Narrator: Rana Irfan
It had been quite some time since Zia-ul-Haq’s eleven years military regime had ended with his sudden death yet the fiery sermons in mosques had not abandoned praising him and his policies. Jihadi organizations were actively working all over our city distributing Jihadi literature in the form of pamphlets, books, audio and video cassettes. Instead of any anticipated change because of the regime change, the jingoistic songs, demonstrations, arms exhibitions and speeches were on a constant rise.
I come from a strictly religious family of Chiniot, a city in central Punjab bordering Jhang, the latter being the birthplace of sectarian terrorism in Pakistan. My family was fervent supporter of a newly formed sectarian Jihadi organization. I did not have to go through training to develop hatred against other sects and infidels; I inherited it in the very environment I grew up in. This mindset was going to play the crucial role of pushing me into a perilous journey.
A college student back then, I was understandably easily inspired by the militant literature circulating among students. It took me no time to become familiar with all those strange faces that regularly came to our locality for preaching and recruiting for Jihad. I, along with new fellows, started attending their local meetings and rallies. In the light of the heroic tales of great Muslim conquerors and fighters, we were told that arms are ornaments of a true Muslim. Apart from the religious reasons, the exhibition of modern weapons and prospect of an adventure did lure us to wear these ornaments.
Motivating us on the beat of enthusiastic jihadi songs, these new friends of mine denounced any method of peaceful preaching, and urged us to take ‘practical steps’. We were required to learn these teachings by heart and propagate them among our families and acquaintances. As I set out to preach, I started filtering my friends; I boycotted those who did not pay heed to my advice of regularly offering all the prayers. I developed my own criteria of piety in everyday life to decide if somebody was worthy of any relation with me. Those who wouldn’t listen to me were less than human for me and were destined to burn in hell. With every passing day many of the familiar faces were vanishing from my life, and being replaced by new bearded ‘angelic’ ones.
Conferences on Jihad were being regularly held in Chiniot by various religious groups, and I would make sure to attend them despite all my educational engagements. Mujahedeen would come all the way from Kashmir and Afghanistan and would enthusiastically tell us stories of their adventures in the holy war. I remember them telling us how Muslims were being oppressed all over the world and all the non-Muslim countries have only one agenda of subjugating the Muslims. Armed struggle is need of the time and any attempt to placate the Muslims through preaching peace equals traitorship. Their sermons and flashes of Jihadi ornaments, i.e. arms continuously bred restlessness in me to do something for my fellow Muslims.
1989 was the year when I finally decided to go for Jihad. Through local sectarian outfits, I came into contact with the Jihadi organizations working in Chiniot. I met the local Ameer (leader) of mujahedeen who admired my fighting spirit and prayed for the fulfilment of my desire for martyrdom. On a beautiful spring day of 1989 I, along with 25 other boys, packed some necessary things and cloths and reached at the local office of the mujahedeen. The local Ameer handed me over a letter to be given to the Ameer of Miran Shah, a town in North Wazirastan of Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA). After a long and restless journey we reached at the camp of Harkatul Mujahedeen at Miran Shah. They verified our particulars right away and then divided us into groups of ten to twelve people. When they finished forming these groups, a vehicle took us towards north-west of Miran Shah leading to Afghanistan. After entering Afghanistan, another vehicle took us to a Jihadi camp in the outskirts of Khost city. We were to get Jihadi training in this camp for forty days. After welcoming us they gave us different kinds of forms and affidavits to fill in; the forms entailed that we had come to Jihad by our own free will and if we die, the organization would not be answerable to anyone.
Our training started the very next day. After morning prayer and recitation of Holy Quran, they would give us just two minutes to change uniform and shoes to leave for a physical training drill. The arms training continued from breakfast till afternoon prayer in which we would learn both about light arms and heavy arms like rocket launchers. The recruits who were doing special commando training would continue their training till late afternoon prayers, while we cleaned our arms and took rest. After late evening prayer, there used to be long Jihadi speeches in which the virtues of Jihad and stories of atrocities against Muslims in Kashmir and Afghanistan were told. The forty day training finished and I was sent to fight against Northern Alliance within Khost province. We fought in groups; after every fifteen days a group of fighters was replaced by another and the earlier one was sent back to the camp for rest. In the camps we were regularly asked if we wanted to continue Jihad with an advanced commando’s training. The commando fighters enjoyed perks and earned great respect in the eyes of senior mujahedeen.
I showed my desire to go for advanced training and they sent me back to Peshawar. After going through formalities in Peshawar centre they took me to a camp in Jalalabad (Afghanistan) where another three months training session started. This camp was headed by Philippine fighters who were fluent in Arabic, Pashto and English. Most of the trainee fighters were unable to understand these languages. I was able to develop a close relation with my new commanders as I could converse with them in English. I worked as an interpreter between the trainee fighters and the commanders. In this advanced training we were taught to use heavy artillery, light weapons and develop strategic skills. After completing this course we were to be sent to the fronts in Kashmir, Tajikistan and interior Afghanistan; being free to choose one of the three.
The nights at the training camp were apparently peaceful but every now and then the silence of our nights was torn apart by the echoes of fiery Jihadi speeches. We would have nightmares of screaming mutilated bodies as depicted in Jihadi literature. We would wake up in terror and call out our Kashmiri brethren promising them to liberate them from Indian occupation. The cool Himalayan winds coming from the north were like heavenly breeze for us. We could not wait to embrace the hoories in paradise.
