The first time I ever heard gunshots take a person’s life, I was in the fourth grade. They would often blow up chunks of the surrounding mountain range with bundles of dynamite, but this sounded different. My Dad would later explain to me that a Sunni had shot a Shiite dead in the bazaar.
It was the mid 90s, and I was living in the small mountain town of Gilgit, nestled in the Himalayas in northern Pakistan. My parents were aid workers and had started an eye clinic next to the Gilgit River, and we had three continuous dangers that seemed to loom over us: nuclear war with India, rising tensions against westerners, and the ongoing conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. It always seemed to revolve from one to the other, as if there had to be something, but two at a time would be too much.
The Sunnis and the Shiites would typically ignore foreigners when they were targeting each other. While the tensions between the locals and foreigners certainly existed, I never felt unsafe as a westerner prior to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. Still, in a world boiling over with conflict, getting caught in the crossfire was a legitimate concern.
Later I would attend a British boarding school and visit my Dad in Gilgit just after one of these conflicts. He wore a hefty beard, and it was the only time I would ever see him with one. All the windows were bricked up in our entire house; three bolts were secured to every door — interior and exterior. He carried a shotgun and a handgun everywhere he went. While we were gone, the local police had enforced a curfew, and anyone that was caught outside after 8 p.m. would likely catch a bullet. It was the only way they could keep gunfights out of the streets.
Years later I would join the U.S. Army, assigned to 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. I would fight less than 300 miles from my home town, just across the border in Afghanistan. There, we were often incidentally exposed to this same Sunni and Shiite conflict — and it had nothing to do with us, the invasion or any part of the war. On one particular mission, we were out expecting to find a Taliban commander; instead we found a Shiite farmer who allegedly knew exactly where the commander was staying. So we picked up our stuff, hauled ass down the street, and talked to the alleged Taliban Commander. Long story short, he wasn’t even affiliated with the Taliban either, he was just some Sunni, and a competitor farmer to boot.
From the nine years in Pakistan and my four deployments to Afghanistan, I’ve realized that the conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites is incredibly complex — it’s a web of conflicting beliefs and a history of retaliations. Still, it baffles me. These people could be living in relative peace. They could be building infrastructure to improve their country and day-to-day life.
But instead they continue to divide themselves, to refuse to believe that anyone who subscribes to the opposite ideology has any value as a human being, and would rather fight and even die than build a bridge to the other side. Both of them point fingers, say the other side started at it; they say that it’s truly the others that aren’t willing to open up dialogue, and that anything that happens to the other side is their own fault. And they suffer for it. Their families suffer for it. Their country suffers for it.
Featured image: Pakistani policemen and civilians check the site of a bomb explosion in a bus, in Quetta, Pakistan, Thursday, June 28, 2012. Suspected Sunni Muslim militants attacked a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims in southwest Pakistan with a bomb and gunfire Thursday, killing several people, officials said. (AP Photo/Arshad Butt)