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Feature | Kurram On The Move

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Our village is on bank of the river Kurram. Every morning I go for a walk along the Kurram’s bank.

And every day, I would come across a group of young boys crossing the river Kurram, toward our village. I would see them again, later in the day, in our village – working in the farms or in construction work on our cousin’s house. We fought a four-year-long war with their village Arawali, when the War on Terror spilled into what was formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Until 2016 it was unimaginable for us and them to cross the river and visit each other’s villages. Once we were in trenches against each other. Now scores of daily-wage workers visit our village Bilyamin for work, with the conflict being over.

Peace has been restored in Kurram now. But still, the farmers in our village are struggling to complete their farmwork. The repatriation of Afghan immigrants and displacement of locals due to conflict has created a huge labour shortage in the villages of Lower Kurram.

The farmers in our village Bilyamin would not be able to cultivate their lands without the help of daily-wage workers from Arawali village. And so we have formed new relations induced by the shortage of labour after repatriation of Afghan refugees from our villages. The hiring of wage labour was an alien concept here before the War on Terror. However, it should be noted that the emergence of this new labour regime is not prevalent throughout the valley. It is only limited to Turi villages – predominantly Shia Muslims – with farmers having more land in Lower Kurram and unable to hire Shia tenant families. Here I share my brief observation of changes that I noticed in our village after spending almost three years in the Netherlands.

I went along with our village cricket team for a cricket match between our village team against Makhizai village (predominantly Sunni, from the Bangash tribe). I could not recognize anyone from the opposing team and I noticed that the whole team was speaking in a different Pashto accent. I came to know that most of these players are from the Afridi tribe.

The Afridi tribe reside in Khyber district and share a border with the Central Kurram region of our district Kurram. During the last decade, Pakistani state forces launched many military operations in Khyber agency, Central Kurram and Orakzai districts, displacing thousands of people from their villages in to internally displaced persons (IDPS) camps in different areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Most of the displaced persons have returned to their villages without compensations paid. Their houses are demolished. They have no schools, hospitals and roads. This has forced Afridi tribesmen from the mountains to relocate to lower Kurram, where they are farming the Bangash tribe’s lands as tenants.

The farmers with comparatively larger landholdings or better income (mostly from remittances) hire wage labourers from Arawali village. However, a few farmers with larger landholdings have hired farmers on a salary of Rs 15,000 with no share in the produce. The farmer is not a typical sharecropper. He works in the farm but when he needs help with the work, he requests his landlord to hire daily wage workers from Arawali village.

I was sharing these details with my young cousin Faraz from Inzari village in Lower Kurram. He told me, “Things have changed now. Before the Afghan refugees’ repatriation to Afghanistan, if you gave land to tenant, the whole family would work as a unit. All family members would work for you as tenants. But not anymore. Now, a tenant family nominates one family member as tenant. A farmer can only use that nominated family member’s labour while he has nothing to do with the rest of the family. If the nominated family member needs more labourers, he doesn’t ask his brother and nephews for help but asks his landlord to hire labourers, mostly his own family members, on wages.”

When people got displaced during the war, wild boars which were not seen before took over the mountains, rivers and farms. These wild boars are destroying crops. Farmers have stopped growing potatoes and groundnuts. For the last few years, farmers spend the whole night watching for their rice crops in the month of harvesting. Rice is a labour-intensive crop. It requires one to hire labour during the plantation and harvesting period. Farmers spend a lot of money on hiring labour – or else put the burden on family members, especially young boys. Now watching for wild boars has put an extra burden on them. Farmers stay awake for the whole night. The wild boars are forcing locals to change crops, inducing drudgery. They are also creating the need for new labour.

Faraz says, “Last year we cultivated rice. Our cousin Hussain also cultivated rice but he was not watching out for his rice farms. As his farms were close to my farms, he knew that I will be watching out for my farms.” This year Faraz did not cultivate rice, so as to avoid the extra burden of watching for his rice crop and that of his cousin. That’s when Hussain hired a watchman for his rice farm, paying 8,000 rupees per month.

