A striking derivative of the Hazrat Abbas (RA) mausoleum catches one's eye en route from Peshawar to Dera Ismail Khan. Situated to the left of Bannu Road, the imposing structure constitutes but one part of noted Shia waqf Kotli Imam Hussain (RA). In addition to a religious seminary, the endowment also encompasses a graveyard – a final resting place for Dera walled city residents killed in sectarian attacks among others.

Friend turned foe

Dera, one of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's largest districts, is home to 1.6 million people. Over one-third of the province's sole Seraiki-speaking area's inhabitants are Shia, community representatives claim. While Dera may boast the region's largest Shia population, a 'wrong' confession of faith can prove fatal.

Of the over 150 interred at the Kotli Imam Hussain (RA) graveyard, names of 149 killed since 1986 are inscribed on a commemorative board. The list was last updated in July, 2016. Many more have been killed since then. Similar burial spots dot villages district-wide.

Till 2002, Shia residents of Kotla Syedan owned 90% of land in the village's vicinity. The figure has registered a near 40% decline with many having sold prime holdings before relocating to Bhakkar district of Punjab in the wake of dozens being gunned down by Syednagar resident Imran Gandapur over 2006-08.

"We used to study together at the Kotla Syedan Government High School. Gandapur was inducted as a constable after matriculation," a peer left visibly-shaken at the mere mention of Gandapur's name told The Express Tribune.

"We used to play together. He joined the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) later and started attacking the Shia. Gandapur switched allegiance to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) upon being identified by authorities," he added.

Presenting an interesting side note, Gandapur's childhood friend said the TTP man continued drawing a police salary for long. "Then DPO Gul Afzal Afridi put an end to this and spearheaded efforts to nab him," he added. Gandapur was ultimately killed by security forces in a 2012 operation.

‘A martyr for every family’

Carnage visited Chah Munawar Shah in August, 2008. Word spread across the village that local Shia leader Basit Ali needed blood following an attack. As residents rushed to a hospital, a suicide bomber struck.

Over 30 were killed in the bloodletting. Among them were 21 of a family. Behesht-e-Zahra, a separate enclosure in a village graveyard houses their remains.

"Not a single family has been spared," village elder Ansar Zaidi told The Express Tribune. My younger brother was killed in the 2008 bombing. My son, injured in the attack, remained in hospital for several months.

Inayat Ali Shah, a retired DSP, said one of his sons was gunned down by militants. Another was killed in an anti-terrorist operation, he said. Shah said his wife, incapacitated after the killing of her sons, passed a year later. "I am paralysed myself. I have one more son but it is not easy to see one's children being killed in the name of religion," he added.  Shah said two of his nephews had also been killed by militants.


Muharram procession in 1960. PHOTO COURTESY: Dikhan Muharram/Facebook

Sectarian tensions in Dera predate Partition. Sporadic disturbances broke out in the late 1950s over Azadari processions. Differences were settled with a three-party understanding on procession routes between authorities, Sunni and Shia representatives.

Till 1985, the force of syncretism largely trumped sectarianism with many Sunnis actively participating in Ashura processions. It was widely believed that those who carried Tazias had wishes granted. The sight of Sunnis presenting eatables as offerings, often running into hundreds of kilogrammes, was also not uncommon.

Muharram procession in 1974. PHOTO COURTESY: Dikhan Muharram/Facebook

Muted amity punctuated by infrequent public order situations gave way to enduring sectarian strife with the establishment of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) on September 6, 1985 in Jhang. With what the Shia term active state patronage, the radical outfit aspiring to transform Pakistan into a Sunni state spread its tentacles to Dera. The SSP's violent legacy continues to haunt the district.

Shia leader Fayaz Bokhari told The Express Tribune that SSP activity in the district could be traced back to a 1985 attack on an Ashura procession. The Zuljanah panicked and a stampede ensued. SSP activists narrated a different version. Terming the 'attack' an accident, they said mourners stabbed Sunni onlookers after a brick from an under-construction structure fell on the Zuljanah.

As friction festered, authorities proscribed Ashura processions in 1986, 1987 and 1988. Bokhari said the three-year ban fuelled resentment among the Shia young who flouted directives to organise one in September, 1988. "I led the mourners myself, Alam in hand," he said.

Thousands of police, Frontier Constabulary (FC) and army men were deployed to stop the procession. "I told then SHO Sikandar Khan near the Agriculture College no mourner carried arms. As I was speaking, gunfire erupted. I received two bullets. A boy who grabbed the Alam from me as I lost balance was attacked too. Four mourners died on the spot. Another six succumbed to injuries," Bokhari said.

As the injured were being rushed to hospital, all Shia-owned concerns in the area were gutted. Not one was spared.

"Policemen handcuffed the injured after they were admitted. An FIR was also registered. Our restraints were removed just before then NWFP Governor Fazle Haq's visit. I told him DIG Yusuf claimed police opened fire on his orders. The DIG fled the hospital after hearing about our conversation," Bokhari said.

