Friday, June 28, 2013

Death at 4,000 metres

Chillas in northern Pakistan looks like a ghost town after gunmen shot dead at least nine foreign tourists.

The streets are quiet. Barely a soul stirs, save for one fruit vendor who every few seconds bashes his produce with a duster to chase away the flies.

Chillas, northern Pakistan is a ghost town. The killings by the Pakistani Taliban of the foreign mountaineers has everyone spooked.

The remaining foreigners have shipped back to the capital. The hotels are empty, except for a few Pakistani families trying to enjoy the scenery.

And what spectacular scenery it is. I am at the foothills of the Himalayas. Rising in the distance is the snow drenched Nanga Parbat mountain. For centuries it's been called  "killer mountain" by locals, and for good reason. Many have lost their lives trying to reach the top.

For climbers, it's a tougher challenge than Everest, which is highest peak in the world. The danger mainly exists because the terrain is jagged and unforgiving.

Only experienced climbers can try and scale its heights and from where I am, miles away, it still looks forbidding.

And now there is a new danger: the Pakistani Taliban.


By all accounts, the men that killed the tourists were no ordinary Taliban fighters.

The attack took place at a base camp for Nanga Parbat, about 4,000 metres above sea level. The attackers must have experienced climbers and knew the mountain well.

The home secretary for the region says the men killed the cook first, when they found out he was a Shia Muslim. They then tied up the guides, murdered the mountaineers and fled.

This was not an operation mounted by amateurs. Tanveer is my local guide here in the area. He says he can't believe the Taliban had such capable fighters.

"For ten years I have been watching climbers come here. The equipment they carry is heavy and hi-tech. Medical kits, tents, breathing gear - you name it they take up into the mountains.

"The Taliban travel light, they take a gun and a prayer. I'm stunned at how they did it and they came to be in this area."

We may never know the exact details of what occurred on that plateau 4,000 metres in the sky.

I ask Tanveer what it means for his area. "Look around you. We died with the Taliban attack. Everyone relied on the tourists. The markets used to be packed with more tourists than locals. It's only been a few days and we are already struggling."

As he speaks, a Pakistani army helicopter flies low overhead. The army has mounted an intense manhunt.

Natural beauty

To get to this remote region in Pakistan we had to travel through several checkpoints. At each one questions were asked, equipment searched and guns visibly shown. No one wants to slip up again.

Pakistan is rarely seen in a positive light in the media. The mountain ranges of its north were the best it had to offer when it came to natural beauty.

The place is a source of pride for all Pakistanis. Now, though, it's a source shame. Shame because once again innocent people have been murdered at the hands of the Taliban.

The Taliban's claim that the attacks were in revenge for US drone strikes in Pakistani territory ring hollow with some.

Fazul ur Rehman is the man swatting flies on his fruit that I met in the empty market place.

"If they care that much about America, then go to Afghanistan and fight them there. Don't go up a mountain and kill innocent people," he said, adding "Why do that? That's not bravery. That's cowardice."

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