The Peace Tournament
A story of polo, murder and religious hatred from our man in Pakistan
March 16, 2006
Someone shot Ziauddin Rizi twice on Jan 13, 2005 at 1: 46 p.m. on a quiet road near his home in the outskirts of Gilgit Town in Pakistan. The first bullet struck the left side of the Imam's forehead, splattering brains and blood about the car he was riding in. The second bullet hit on the right side, parallel to his mouth. He died instantly.
"They drive here," Manzoor Khan, a local journalist, explained excitedly to me. "And gun, bang, bang, bang, there." He pointed at a line of trees obscuring the view of the Indus River. "They shoot from tree."
The place where Rizvi was murdered was marked by a large rock set atop a cardboard box. There was an ordinariness to this landmark; it looked rather like common rubbish. On a corner, behind a sandbag barricade, a group of Pakistani soldiers eyed us wearily.
My guide pointed out the two stray bullets that had missed the intended target; one hit up high while the other went low to the ground, wildly off target.
One side of the road was fertile green fields, farmland; the other side of the road was dominated by a bright white wall. On the wall people had written belligerent, fluorescent calls for revenge and retaliation in beautiful Urdu script.
A light rain had begun and a cold wind swept across the plain making the tall grass ripple hypnotically. It had started to rain.
The Gilgit polo grounds are located in between two mosques; one Shia, the other Sunni. The field was itself long, narrow and surrounded on both sides by tall concrete slabs. This is where spectators sit. One side was partitioned off with a green, chain link fence; here shade, soft seats and a good view are found. Officers of the Pakistani army and foreign guests sat in this place.
This was an exhibition match, the last game of the "peace tournament." A drooping banner hung at the entrance of the grounds read: "Welcome! Gilgit Peace Tournament May 20-May 27."
In the stands, I watched armed guards stand with loaded automatic guns, nervous fingers upon sensitive triggers. At the entrance, under the banner, a pick-up truck sat idling, with a large machine gun attached to the payload, golden bullets hung down like jewelry.
The sense of security these guns provide was artificial. A bullet won't stop a bullet, nor shall it stop explosives concealed under clothing.
There had been violence in this place. Last January, the outspoken leader of the local Shi'ite community, Imam Ziauddin Rizvi, was assassinated, shot to death while riding in a car.
Sunnis were blamed and small-scale anarchy immediately followed; looting, arson, sectarian violence. People died. The Pakistani army imposed a shoot-on-sight curfew.
Walking through the small town, I saw artifacts of previous chaos. The property that surrounded the polo grounds had been looted, burned and had yet to be repaired. In order to get a better view of the polo matches, children climb atop burnt wreckage of buildings.
A four-piece band played, two percussionists and two on reed horns. Children and adults walked around on the polo field. Amidst rhythmic clapping, a man in a white robe spun around and around.
The horses arrived from the Northern entrance. The crowd stood up and cheered wildly. This is what the beginning of the polo game looked like.
I was watching the match with Husain Ali, the Sports Coordinator in charge of Pakistan's northern frontier areas.
"The peace tournament is primarily to promote harmony among the people," he said. "Because of some developments things are rather tense in this region, as you know."
I asked him to be more specific.
"As you know, there have been some… problems here… in the northern areas…"
"Yes, you know… some... how you can say?" he shrugged. "Violence, or, sectarianism within the recent months. There was a problem, a mistake, rather and there were more problems as a result. What we are saying to the people of Gilgit with this polo match that it is time for reconciliation, to be able to come out and have a sporting old time."
Ali was short with a kind face, bowl haircut and a beard. He was wearing a white Shalwaar Kameez under a distinguished looking navy blue sport coat.
"In addition, it is beneficial for tourism purposes," he said. "As you may imagine, tourism has suffered greatly since these incidents. So, the tourists like to see polo and it can bring revenue and put a different face to Gilgit. People go here, go there, then return home and say, 'Okay, Pakistan is okay.'"
The match was between the police and the Northern Area Scouts.
"Ah," Ali said, his face brightening. "You see, this is Bul-Bul, the captain of the scouts."
I looked down and saw a middle-aged, good-looking man being greeted by fans. He too was wearing a navy blazer. The only sign of his athleticism was his bottom half, brown boots, worn with age white Polo-player pants.
"The admission is free," Ali said. "We want all to come and enjoy."
The game began. The band kept playing but the music was mere background noise for everyone's attention was locked onto the polo players.
Polo is a game of rapid, cruel action. Things move quickly, horses and people are hurt; struck by the heavy white calls or hit in the face by the mallets. During the game I saw players wiping blood from their faces.
The game had taken place at 4:30 and was interrupted by the call to prayer by the mosques on either side of the field. During this time the band ceased playing but the match continued, silently. The only sound to be heard was the low-rumble of horses running, kicking up dirt and the sharp, singular thwak of mallet hitting ball.
"The winner of this tournament shall go to Chitral for the championship game, in Shandur Pass," Ali explained.
The ball had been hit out of bounds.
"Excuse me," Ali said. Then he stood up, produced a fresh white ball and hurled it onto the yellow field. People cheered and children scrambled to get the old ball.
The Shi'ite mosque was located at the Western end of the Polo grounds. It was a three-story, stone colored building with a turquoise minaret and a cool, dark prayer hall. The building was under reconstruction when I had visited.