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This might sound as if there is a severe shortage of potential labourers in our villages, but we do have uneducated young boys in our village. They simply do not like construction work. So they are not working in any of the construction work going on in our village. They are minimally involved in farming, helping their families. Their parents used to be tenants of big farmers in our village but have now grown old and can no longer farm. Unlike their parents, the youth have no interest in farming either. Now, they only grow main crops e.g. wheat and clover for cattle as sharecroppers. These crops do not require that much work.

These young men have their own plans. Arbaeen was approaching. They were looking for other boys who had plans for work in Iraq. Some of them have traveled once and are giving it another try. They always travel in groups. They were in contact with young men from Kurram who are based in different cities of Iraq already, working for the last few years. Most of them work in hotels, restaurants, offices and stores. The reason for traveling during Arbaeen is that it is easy to get a visa in the guise of Shia devotees going for a pilgrimage. This new wave of migration started after the US imposition of sanctions on Iran and the restoration of relative peace in Iraq. In the last few years, there is a historic increase in pilgrimage from Kurram in Pakistan to Iraq. People from all ages are traveling to Iraq for this pilgrimage. Just a decade ago, people would visit Iraq for pilgrimage only once they get old.

Most of the devotees travel to Iraq by buses through a trip organizer, who is called “Salar”. The group of boys from our village agreed to pay 80,000 rupees in fare to get to Iraq. They paid a Salar who is taking devotees to Iraq. The boys get a one-month visa. After their visa expiration they limit their commuting and activities in the Iraqi cities. If someone gets caught, the Iraqi administration puts them in jail and calls their family to make arrangements for them to travel back to Pakistan. Sometimes, these migrants return with loans which they had borrowed from a friend to pay for the ticket money.

Since two or three boys in the group had traveled once to Iraq, they all agreed that comparatively speaking, the work in Iraq is harsher than farming over here in the village. But they still were of the opinion that they earn more in Iraq than by working here in the village, in Pakistan. However, the boys from Arawali village, who visit our village for work, have a very different perspective. They told me, “Your village is like Dubai for us! We work daily for 500 rupees and also cultivate our lands in our village.”

For more than two hundred houses in our village there are only two shops. The shopkeeper (let’s call him Ali) of our only shop in our village is planning to migrate to the United States. Along with the shop, he also owns the internet Wifi network in our village. Mobile internet has been halted by the Pakistani government in ex-FATA for the last 7 years for security reasons. The only telephone exchange in our neighbouring village got demolished during the war and has not been constructed since then. Ali charges 1,000 rupees per month for internet access and he claims that he earns good money from it. The internet works only in particular places in the village. It is why you will see people sitting in random spots other than hujras in the village. The hujras themselves are empty. Only one or two elders sit there and they are looking forward for someone to join and spend some time with them. Ali is still not happy with his earning. He is concerned for his future and planning to leave for the US along with a few other boys of his village.

Ali is already in contact with a few young men from Kurram, who are now passing through different Latin American countries. In fact, Ali has started learning Spanish by chatting with girls from Colombia on Facebook. He says he will pay 28 lac (2.8 million) rupees for the travel and has already bought raincoats for the journey through forests in Panama. “You have to pass through three camps in Panama.” he tells me. He is also willing to stay in Mexico if possible – assuming he could not make into the United States. He is aware of protests all around South America and the region’s overall security situation.

Unlike Ali, his friends who are planning to travel to the US with him have a few siblings in Persian Gulf countries. Some of them, at ages 30-40 years, are returning back to their village from Gulf countries. They have started farming by investing in livestock, growing vegetables or opening small businesses. They have savings and one to two family members in the Gulf supporting them in their villages. Npw, these returnees are asking young boys leaving for the US to stay and help them in their ventures. Comparatively these new farmers are more successful. They are producing more than traditional farmers who are employing family labour and could not buy inputs or hire labourers on time. However, the young generation is reluctant and doesn’t want to continue farming.

