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Pakistan’s Kalasha People Struggle To Preserve Way of Life


A teacher writes letters from the Kalasha alphabet on a blackboard during a lesson at the Kalasha Dur school and community center in Brun village, located in Bumburet Valley.

For Akram Hussain and the 4,000 other Kalasha people who live in mountainous northwestern Pakistan, this year’s monsoon season has brought unprecedented flooding that has endangered more than just homes and crops.

The Kalasha people follow an ancient way of life at odds with Pakistan’s predominant Islamic religion, which has earned them threats by the Taliban, who call them non-believers. Outsiders, looking for arable land, also have increasingly moved into their high mountain valleys.

Now, worsening extreme weather linked to climate change is making efforts to preserve the old ways even harder, the Kalasha say.

"Our culture and language were already under threat and now these floods have devastated half our valley," Hussain said.

July saw torrential rainfall in the region, which usually falls outside of the country’s monsoon belt. Floodwaters damaged infrastructure in the valleys of Bumburet and Rumbur. Birir, the third valley inhabited by the Kalasha, was spared.

The flooding damaged hotels, shops, and low-lying houses and swept away crops of ripe maize and orchards full of fruit trees. Most Kalash homes were spared by the summer floods as they are built higher up on the mountainsides.

Worldwide, extreme weather and rising seas linked to climate change are presenting a growing threat to ways of life, from nomads in the drought-hit Sahel to Pacific Islanders who fear the loss of entire nations.

For the Kalasha in Pakistan, the struggle to preserve their culture is not new. They are the last survivors of the people of Kafiristan, who were mostly converted to Islam in the 19th century.

Their neighbors across the mountains, in the Afghan province of Nuristan, are the Taliban.

Among the Kalasha, prayers are offered during festivities commemorating the changing seasons. Their elaborate animist rites involve the sacrifice of goats, which is becoming increasingly expensive, particularly as extreme weather continues to destroy crops.

"When the livestock comes down for the winter, what are we going to feed them? If our livestock goes, our culture goes," Hussain said.

In Bumburet Valley, the Kalasha Cultural Centre, built by the Greek government in 2004, houses an impressive museum of Kalash artifacts, including colorful embroidered clothes, musical instruments, jewelry, and wooden sculptures.

Greek interest in the Kalasha people and their culture stems from the belief that they are descendants of the army of Alexander the Great that marched through these mountains centuries ago.

The cultural center was spared by the flooding thanks to a stone wall around its perimeters.

The ravages of climate change simply compound other problems that the Kalasha have faced recently as migrants move into their valleys.

"Some of these migrants are brainwashing the Kalasha people. There have been several conversions to Islam this year alone," Hussain said.

The Kalasha warn that the winter ahead -- when snow cuts off the valleys from the rest of the country -- will be long and hard this year.

In the village of Krakal, a young Kalash woman named Shahida explains. "We live on goat's milk, cheese, and beans during the winter months. Now, with our crops washed away by the floods and no fodder for our livestock, we are very worried," she said.

The traditional, sturdy construct of the Kalasha’s homes helped them survive the 7.5-magnitude earthquake that struck the region -- and the Hindu Kush -- on October 26, although some buildings have cracks that need repairs before winter.

"This winter is going to be very difficult for us," Hussain said.

The reconstruction that must take place before the snow arrives in December requires even more trees to be felled to rebuild hotels and houses. Shahida says deforestation is part of the problem.

"I think the main reason for the floods is the cutting of trees. There were so many forests up in the high pastures, and they are gone now. If the government cannot control deforestation, the floods will keep coming and become more severe," she said.

The Bumburet Valley attracts thousands of tourists each year who come to see the Kalasha, especially during their festivals, famed for traditional dancing and mulberry wine.

In the past, Greek volunteers traveled to the Kalash valleys to help with construction and other charitable work that contributed to their cultural preservation. One volunteer was kidnapped in 2009 by the Taliban and released only after eight months in captivity. No further volunteers have come from Greece since then.

"That was a big blow to our community since he was doing good work for the Kalasha. The second blow was when one of our shepherds was brutally murdered on the border with Nuristan a few years ago. Luckily, the army has moved in and we have better security now," Shahida said.

The area is now home to a military camp and new police station. Currently, the army is repairing roads and bridges destroyed by the floods, as well as patrolling the high mountain border with Nuristan.

Quaid-e-Azam, a Kalash community leader from Rumbur Valley, says that the Taliban are not the greatest threat to his people and culture. "It is climate change. We need to start planning for future disasters, otherwise life is going to be very difficult for us."

With reporting by Rina Saeed Khan for Reuters

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