslims typically gather at the local mosque for midday prayers, Ayub noticed upon returning home that his son was nowhere to be found. It was September 2007.
Ayub asked local Taliban sympathisers if they knew his son’s whereabouts. Eventually he had his worst fears confirmed. "Eight months [after Majid left the second time]I discovered he had learned explosives training to become a suicide bomber."
"When I learned that I stopped asking where he was," he adds curtly, sweeping his forearm across his chest.
With suicide attacks a weekly occurrence in Pakistan over the past few years it is impossible to know where and when Majid died — or even whether he might still be alive.
For some that uncertainty may give hope, but for Ayub it is an agonising torture.
"The most painful thing is not knowing if he is really dead and always wondering if he might still be alive… if he chose [to kill himself]I accept that was his decision. But I don’t know that… that is the [most]painful part."
"Everything is up to God. We come from dust and that is how we leave this earth," Ayub says calmly.
I ask him what he thinks motivated Majid to give up his life for the Taliban. "America has occupied Afghanistan just as Israel has occupied Palestine, [and]India: Kashmir. They have come to eradicate us. So long as this occupation persists we will continue to resist."
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