Landi Kotal in the conflict-ridden FATA - where there is history, flavour and potential for development despite security concerns
My father once told me that back in the 70s, he used to travel to Landi Kotal in the Khyber Agency to enjoy the famous pata tikka and do shopping.
"Did you say tikka and shopping?" I asked, surprised.
That’s not the image I had of Landi Kotal or for that matter our tribal areas in general. He explained that Landi Kotal was famous for its tikka. The tikka was and still is cooked in animal fat, making it different -- unusually tasty but deadly for the heart. It was also a place with bustling bazaars where people came to buy all sorts of things including cloth.
With the passage of time, emergence of newer markets such as Hayatabad in Peshawar, and never-ending troubles in Afghanistan drained the life out of commerce in Landi Kotal. Later, it became an active market for unlicensed weapons and a safe passage for miscreants. But now, thanks to the tightening grip of Pakistan’s security forces after the Army Public School terror attack in December 2014, Landi Kotal is one of the relatively safer places in our tribal areas.
Few seem to know that it is barely a four-hour drive from Islamabad and the road is as good as the Islamabad Expressway. Also, mobile phones tend to work fine here and there is some electricity from grid and some solar power. That’s why when I got an invitation to visit Landi Kotal this September, I jumped at it.
Landi Kotal is adjacent to the Khyber Pass that has seen the "great captains of war" such names as Alexander, Genghiz Khan, Tamerlane, and Nadir Shah. Interestingly, historical accounts suggest all of them considered themselves as God’s chosen ones even though they are held responsible for many millions of deaths. Some glorify them as conquerors and military geniuses. Others see them as killers and power-maniacs.
When I first heard about the Michni Post near the Pak-Afghan border, I expected it to be a bunker-like structure with some stones to sit on. Far from it, Michni Post has been tastefully developed as a viewing point in tune with the environment and local traditions. There is a large and comfortable theatre-style seating behind a glass wall. As visitors enjoy a cup of tea, they can gaze at the trucks moving between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is the lifeline of the mega trade taking place between the two countries. It is a sensitive point and with tighter security measures being put into place, a random spat here can escalate into a conflict and hit the global headlines as we saw in June 2016.
The man in charge of the post tells you all the interesting facts and stories about it in a structured presentation that he was probably so used to giving that he could have done it with his eyes closed. (Later, I discovered that he also knew how to take wonderful photos using a digital camera with the high-powered binoculars fixed at the post.)
We were told that the dilapidated building on a hill right in front of the Michni Post was the Tamerlane prison. It had a tunnel-like structure going downhill. This was a tunnel of death. Prisoners were rolled down the tunnel which was fixed with sharp blades. The only way one could come out of it was in several pieces and rolling off onto the rocks below. I was not able to verify this gory narrative but given whatever literature I have found on Tamerlane, such atrocities seem to be in tune with his character.
Some of the structures seen from the Michni Post are still known by their traditional names. The two most clearly visible security posts, or pickets, as the security forces call them, are called "Kafir North" and "Kafir South", where Kafir was the word for the British. I heard that that the British used to dress like locals and grow beards. You couldn’t tell the difference between a local Pathan and a British officer from a distance. That’s why the Afridi sharp shooters learnt to spot the British by the way they walked. After all, it is easier to change your dress than your gait.
Poor, dusty, and lacking basic infrastructure, Landi Kotal is, if I can be forgiven to say, a bit of a mess. But within this mess, there is another mess worth mentioning: the Khyber Rifles Mess in the local cantonment. Peacocks roam freely in a stunningly well-maintained garden in front of a tastefully decorated building. It is presumably the most beautiful structure in the whole of Khyber agency.
As clouds engulfed the mountains one afternoon, the weather became so pleasant that I started to daydream. I was startled by the loud croaking of crows. To my surprise, I found that a cat had hunted down a crow from a tree. From across, a grim-looking security guard at the check post watched the cat’s metaphorical ‘surgical strike’. That woke me up to the reality of the Khyber Rifles Mess. It’s a beautifully preserved daydream but it is still subject to the realities of Landi Kotal.
The Mess is kept in such a pristine condition because celebrities from across the world have been visiting it. These include names that even those who are not into celebrities (including myself) would readily recognise, such as Muhammad Ali and Princess Diana. Passing by the long line-up of photos of celebrity visitors at the mess, I finally found one that caught my attention: The great Mohammad Ali Jinnah had been here, along with his sister Fatima. It felt special, it felt strange. I was where once our great leader had been. As I watched his well-preserved sofa set, I wondered what the Quaid would be thinking sitting there. Perhaps his powerful mind was juggling several different ideas, as he engaged in social courtesies, gave directions, altered his busy schedule, and deliberated between political pros and cons.
