On March 13, a group of nine Balti mountaineers and a doctor set out of Hushe (north of Khaplu) on a trek of 1000km, carrying with them a message of peace for the world.
Through Skardu, Gilgit and by way of the Karakoram Highway, they reached Islamabad exactly 31 days later.
These good men were set off by the irresponsibility of the country’s print and electronic media. The semi-educated and irresponsible journalists manning the media cannot differentiate between the northwest of the country and what was until some years ago Northern Areas and routinely reported about terrorism emanating from the ‘Northern Areas’ (shumali ilaqajat in Urdu). The result was widespread vilification of the Gilgit-Baltistan region as a terrorist hotbed. And this was not just among ignorant Pakistanis but equally ignorant foreigners as well.
Consequently, the towns of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral that once thrived on tourists, hill walkers and mountaineers of every colour, are now virtually deserted. The men that comprised the team of peace walkers all made their living by working with visiting mountaineers and trekkers as guides and porters. Naturally, without visitors their livelihood was adversely affected. And that led to the idea of the peace march.
The passage through Baltistan was expected to be pleasant for the marchers were still in their country. What awaited them in Gilgit, however, completely floored them. From ordinary people on the street to political and religious leaders everyone greeted them with the warmest feelings of love and affection. The greatest surprise was that clerics from across the sectarian divide expressed solidarity with the marchers.
It needs be mentioned that Baltistan is almost 100 per cent Shia while Gilgit is a mix and west of Gilgit along the KKH, the landscape becomes fervently Sunni.
The people of Chilas with its history of extreme antagonistic feelings for anyone not a Deobandi Sunni surprised the walkers with their goodwill and support for the message of peace. Peace not just among the various sects of Islam but for people across the world. Wherever they paused and had an audience, the walkers preached rising above differences of sect and religion and accepting the other just as they are. To their surprise ordinary people resonated with the idea of peace.
The sole naysayer was one who asked to know how just a handful of people walking along the KKH make any difference to the people of, say, Australia. For him the answer was the media coverage the walkers received in Skardu, Gilgit and later in Haripur and Islamabad. While this interaction may educate media persons about the geography and ethnicity of northern Pakistan, the coverage is already gone around the world.
The first disappointment was the blackout they met with in their attempt to have an audience with the prime minister. Despite several attempts in Islamabad, their requests were not entertained. Not even by a minister.
As these walkers were nearing Gilgit in the third week of March, an event took place in distant Quetta. A young man selling chickpeas on his pushcart was shot and killed. His only crime was that he was a Shia. Among his friends was young Salman Kasi, a 21-year-old college graduate hankering to go travelling abroad on a motorcycle. Familial restrictions prevented his leaving the country, but they could not keep him from setting out of Quetta to talk peace to anyone he met on the road.
Packing a motorcycle with a few things, the man set off down the old RCD Highway to Karachi. Except for the event of someone taking a couple of pot-shots at him as he drove by Kalat, Kasi met with goodwill and support. In Karachi, one of the most expensive physiotherapists, Dr Jahangir Shah, treated his back problem free of charge when he heard of Kasi’s mission.
He drove to Nagarparker and taking a wrong turn nearly died of dehydration. As he lay in that state of stupor under a tree, a goat came by to deliver a kid right next to him in the shade. Taking this as a sign of keeping faith in life, the man pushed himself to hit the road again.
Out of curiosity people hailed him as he passed by and when he stopped they were moved by his story. Kasi says he has met hundreds of people on his journey and all promised to propagate his word. Save the one doctor in Hyderabad who said Pakistani society could never be changed, even less so by the efforts of a solitary motorcycle rider.
Salman Kasi’s journey so far has been roughly 5000 kilometres taking into account his back and forth from Karachi to the interior. In this he has not spent a single rupee on food, all being paid for by friends and well-wishers. Some of these are total strangers he met on the road.
In south Punjab and again at a truck stop in Okara, he got talking to followers of an extremist sectarian organisation and was surprised to discover how easy it was to put his vision of harmony across. By his own account, he has the promise of several to eschew the narrow viewpoint of hatred.
On Saturday April 18 these two otherwise independent missions of peace coincided in Lahore when Hassan Jan and Yusuf Ali, two of the Hushe peace marchers and Kasi met in the city. The pact was sealed between these people to meet in Khaplu at the south end of Hushe valley and there to speak of their dream of seeing Pakistan free of hate. And perhaps also the world.
Both the marchers from Baltistan and the solo motorcyclist from Quetta share a common dream: peace within our time in Pakistan. A country where sect-based hate does not lead one or the other to kill. They may have met with those who think they follow vain dreams that will only be shattered by time. But the conviction with which the Baltis have accomplished their mission and with which young Salman Kasi pursues his is commendable. It is genuine and it grasps those who come across these remarkable men.