The Nanga Parbat massacre

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013 5:30:16 by

I continue to visit the Northern Areas of Pakistan regularly and have always found Nanga Parbat to be a stunning sight. Last year, on our way to Askole to begin a trek to Concordia, we again drove by the ‘killer mountain’.

As my group slowly lumbered our way up to Concordia, we came across several groups of Europeans along the route, and even a German woman trekking alone with her guide. These areas have historically been considered safe by avid mountaineers from across the world. Once encamped at Concordia, we found that our neighbours were two French Canadian women, who had climbed Mount Everest the previous year. It was a proud moment for the group when both of them discussed their first trip to Pakistan and how fantastic and friendly everyone had been to them.

We also ran into a French expedition team who had, in previous years, made a couple of attempts to scale K2 only to be beaten back by the ever-changing weather. This time, they were preparing an attempt at Gasherbrum 4. As they pointed towards their ultimate destination, an immense avalanche crashed down the mountain’s steep face. Precious oxygen went to waste as we gasped at the sight and eventually laughed at the coincidental timing of it all. Their leader, Christian, had been to Pakistan 10 times and thoroughly enjoyed climbing many of the monster peaks the country has to offer. Christian also helped run an NGO in Pakistan called Solidarity Kashmir, which funds education for local children.

With these fond memories of the Northern Areas still so fresh, the gruesome June 23 terrorist attack at the Nanga Parbat base camp struck a personal chord within. Less than a year ago, our lead porter had boasted about how they don’t have a Taliban problem. He was correct at that moment; the Karakoram Mountains had been safe from militant activity in recent history and foreign travellers had not been targeted. Nanga Parbat, on the other hand, belongs to the Himalayan range and is located over 100 miles to the west in Astore District. That part of the country had been wracked by growing sectarian violence against Shiites but still had not seen any violence against tourists. The signs of what was to come were right there in front of us, though. Remnants of horrific attacks were apparent as we drove through Chilas and saw three burnt up buses abandoned on the side of the road.

Needless to say, this attack on the expedition team is a significant setback for Pakistan’s mountaineering industry. Trekking companies have reported cancellations from groups scheduled to arrive later in the season. State tourism was already in decline after the 9/11 attacks in the US but some 5,000 resilient adventurers continued to travel the countryside to test their mettle against the monstrous peaks in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. K2, the second highest mountain in the world, attracts various expedition teams from the world over. These groups had become major drivers of the local economy. Sadly, it will be those remote communities who will suffer the most as the number of foreign teams will surely decline even further. For the time being, the government has taken the precaution of suspending all mountaineering expeditions on Nanga Parbat.

The natural magnificence and peace of the Northern Areas has always been a source of pride for Pakistanis. Sadly, that reputation has been tarnished by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which supposedly carried out the Nanga Parbat attack in retaliation for drone strikes. The question of how long these effects will last depends partly on the new government’s response. Will Nawaz Sharif still pursue talks with the Taliban, or will he rethink this strategy as Pakistan suffers one attack after another, be it in Quetta, Peshawar or Gilgit-Baltistan? The 16 militants involved in the attack have been identified with the help of the Diamer jirga. Keep a close eye on whether any captured terrorists are prosecuted or eventually released, like most others, to gauge how seriously this spreading violence is being taken.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2013.

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