The people in this place were tense. They confronted me. Young men, eyes wide with piety and displaced ambition blocked my way, wished to know my business. They instructed me to sit and wait, that they would speak with the Imam and give me an answer within one hour.
A small crowd had surrounded me and accompanied me to a small waiting room, an office. They produced platters of snacks and beverages.
"It is illegal to speak with foreign journalists," one told me. "Two months ago, there is German journalist and some people go to jail for speaking with them. The people are afraid. It is dangerous. The people don't know you so they fear saying things that are anti-Pakistani."
Ten minutes later a boy returned. He was holding a folded up piece of paper. The Imam wished not to see me but had written me a message. In elegant, cursive Urdu, with English translation below, was the response from the acting Imam:
"The Shias of Gilgit are demanding the government give them equal rights in government services. The government of Pakistan dispatches Sunnis to the Northern Areas to dominate the Shia, which results in sectarian conflict. Ziauddin started a movement for appropriate textbook curriculum for Shi'ite students according to their beliefs and faith. Instead of accepting his fair demand, the government made a conspiracy to kill him. We demand the Pakistani government arrest and hang those responsible."
Ziauddin Rizvi lived in a large white house. His brother Razavi and the bereaved family live there now. Above the shady courtyard stood a large black flag, flapping in the wind.
Since the killing, an armed guard has been stationed at the home. He stood in front of the new bulletproof gate. Death threats are common.
Around the property was pictures of the dead Imam plastered onto walls, in car windows, affixed to light sockets. His emotionless face surveyed outward with the pious confidence of a man who had predicted his own death.
I had recognized this martyr iconography among the promotional literature one sees among Palestinian Arabs. A face staring into the distance toward an unseen afterlife, head and shoulders crudely imposed onto an artificial sunset. In the background there are clouds, birds and mountains.
It's the same pose Ayatollah Khomeini had perfected in revolutionary Iran over 25 years before—the same sad and mournful eyes, black turban, pursed lips, beard.
Razavi Rizvi was sitting nonchalantly, shoeless and cross-legged on a couch, talking on an antique phone. He greeted me by enveloping my hands in a two handed clasp. His hands were fat and warm.
After ritual civilities, we repaired into a spacious guest room. There were four open windows. No Western furniture, just carpets and a line of oblong pillows neatly lining the small room.
A woman appeared from behind a curtain silently depositing biscuits and tea at our feet. Enveloped within a tent-like chador, she appeared in the room almost as an apparition, wordlessly floating upon unseen feet; in and out.
A knot of men suddenly entered the room, grim faced, bearded, all wearing pistol holsters. I looked around the room: solemn faced women in black chadors. Armed, bearded men with guns; my mind flashed back to Khomeini saying, "There is no fun in Islam."
My interpreter had been present but there was no need as Rizvi was an educated man, a literati who had both worked in the government and as a theologian. He spoke English and spoke it eloquently.
"Why was your brother killed?" I asked him.
A bristle of discomfort swirled about the room.
"Simple," he said in Urdu, pausing briefly to collect his thoughts. "Because my brother was a challenge for the military regime of Pakistan. The Shi'ites of the area liked him and obeyed him. The government of Pakistan simply felt threatened by him. He was advocating for the rights of Shia and the people of Northern Pakistan to stand up for their legal rights. They were afraid he would become to powerful and unite the people... the Shia of the Northern Areas."
"So," I asked, "what your saying is that the government of Pakistan murdered your brother?"
"Of course!" he shouted in English, laughing. Then he coughed violently.
"The Pakistani government and I.S.I (Pakistani Internal Security Services) were behind this. Only under the sponsorship of the Musharif regime could such a thing have occurred."
He pointed at me, gaining momentum, the preacher in him coming out.
"The political and military administration of Pakistan are all Sunni. Rizvi was advocating to remove the anti-Shia curriculum in the schools of the northern Area. We see this often from the Sunni—all Shi'a are infidel, kill Shi'a and get a house in heaven, Shi'a is a Jew. The government knows these things are occurring, it happens under their nose. They simply ignore it."
"So what's the solution?" I asked. "This is a small place, a mountain place. People have to get along, eventually."
"Yes, yes," he said, speaking English now. "We are negotiating... with the moderate… Sunni mullahs to maintain stability in this region. If the government, especially the I.S.I., wish to stop their sponsorship of the terrorist element, then our problem is solved. But the government is not sincere in its duties, the one who had killed my brother was arrested, now he walks free. He went to jail, but several days after, he is released."
He was speaking in a singsong voice now. The men with guns shifted around nervously.
"The ones who are suspected killers don't even go to trial," Rizvi said, wagging his thick finger at the air. "They don't even receive questioning, they walk free and are present in the city. The Sunni government of Pakistan has long been antagonistic toward us Shi'as. The reason behind this situation is to compel us to strike out so we can be labeled as extremists and malcontents... so they can say the Shia of the northern Area are fundamentalists, extremists."
Then Imam Rizvi softened his tone.
"We have lived under the robe of brotherhood for many years and it is my belief that we can continue to do so, but," he said, pointing at the ceiling. "We Shi'as can only be silent for so long. The Pakistani government has taken no action against the Sunni extremists because they have plans to implement another Taliban like regime here, in the northern Areas after the shameful defeat in Afghanistan."
"Whose defeat?" I asked.
"The radical Islamist groups," he aid sharply. "The Sunnis and the government of Pakistan are the instigators here. That is something no peace tournament will fix." MTW
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