SHAH HASSAN KHEL, Pakistan -- Khan Beguma’s story is a tale of unending agony and inspiring courage and resilience.
As a widowed mother of four in her 30s, Beguma is doing all in her power to feed her family and make sure her two sons get an education.
Her world changed on New Year’s Day seven years ago. She recalls the devastating explosion on the fateful evening of January 1, 2010, which plunged their impoverished but happy village into misery and sorrow.
Her husband, a laborer, was among the 120 players and spectators killed when a Taliban car bomb targeted their volleyball game just before sunset. All were residents of Shah Hassan Khel, a dusty hamlet in Lakki Marwat.
The district is a rural backwater in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The region abuts the tribal areas where a Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency wreaked havoc for more than a decade after the demise of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan forced a host of Islamist militant groups to move into Pakistan’s northwestern Pashtun belt, which includes Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the northern districts of southwestern Balochistan Province.
“If Allah has brought them to this world, he will provide for them, he will look after them,” she said of her children, who help her weave straw ropes in their modest mud house. They barter bundles of these ropes for food and groceries with local shopkeepers.
“I am committed to do all in my power to provide for them,” she told Radio Mashaal. Beguma says she resents being unable to educate her two daughters. But by educating her sons, she says, the family has better prospects of prosperity in the patriarchal society.
She is among the dozens of widows in Shah Hassan Khel whose husbands, all members of the Pashtun Marwat tribe, were attacked soon after their community raised a volunteer forced to keep the Taliban militants at bay. In 2010, the Taliban controlled most of FATA while dominating large swathes of rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Beguma and other Shah Hassan Khel families only received a one-time government payment of nearly $3,000 in local currency. There was no long-term effort to rehabilitate the community or support the victims.
She says that weeks after the tragedy they were left to fend for themselves.
“My husband was a hard-working man, and we used to have a good life. I now live in the hope that we can change our circumstances through hard work,” she said.
Having never been to school, hard labor is Beguma’s only option. She collects straws from around the village to weave into ropes. Every spring, she joins women from her village to harvest the wheat crop in Minawali, an agricultural district in the neighboring province of Punjab. The monthlong excursion helps bring enough wheat to crush into flour, which is used to cook the region’s staple food -- soft flatbread cooked on a round iron griddle.
“Sometimes we have to make do with only one meal a day,” she said.
Beguma is among the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis whose lives have been turned upside down by suicide bombings, militant ambushes, targeted assassinations and counterterrorism sweeps. Many families of the more than 60,000 civilians and soldiers killed in the violence have received little assistance or emergency medical treatment.
In Shah Hassan Khel, such neglect is felt acutely. Kabul Bibi lost three sons in the tragedy. She still vividly remembers the evening when the force of the blast forced many of the rooms in their mud house to crumble.
“Our misery is unending. Our only hope now is that Allah will help us,” she told Radio Mashaal. “The government promised us it would give our children jobs, but nothing has happened.”
Abdul Mateen, a high-school teacher in the village, says authorities have yet to repair the school building, which was badly damaged when a stray shell from an army artillery gun hit the building years ago.
“Whenever I teach, I tell the students to sit in the middle of the classroom because I fear the walls might collapse,” he said while taking a break from teaching a crowded class of boys and girls sitting on dusty mats on the floor.
“I think these classrooms are not fit to shelter cattle, let alone educate small children,” he said.
Muhammad Saeed, a white-bearded village elder, says more than 80 families in his village of 7,000 residents are now headed by widows. He says that apart from the one-time government compensation payment, they have received little assistance as their community languishes in grinding poverty and a lack of basic health care and clean drinking water.
“The only thing we did wrong was to cooperate with the authorities in identifying the terrorists and even forming a [volunteer] committee to resist them,” he said. “Our reward was that we were attacked and killed en masse. This was what we got for doing the right thing.”
While taking a break from her backbreaking chores, Beguma is determined to soldier on.
“I am alive because I am hopeful, and these children are my only hope,” she said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Umar Daraz Wazir and Zaland Yousafzai’s reporting from Shah Hassan Khel, Pakistan.