'We Are Afraid the Taliban Will Find Us'

July 13, 2009

Author: Declan Walsh

Source: The Guardian


Flight from the Taliban has been a bittersweet experience for Darsha Singh, a turbaned Sikh farmer sitting on the steps of an ancient, glittering shrine just outside Pakistan's North-West Frontier province.

For two months he has been living at the Panja Sahib gurdwara, an ornate temple that is one of the most revered sites in Sikhism and which has become a temporary home to 3,000 Sikhs from across the war-stricken province.

It is a luxurious refuge compared with the conditions endured by most of the region's 2 million displaced, some of whom started to trickle home in military-protected convoys today.

Instead of a dust-strewn camp the Sikhs live in quarters normally reserved for pilgrims. Thanks to official and private donations they enjoy a well-stocked clinic, a 24-hour kitchen and a temporary school that bustles with laughing children.

At the shrine at the heart of the complex, the devout while away the day inside a rainbow-tiled room, perusing scripture and murmuring their prayers. Outside the door, boisterous teenagers yell and splash about in a cool, clear pool that quivers with fish, which volunteers feed diced cucumber.

But the serene atmosphere is scant consolation to Darsha Singh, who fears he may never return home.

Two months ago, long-haired Taliban fighters stormed into Orakzai, a tribal agency near the Afghan border, brandishing AK-47 rifles and bringing a harsh demand: that the area's 40 Sikh families should pay jazia, an ancient tax on non-Muslims living in an Islamic state.

To encourage the payment of 12m rupees (£90,000), they kidnapped and tortured one of Singh's neighbours. The Sikh community banded together to pay half the money, secured his release, then fled.