My friend and I squeeze in the front seat of the pickup.
We’re lucky–others are stuck in the back without seats in the freezing winter, getting tossed in the air when the driver crests the hills.
It was another one of those days when I would travel between my home in Dera Ismail Khan and South Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s lawless Tribal Areas, to sell medical supplies for Abbott Labs, an American healthcare company.
Vitamins, antibiotics, Ensure, Similac, Sensimil, Formance, Isomil; basic products you’d find in any hospital or pharmacy in Seattle were a godsend to families in Waziristan. Nobody seemed to care that they were produced by an American company.
By the time I finished my sales at 4pm it was pretty late to start the six-hour trip back home through the so-called no-man’s-land along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But I had a bad feeling. I just wanted to get out of there, despite the urging of locals who told us it wasn’t wise to travel during the night.
I talked a reluctant pickup driver into taking us, and other eager travelers piled in after shelling out their 200 rupees (less than $2) each.
Flat tires weren’t a rarity along these rough roads, but after three hours of travel, we got two at once. We changed one tire, but without another spare, the driver had to wedge a piece of wood under the second tire in order to maintain a balance and we continued to travel on the flat. The chassis groaned under the passengers’ weight.
It was a dark moonless night. Here and there, you could see a few mud-made houses on slopes lit dimly by kerosene lanterns.
Development in the tribal area is on the backburner. Only four percent of women are educated here. The Taliban say women should stay at home to raise children and do housework, rather than pursuing education. “Books will pollute theirs minds and they will become worthless wives and mothers,” they reason.
We hit a narrow, ramshackle road heading up a mountain. On our right side, there is very deep ravine with no guard-rail or protection wall in sight. A hush falls over the once-chattering passengers.
What if the pick-up skids the road off on the flat tire and we end up in the deep ravine? What if we get ambushed? What if we get kidnapped? Am I the only one wondering?
Out here there are no police, no law, and no court system to back you up if you get in trouble.
Only outlaws. We call them the Taliban. All the criminal activity is passed of as ‘The Taliban’ even when there’s no religious motivation behind it at all.
This place is completely out of control.
Technically it’s part of Pakistan, but the government has never been able to merge it into the rest of the country. So they neglected it. With no law, poor infrastructure, and decades of war raging next door in Afghanistan, terrorists and criminals took over. Once they started attacking the civilians in Pakistan and the NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Tribal Areas got a little more attention, but only in the form of army incursions and drone strikes.
It seems like there should be a better solution.
Maybe indigenous leadership from the Tribal Areas could be more actively involved in a war against terrorism. In the past, some attempts were made to raise local volunteers against militants and outlaws, but without proper resources, the effort fizzled out.
Building some schools, hospitals and roads could win the hearts and minds of people in the Tribal Areas. But the aid Pakistan has long received from the US as an ally in the war on terror never trickles-down to these backwaters.
Pakistani opposition parties get political mileage out of criticizing US drone strikes. But without drone strikes, would the Pakistani government would be able to deal with terrorists operating there and attacking Pakistan and Afghanistan? The answer is no.
In the US, the public’s frustration is growing. People just don’t want to hear more about Afghanistan and Pakistan. After a decade of trying to build an Afghan government and Afghan security forces, the Americans are ready to go home. But the moment they leave, will everything they have been working for collapse?
Maybe they don’t care anymore.
And I can relate.
After 10 hours on the road, I finally made it home that night.
And now that I live in Seattle, my commute is a lot better. I jump on the light rail in the southend. Sometimes I’m enticed by the Starbuck’s downtown while I’m transferring to the 41 bus to take me to Northgate.
I’m not afraid the bus will plunge into a ravine. I don’t wake in the night afraid someone is coming to murder me anymore.
I left all of those fears behind me in Pakistan.