Parachinar, the largest town in the Kurram tribal agency, was a small market center twelve years ago. Now it is a crowded city of 300,000, characterized by brutal concrete, electricity outages, water shortages, battles over property rights, and terrorism powered by guns that are filtering back into Pakistan from Afghanistan. When I asked the assistant political agent for Kurram, Massoud Urrahma, if military rule had made a difference, he replied dismissively, "Whether the government in Islamabad is military or democratic doesn't matter. We have no civil law here—only Pashtoon tribal law."
The Pashtoon population of Kurram is split between Sunnis and Shias. In September of 1996 a gun battle among teenage members of the two rival Muslim sects escalated into a communal war in which more than 200 people were killed and women and children were kidnapped. A paramilitary official said that the atrocities were out of "the Stone Age"; militants even executed out-of-towners who were staying at a local hotel.
Now the situation in Parachinar is peaceful but extremely tense. Paramilitaries guard the streets around the Sunni and Shia mosques, which stand nearly side by side, their minarets scarred by bullet holes. Only a few weeks before my visit seventeen people had been killed in violence between Sunnis and Shias in another tribal region of the North-West Frontier.
"The Shias are eighty percent of the Kurram agency,"the Shia leader in Parachinar, Mohammed Anwar, told me. "The problems have all been caused by Afghan refugees who support the Sunnis."Yet the Sunni leader, Haji Asghar Din, claims that 75 percent of the local population is Sunni. He told me that Sunnis cannot buy land from Shias—"so how can we consider them our brothers?" The only certainty is that Parachinar, hemmed in by the Safed Koh Mountains on the Afghan border, has little more room to expand. A high birth rate and a flood of Afghan refugees have intensified the property conflicts. Population growth has also weakened the power of tribal elders and created extremist youth factions. The lack of water and electricity has increased anger. Meanwhile, the government schools are abysmal—often without teachers, books, and roofs. The poor, who form the overwhelming majority, cannot afford the private academies, so they send their children to Sunni and Shia madrassas, where students are well cared for and indoctrinated with sectarian beliefs.
Every person I interviewed was sullen and reticent. One day a crowd of men surrounded me and led me to the back of a pharmacy, where they took turns denouncing America and telling me that the Taliban were good because they had restored security to Afghanistan, ending mujahideen lawlessness. The "external hand of India" was to blame for the local troubles between Sunnis and Shias here, I was told. Conspiracy theories, I have noticed, are inflamed by illiteracy: people who can't read rely on hearsay. In Pakistan the adult literacy rate is below 33 percent. In the tribal areas it is below that. As for the percentage of women in Parachinar who can read, I heard figures as low as two percent; nobody really knows.
Tribal and religious unrest in Pakistan is aggravated by terrible living conditions and divisive nationalisms. These are most clearly seen in Karachi, far to the south, on the Arabian Sea. Traditionless, dysfunctional, and unstable, Karachi is an unfortunately apt metaphor for Pakistan's general condition. Only a quarter of the 14 million residents are native to Sind, the region around Karachi, and are themselves migrants from the drought-stricken interior. The rest are immigrants from elsewhere on the Subcontinent. At least a quarter of the populace lives in katchiabaadis, "temporary houses" built haphazardly of corrugated iron, cinder blocks, wattle, burlap, and cardboard, with stones and tires anchoring their rattling roofs. Vistas of these houses go on for miles. Some katchiabaadi neighborhoods have existed for decades; they have shops, teahouses, and makeshift playgrounds. Goats wander everywhere. Children and adults sift through mounds of garbage in search of items to recycle. "The water situation is getting worse; electricity and other infrastructure are hopeless," a foreign expert told me. "The entire foundation of life here is imploding—except, of course, in the neighborhoods where people have lots of money."