I, along with some other fellows, showed interest to join Jihad in Kashmir, so Muzafarabad was our next destination. From there we went to Athmuqam in Pakistani administered Kashmir where we were welcomed in an office of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency. On a cold night of October 1989 we crossed the border of Indian held Kashmir under the protection of Pakistani intelligence agency. But the heavy snowfall blocked our way and we had to wait on the way indefinitely.
Meanwhile I got to know that my father had been searching for me and had somehow reached Muzaffarabad. I wished to meet him so I was sent back to Muzaffarabad on a special vehicle to visit my father. My father persuaded me that I was needed at home because of my mother’s ailing health and other family issues. Emotions overpowered him while he was talking and his begging made me decide to go back home for a while. I came back to Chiniot with my father. I was welcomed at home with a great jubilation, but I was no more the same person.
The precarious confrontation with possible death and the spiritual brainwashing had developed inside me a deep sense of arrogant piety. I looked down upon people around me for shirking from the great cause of Jihad. I despised them for living their routine lives without ever thinking for their religious obligations. To me the whole life of a non-Mujahed was nothing short of a sin in itself. The news of arrival in the city spread rapidly among the local religious circles and the supporters of Jihad. I started to get dinner invitations every other day from the people whom I never knew before. The more respect and recognition I earned from these people for telling the stories of my Jihad, the greater disgust I felt for the ordinary non-religious folks.
Soon I decided to go back to the front. I secretly left my home with a close friend of mine. Meanwhile my father came to know about my going back and he stopped me at the bus stop. While crying he tried to convincing me not to go, he even threatened to commit suicide if I left. I felt nothing could stop me at that time from achieving the ultimate objective of my life, i.e. martyrdom.
I left my crying father behind with a cold heart but during my arguments with him, I missed the last available bus to FATA. The incident of losing my bus struck me as a bad omen. I suddenly felt a spasm of guilt for abandoning my family when they need me the most. But on the other hand my egoist piety and desire for heaven were stopping me from going home. After thinking for a long time I concluded to go back home. I decided that I will never go for Jihad again but the way my mind had been moulded into violent thoughts at Jihadi camps always kept me restless.
In 1992 I met a militant of a sectarian organization. After developing a level of trust and frankness, he took me to a mosque which stored a big amount of modern weapons and ammunition. The inviting sight of weapons and the persuasion of my new comrade urged me to become a Mujahed again, this time of a different sort. Because of my family background and Jihadi training, I was already clear on the status of certain sects in Islam. I believed that some heretical sects such as Shias were worse than infidels and deserved to be killed. This fellow introduced me to an opportunity of Jihad at the local level by targeting these sects. I joined it eagerly. To start with, the plan was to target the prominent Shia figures of our locality by damaging their assets and business. I was so convinced of the apostasy of Shias that our planned crime of robbing them looked to me nothing short of a great virtue.
Under the banner and direction of sectarian organizations and with the help of professional criminals, we started looting and stealing. Till then every criminal act of mine was a step towards implementation of Islam and towards preserving the mandated respect for Sahaba, the companions of Holy Prophet. I had dozens of ways to answer any objection raised against my actions and to keep my conscience at peace until the day when I witnessed these pious ‘Mujahedeen’ stooping to lowest level of moral decadence. It happened at one of our robberies when a woman from a Shia house unexpectedly resisted us. My comrades treated her with such dirty language and brutal beating that I am unable to recount here. Her pleas for help in my mother tongue touched my heart more than any of those imaginary cries which I was made to hear while in Kashmir or Kabul. This ultimate degradation of a woman in my own homeland deeply traumatized me to question the whole moral and political narrative of Jihad. During the last two and half years when I was busy killing the infidels and risking my own life and that of my family, I never bothered to have an informed and balanced look at what I was doing and who was benefitting from it.
The incident of that night became a turning point and putting aside the one sided propaganda of Jihadi literature, I started reading about other sides of the picture. Soon I realized how badly I had ruined my studies, family life, career and energies. Following this realization, it took me quite an effort to become humble and nice to the people in order to recompense for my hateful behaviour. For my economic worries, I started running a gym in the city. Meanwhile some remnants of the ideological confusion and questions kept me mentally occupied.
On a summer day of 1992 when I was at my gym, police raided my place, arrested me and locked me up. Afterwards I got to know that due to my past association, I was a suspect in a recent robbery in the city. After a long legal battle I was finally acquitted. I left my city the same day. The introspection that I was able to do while in incarceration at the police station made me further critical of the choices that I made in the past. From Chiniot, I reached Faisalabad. I felt relieved after confessing all about my criminal past to a barber in Faisalabad who shaved my beard.
Today I am living a totally different life in Lahore. Though the wars that we have been waging for decades have reached our homes now, I am glad that at least my children are born in a different century. I work as a teacher here, and during teaching I try my best to teach my students to spread love and be tolerant and peace loving Pakistanis.
Many of my companions from Afghan and Kashmir Jihad did not return alive. Many are those who came back but they still look down upon common people thinking them not ‘pious’ enough, and there are others who still await acceptance by the people including their family and friends. And many are those who, with the fear of facing any unexpected situation, are still living in mountains and missing their homeland. I still remember the words of my Philippine commander when I asked him when will he go back home. There was great pain in his eyes and he said with a sigh, “May be never”.
I am lucky to be living a new life with my family so that I could tell the new generation memoirs of the terrible ventures of my generation.
Read Urdu version of this article here