Three AK-47 armed giants dressed in fatigues brashly interrupted my meal and made themselves comfortable at my table. “We have some things to discuss with you. But go ahead and finish your dinner first. We will wait for you at your hotel,” one of the men explained. At this point I was enthralled with curiousity about what they had to say to me and wolfed down my rice and bread abruptly. As I approached my hotel in the mountain town of Chitral, the glowing outline of five AK-47 armed men in the candlelit lobby peaked my curiousity. Several hours earlier there was a power outage ravaged through town and now all that was left was the shimmering moonlight. “This is like a real life gangster movie,” I thought to myself. Hopefully, I would play the role of the hero that would live to see another day. One of the men said they were here to provide me with a security service and it was necessary for me to have two armed guards escort me everywhere while in town. “They will be like your shadow. Anytime you leave your room you have to let them know and they will go with you. We can assure you that Chitral is a safe place but they are here for your safety,” they expounded. How wild- now they were sleeping in the room next door!
Into Taliban Territory
“Five armed guards must escort you everywhere,” was the startling news I heard when I went to the police station in order to find out about the intricacies of visiting the nearby Kalash villages. The authorities promised it would be a completely free service and that the region was “one hundred percent safe.” Later on I found out that the number of guards required to follow you around depends on your country of origin- one guard for Japanese and Koreans, four guards for Canadians, five guards for Americans. Perhaps in increasing order of Taliban hatred? “We are just following orders from Islamabad,” stated the police officer. I attempted to maintain a positive attitude about the predicament I was faced with. “I could become good friends with these guys,” I naively tried to reason to myself.
We left for the mountain villages along the Afghanistan border and did quite a bit of hiking along some stunning mountain roads. My escorts did not like my leisurely walking pace and kept rushing me along like there was a golden plate of rice for the first one to arrive back to town. Unfortunately, I lost the opportunity to interact with the local Kalash people as these large men with guns were strikingly intimidating to have by my side. I could sense a bit of tension between the Kalash and the guards I was with as one of the beautifully dressed woman shreaked and said “muslims” in a voice that did not sound so welcoming. Anyway, I didn’t like having these guys around me anymore.
Along the way back I saw some graves of Pakistani military personnel who were slayed by the Taliban. Quite haunting I must admit. Then it all came tumbling down on me like a Himalayan landslide. I was a tourist in a war torn land. I came to the realization that although my AK-47 equipped companions did not seem to be the least bit animated at taking me around the surrounding villages, they would have sacrificed their lives to protect me if the situation would have turned violent. Up to five men would have passed on, just to protect one. They would have easily joined the others at the graveyard without hesitation. Laying down your life for another person’s safety is the biggest form of hospitality one could ever receive. By my standards, those men should have been given red capes and have the word hero tattooed on their chests in Urdu and Pashto. The only reason for them to come to that area was because my of my curiosity and lust for adrenaline. Perhaps they were rushing me along because they knew the region was unstable and we were all taking a great risk due to our presence. Could I really believe the man at the police station whom insisted the region was secure? Those men all had families and responsibilities possibly much greater than my own. This was not an ethical decision and quite selfish of me to subject those men to the potential volatile nature of that region. I had overstayed my welcome! It was time to move on as swiftly as possible!