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What the Mountains Hide: Remembering the Harrowing Massacre in Gilgit

Gilgit- Baltisan, a beautiful high mountain in the north of Pakistan, is arguably one of the most serene places on earth. It is home to the world’s second largest peak, the K2, and spreads over three high mountain systems: the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush. Underneath those snow-capped mountains, however, lies a history of bloodshed and injustice that somehow swooned away with the wind. 

The May 1988 Gilgit Massacre was a horrific incident during which a mass killing of Shia Muslims took place in the Gilgit District of Pakistan—an incident that remains largely unreported. This heinous crime was carried out by then-President and military dictator Mohammad Zia ul Haq, who was responsible for the annihilation of hundreds of Shia Muslims.

According to some sources, American-backed Zia ul Haq was intimidated by the growing influence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This prompted the spread of Shia Islamic teachings across the globe, including in Pakistan where over 20 million Shia Muslims live. In a quest to tighten his grip on his faltering throne, Zia ul Haq orchestrated a bloody massacre, only to die months later in a plane crash.

A report by Shiite News stated that the CIA and Saudis played a massive role in the massacre by training the terrorists involved, who later re-emerged as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Sipah Sahaba or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. 

The US allegedly supported Zia ul Haq, and when then-US ambassador Arnold Raphel visited Gilgit, the locals held a protest, chanting ‘down with the US.’ The report claims that the US had dictated their stooge, Zia, to teach the Shia Muslims a lesson.

Ahmed Abbas, a Gilgit native, describes in his article The Gilgit Massacre the grave incident as a ‘haunting scene of devastation.’ He mentions that the first Shia-populated village to be annihilated was known as Chakar Cot, a collection of four small hamlets. The tribal people viciously ended the lives of some of the Shia residents. The remaining Shia bravely fought back, ‘their resistance fueled by their unwavering spirit,’ Abbas explains.

Abbas further reports that Zia armed the people of Kohistan and other tribes with weapons, while he controlled the reigns. Around 24 Shia mosques were set on fire, four were destroyed, and more than 2,000 copies of the Holy Quran were burned, Abbas reports. The terrorists also burned, tortured, and mutilated the deceased bodies.

The perpetrators then moved towards Jalalabad, a small village of the Gilgit District situated some 20 kilometers east of Gilgit city. For two and half days, the valiant people of Jalalabad defended their territory and its people with all their might. However, the opposition was fully armed and a scarcity of resources further intensified the situation. On the third day, the Shias of Jalalabad made a collective decision to evacuate the village and secure the safety of their women and children, Abbas reports.

Jalabad persevered with astounding bravery. Abbas reports that the people formed a human shield and escorted their loved ones to safety as they maneuvered through dangerous landscapes—all while facing the pain of leaving behind their only home. 

Abbas says the terrorists “seized their opportunity” and wreaked havoc in a village that was once thriving. They torched homes, destroyed ripe fields of wheat, and uprooted trees rich with fruit. They attacked the district office and local institutions. Abbas recounts that at this point, their motive was clear: the complete extermination of the native Shia community.  

The silence of the judiciary and other key government security institutions was deafening, as they reportedly failed to intervene and protect the innocent people. Over 200 people were killed and thousands of homes were set ablaze, Abbas explains.

Shias from the neighboring village of Nagar traveled to Jalabad in a quest to offer support to their fellow brethren, only to be killed by the terrorists in the process. Abbas reports that between 15 and 20 people from Nagar were killed, with their heroic gesture forever remembered by the people of Jalalabad. 

When the violence came to a halt a few days later, Abbas explains that the survivors of Jalalabad resorted to temporary camps in the village of Jutal. They tried to piece their lives back together over time, as displaced families were reunited. What time could not erase, however, was the harrowing massacre of Shia Muslims that continues to haunt them today.

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  • Zamena Manekia Manji

    Zamena Manekia Manji is a breaking news writer for TMJ News with experience of over 10 years in the field. Her areas of focus are important breaking stories in North America specifically untold stories from a minority lens.

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