Watching tv there, I saw a clip on a local news channel about a certain chained tree at the Mess. I quickly stepped outside in the garden to see the tree -- and yes, there it was! The story of the tree is that once a drunken English officer ordered his local staff to arrest the tree because he thought that the tree was chasing him. The staff, in obedience, got the tree chained. It’s been more than a hundred years since the tree was chained. There is not much to smile about in Landi Kotal but this is definitely an amusing story for visitors.
While the narrative is funny, funnier still is how it has been covered by some of the other news outlets. Instead of reporting it as an expression of humour, the Washington Post has found in it "the perfect metaphor for colonialism". Those who have read the story in the Washington Post would probably want to know that it is a walnut tree, not a banyan tree as reported in the Post and despite the chains, it is in good health and bearing fruit. This is military humour, not any metaphor for colonialism.
The signs of British presence are not confined to the Mess but scattered everywhere. The most visible sign of the British era is the train line -- not what you would expect to see in a remote and mountainous terrain. But yes, the British built a train line all the way to Landi Kotal in the 1920s. The famous Khyber train safari used to take tourists from Peshawar to Landi Kotal. Alas, it is no more! The floods have washed away parts of track and bridges in 2006 and it could not be put back into operation.
The security check posts, forts and bunkers also date back to the British era. The tribes, most notably Afridis, have been on both sides of British. They used to receive money from the British for guarding the Khyber Pass. In the 1890s, the tribal belt was soldering amid a series of political developments and a dispute, probably pertaining to non-payment of the money, became the last straw. The Afridis, a formidable guerilla force, took over the British positions in 1897 in a brutal conflict. Not lacking in cunning or courage, the British launched the Tirah campaign to undo the damage done to the image of the Empire and thus succeeded in outmaneuvering the Afridis. But, it was a temporary and a costly victory. It did, however, create a lasting legacy: both the Afridis and the British learnt to respect each other as enemies.
One of the well-known monuments in this area riddled with conflict is the Ali Masjid Fort. It is located on top of a hill overlooking what is the narrowest point on the Khyber Pass. This was where the strong armies were most vulnerable to the attacking guerillas -- so much so that Alexander was reportedly advised to avoid this narrow passage. The fort takes its name from a small mosque nearby known as Ali Mosque. There is lots of history but nothing physically remarkable about the fort except its hospital which is a jaw-dropping structure.
Built underneath the rocks, there is no way you can anticipate the existence of a well-designed underground hospital until you reach its entrance. It feels just like a nuclear bunker that you may have seen in a movie. You walk down the stairs into an oval gulley which has a few small rooms on both sides. It has been kept in a good condition and is being maintained by our security forces.
Just like the ‘American dream’ in the US, there is the ‘Afridi Dream’ here in Landi Kotal. The dream is the same: no matter how poor you are at birth, you can make it big. Someone who is known to have realised the Afridi dream is the late Haji Ayub Khan Afridi. His palatial residence in the otherwise desperately poor Landi Kotal remains a spectacle and a local milestone. Spread over acres, it is said to have wildest extravaganza inside its high walls. Its gates are wide and tall enough to welcome the visitors even if they come in an 18-wheeler. Above the gates are bulletproof bunker-like structures so that the guards can comfortably shoot down the visitors, in case they are not welcome.
The late Haji Ayub Afridi is said to be the biggest dealer of narcotics ever in this area. But, he was not the last one. I heard that others have chosen to realise the Afridi dream through smuggling. Landi Kotal is home to several billionaires whose riches compete with the astronomical wealth of the country’s wily stockbrokers and devious real estate tycoons.
The idea of billionaire men in this desperately poor part of Pakistan seems so out of place. The opportunities available to a child or a woman in the tribal Landi Kotal and even in the urban Islamabad, which are just four hours away are in stark contrast.
While the children at least have the liberty to roam around, the women are conspicuous by their absence. Despite the excellent road and the heavy trade, the area is screaming for more investment in education, energy, and health. I asked someone familiar with the area if the local billionaires engaged in any philanthropy for their hometown. He took a moment to absorb this (naïve) question and then burst into laughter. Shaking his index finger, he said "yeh koi ghalat kaam nahin kartay." (They don’t do anything ‘wrong’!)
The famous Pashto saying "Topak zaman qanoon dae" (my weapon is my law) is not just a saying in this area. Generally, in tourist destinations, landmarks tend to be historic monuments, tall buildings, river walks, and restaurants. In Landi Kotal, the landmarks are the century-old security check posts and the forts. Security is still the name of the game and security forces have to display their fire power to those on both sides of the border to uphold the rule of law and even go far enough to help visitors such as myself see Landi Kotal.
As I took the road back to Islamabad, I wondered if within our lifetime, the check posts and forts will be converted into viewing points and hotels where visitors from the world would be able to come to on the Khyber train safari, enjoy the history and tikka of Landi Kotal, and those who want to relive the past could get some sharp shooting practice by the Afridi tribesmen on their traditional jezail rifles.