Unlike their elders who have returned from Persian Gulf countries, the younger generation are more educated. They aspire to life in Western countries. They have been seeing videos and photos shared by their friends and cousins from Western countries.

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However, Ibrar Jan a Kurrmiwal migrant in Australia, shows another picture of the story. His Facebook videos have gone viral in Kurram. In his videos Ibrar Jan discuss the hidden life behind the pictures taken in front of skyscrapers and clean roads – and all in dark humour. He is the voice of many migrants in Australia from Kurram. He talks about the depression that he goes through for being away from his family. He could not travel to Pakistan, since he has not received citizenship of Australia. In his videos he makes fun of his family, who tell him to stay there as there is nothing in Pakistan. He says that his family has “turned him into an ATM machine.”

I could not believe that I would be hearing these words from a Kurrmiwal. Some 7 years ago, more than 50 Kurrmiwal died when a boat capsized near Christmas Island, Australia. They were escaping from war in Kurram. Everyone in Kurram wanted to leave for Australia. Migration to Australia started after the Taliban laid siege around Kurram. After the Gulf countries, Australia is the second most significant destination hosting migrants from Kurram.

A once-familiar pattern of migration to the Persian Gulf countries is drying up from Kurram now. The main reason behind it is that it takes almost a year and half for a migrant in the GCC to get a driving license and start driving a taxi. Apart from taking up this much time, it is expensive. And in Gulf countries, you do not get citizenship.

Just like rest of Pakistan, migration to Gulf countries started in Kurram in the 1980s. A USAID (1991) report claims that remittances from Gulf countries and farming are the major sources of income in Kurram. This report further states that different markets have been established due to the influx of Afghan refugees. There were 34 refugee camps in Kurram. The arrival of Afghan refugees and construction of refugee camps created job opportunities. And it provided cheap labour for daily wages and also tenants for farming. Most Afghans living in Kurram were tenants of local people.

The report further indicates that there was a shift in cropping patterns during that time. Farmers have decreased rice and maize cultivation. They started producing more vegetables and pulses, and these products were transported to markets in the country. Rice crops were cultivated to secure a yearlong supply of food and provided security in case of deaths and weddings. It also changed people’s diets. The availability of cheap Afghan labour was instrumental in the shift toward growing vegetables as cash crops. And the wealth accumulated during this period was instrumental in increasing the literacy level of Kurram district.

The post-Cold war generation of Kurrmiwals were more educated compared to their parents. Most of the students made it into universities. They aspired for jobs in the cities of Pakistan. Those who for some reason could not continue higher education would be sent to Gulf countries. During this time families adopted a new strategy by sending three to four family members (male) to the Gulf countries. However, the educated youth who were unemployed were far more reluctant in migrating to the Gulf.

In the early 2000’s, Afghan refugees began to be repatriated backed to Afghanistan. This was soon followed by a decade long war. The war displaced many people from their villages. As mentioned earlier, this process created a severe shortage of labour in the area. The decade long conflict and siege burned out the youth in Kurram. Seeking new avenues of livelihood, people from Kurram started migration to Australia and Europe. Those families who could not afford to send their family members to Australia and Europe started sending their boys to Iran and Iraq. The unemployed young men who escaped from war and trauma in Kurram after decades of conflict were recruited by the Iranian government. They fought in Kurram against the Taliban and soon were being recruited to fight against the Islamic State group. They were shown footages of ISIS attacks on Shia sacred shrines in Syria But unlike their defence of their homes in Kurram, now they were getting a salary for fighting. The Iranian government also funded a pilgrimage for the fighters’ parents to Iran.

People in Kurram are moving. They are leaving but the remittances that they are sending back home are helping their families to change farming patterns and improve their incomes from agriculture. Farming families which have good earning from non-farming activities have better production than those that lack other income streams.

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Naya Daur