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The price of a life

Published 10 Feb, 2016 03:30pm

The old village of Malik Raza Khan looks haunted. In this rural part of Charsadda district, poverty and neglect have eroded the mortar between the bricks of crumbling houses; the elements eating into the walls. The most visible sign of life here are green fields of bitter gourd, plump red tomatoes, okra and eggplant.

There is another abundant harvest here: of death, of lives brutally cut short by terrorism. It has numbed its victims into silence, sapping whole families of their life force, turning them into mere shadows of their former selves.

On a hot July afternoon last year when the dozing fields were abuzz with the shrill snoring of cicadas, a young villager clad in a soiled vest knocks at a guest room in the village to stir a shadow awake. The old door, bleached by a blistering sun, creaks open after several knocks, sending yellow wasps hovering into hot air. An old face peers out of the dark, blinks confusedly at the bright day and the unexpected guests.

“There are people here to talk to you, baba,” the young man tells the old one, who nods uncomprehendingly but opens the door wide. There are several charpoys inside, lined against the walls. Against one wall hangs a straw prayer mat. Despite the sunlight streaming in from the open door, despite the whitewashed walls, gloom lurks in the corners of this thatched mud structure.

At first, Hazrat Jan appears reticent. He speaks in monosyllables, with a distant look in his eyes. He is uncomfortable; a proud old man not sure how to speak of his grief, certainly not to a stranger. Or perhaps he is trying to protect himself from the embarrassment of breaking down. He clenches his jaw as he speaks of his son, Azam Jan, looking around uncertainly with red-rimmed eyes. Hazrat Jan is a man resigned to his fate.

“It is all up to me now,” he says. A school guard who raised his son to become a driver in the police, only to lose him in a bomb attack on a polio vaccination team in January 2014, Hazrat Jan now finds himself caring for four grandchildren. “The children are all that is left of my son,” he says.

The children come in, one by one. They stand together expectantly, a sad tableau of orphans, the girl nestling close to her protective grandfather. Theirs is a bold gaze, a confident handshake. Unlike their grandfather who has been shattered by this loss so late in life, they are brimming with the zest of youth like all boys and girls of their age, undeterred by the raw deal fate has dealt them.

Children lose fathers – to disease, calamity, war – all the time; this is what their calm faces seem to convey. Fathers should not bury their sons is what Hazrat Jan would have said, had he been expressive. As would other fathers in the surrounding villages who have lost sons to the war on terror in recent years. Violent death brought on by acts of terror has reversed the natural cycle of life in this part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

To find elderly men left behind to mourn their young sons in villages here is not difficult, given the large number of men recruited from the area as policemen in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The police here are usually the first line of defence against the terrorists, and a major target of acts of terrorism.

This is an excerpt from the Herald's February 2016 cover story. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.