HASAN ABDAL: The Gurdwara Panja Sahib, located in Hasan Abdal, has so far received 340 displaced families from places as far away as Swat and Malakand. Many of those who turned up at the Gurdwara fled their homes with only their clothes on their back.
Dr Ashok, a six-foot-tall man hailing from the Pir Baba village in Buner, said he decided to leave his home when there was a lull in fighting. “We headed for Hasan Abdal, because this is the only place we know,” he added.
While children play in the courtyard of the Gurdwara and women wash their clothes in the water channel down below, Dr Suran Singh of the Pak-Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhan Committee worries about how to cater for the growing number of arrivals. Dr Singh, a homeopathic doctor, left his clinic in Buner and fled with his six family members packed in his small Suzuki on April 28. Back home, he was an elected member of the local council. Since his arrival in Hasan Abdal, he has taken charge as spokesman and chief organiser of the group. He said the only thing people wanted now was to go home.
Many people are still left behind in the troubled areas. The fighting on the main highway has discouraged them from travelling and there is hope that they will come once there is a break in the curfew and fighting. Dr Singh said in many ways, the Sikhs had been lucky to have a place to come to. “Many of our Muslim neighbours and friends have ended up in tents,” he said, adding that the reason why most had fled was because of fear of shelling.
When asked about the Jiziya tax that the Taliban were believed to have imposed on the Sikhs living in areas controlled by the militants, Dr Singh said these reports were untrue. “I have not been approached.
In fact, the Taliban came to my area on April 4 and for almost a month, we lived under their control. We only fled when the fighting intensified.” However, others said they had indeed heard of the tax. “I know families in Tirah who were told to pay,” said one young man. Others said the Taliban had held some Sikhs against their will and imposed a levy on the community. One man said the Taliban confiscated the homes of the people who fled rather than paid the tax.
Most of the Sikh families which arrived in Hasan Abdal left behind a family member; many of them in the areas which were under intense firing and shelling. Others closed their homes, shops, clinics and offices and moved out.
Many worry about their family members back home. Others said they fear the worst once they get back. Almost all of the men and women from the Sikh community, who arrived from the troubled areas, are educated and from middle-income backgrounds. Most of them speak Pushto fluently and feel at home in the wider Pukhtoon community.
Some worry that their properties would be targeted and looted once the violence dies down. Others hope and pray that they get the opportunity to rebuild their homes and lives. One sign that their stay at Hasan Abdal would be longer than expected is that the children are being offered admission in the school adjoining the Gurdwara.
Some Sikh women are already spending time at the school teaching for a few hours. They said this helped release their stress. As the capacity of the Gurdwara to accommodate people reaches its limit, the Sikhs have started to rent places around the town. But rentals have also gone up, given the unexpected demand. Locals also worry that the arrival of so many Sikh families may upset the ethnic balance of the little town.
Manzoor Bhatti, the caretaker of the Gurdwara, belongs to the Evacuee Trust Property Board. He said the Sikhs, many of whom are professional doctors and engineers, were happy to run their own affairs. So far, both the government and the United Nations have helped with the supplies.
However, to sustain such a large number over a longer period would be difficult. He said he was hoping for the best. This optimism is shared by people like Sandeep Kumar, a student of the Edward’s College in Peshawar. He said his family never migrated to India after partition, “because the Muslims in our area begged us to stay on.” Now, however, “we have been forced out by the extremists, not our neighbours.”
Asked to comment on the offer to migrate to India, Dr Suran Singh said with a smile: “We are Pakhtoons first and Sikhs later. These times are troubling for all the Pakhtoons, not just the Pakistani Sikhs. We need to fight this challenge together.” This is a sentiment shared by many of the people, who have taken refuge in the Gurdwara.