The anti-Shia eulogise Haq as a "hero". His "intrepid" leadership in the face of Shia "intransigence" generates much acclaim. Sunni radicals claim Haq paid with his life on this account. Peshawar Shia leader Anwar Akhunzada, held in connection with Haq's killing, was also killed later.

Muharram procession in Dera Ismail Khan. PHOTO COURTESY: Dikhan Muharram/Facebook

Former interior secretary Rustam Mohmand said the impression was "erroneous". All decisions pertaining to Ashura processions are taken by district authorities in consultation with all stakeholders. Haq never interfered, Mohmand, who served as DI Khan commissioner in the late 1980s, told The Express Tribune.

Untrue, the retired bureaucrat also termed Bokhari's claims on DIG Yusuf. "This is not true. I would have been cognisant of any such development had it transpired. I was then serving in Islamabad, he said.

No Ashura processions were permitted over the next two years. In 1991, the community organised a 40-day sit-in demanding restoration of Ashura procession routes. Incremental permission was granted following an understanding between the authorities, Sunni and Shia representatives. In 1991, mourners were allowed to participate in processions away from the walled city. Permission was later extended to include all earlier routes in 1992.

Walled city today

Sectarian tensions spiralled further upwards in 1996 with Shia notables being frequently subjected to targeted attacks. Radical Shia outfit Sipah-e-Muhammad (SeM) emerged over the same timeframe and orchestrated reprisal attacks.

The same year Riaz Basra of the SSP parted ways with the organisation to found Sunni supremacist outfit LeJ. An LeJ aligned with a rising Taliban in Afghanistan effectively rendered the SeM ineffectual besides paving the way for unprecedented attacks on the nation's Shia.


Regular attacks compelled the Shia to abandon the district en masse over 2008-13. Bokhari told The Express Tribune that over 80% of the walled city's Shia residents had relocated.

Rickshaw driver Ulfat Hussain said he spent his formative years in the district. Hussain and his family fled to Bhakkar in 2008, 30 kilometres from Dera. While he had a house in Bhakkar, Hussain said he still travelled to Dera every day for work. "It is a large(r) city. I make around Rs1,200 daily. Most of my Bhakkar neighbours hail from Dera too," he said.

Bammu Shah Imambargah caretaker Farhat Shah said Dera's Shia were just pawns in the greater Iran-Saudi Arabia quest for regional hegemony. "The kingdom funds some, the Islamic republic others. Pakistan's Shia are on the receiving end," he said. 

Shah said there was a time when two to three Shia individuals were being killed daily in Dera. "Many abandoned the district for Bhakkar. It was a tough decision but many had no option," he said.

The caretaker alleged that the district authorities remained oblivious to the community's plight. "They fomented discord. My father was leading the Dera Shia when he met a senior bureaucrat in 1988. I remember him bemoaning how such elements did not bode well for sectarian amity. He died some time later, sectarianism did not," Shah said.

Police talk

"Dera has been in the throes of sectarianism since 1996," Bannu DPO Sadiq Baloch told The Express Tribune. Sadiq, who has served extensively in Dera, said terrorism in the district was largely sectarian in nature. The district's demographics and location are pivotal, he said.

"There are various factors. The district's significant Shia population is definitely one. Dera is part of the Seraiki belt. Anti-Shia sentiment runs high there. SSP founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi was Seraiki too. Located adjacent to the Punjab districts of Dera Ghazi Khan and Mianwali, militants find it rather convenient to operate in the district. Also, sectarianism in Dera is inextricably linked to the rise of the SSP in the Punjab," the DPO said. 

Lato Faqir Mosque in Dera Ismail Khan

Many SSP operatives fled to Dera when authorities cracked down on the outfit in Punjab. The possibility of an attack on Ashura processions was what I feared most over my time there, he said.

The DPO said the Taliban-LeJ alliance proved to be a game changer. A province-wide genocide followed. Many Dera Shia abandoned the district for the relative safety of other areas. The well-heeled relocated to Murree and the twin cities. Others fled to Shia-majority Bhakkar.

The emergence of the Gandapur faction of the TTP also merits attention, Baloch said. The Kulachi-based group had 700 operatives in 2010. The 2008 attack was carried out by a Mehsud tribesman, he said. Women suicide bombers were introduced too, the DPO added. "The LeJ-Taliban combine proved lethal. Together, they employed suicide bombers to devastating effect," he said.

Dera DPO Zahidullah Khan claimed the situation had been changing for the better. He said cases of violence related to terrorism and sectarianism had declined by 50%. "We are cognisant of one active sectarian outfit operating in the walled city. Several operations have been conducted to nab militants and their facilitators. Police have lost 170 personnel in the war against terrorism across the district," Khan said.

Story, pictures and videos by: Riaz Ahmad

Produced by: Rahima Sohail

Edited by: Saad Saud

Video editing: Narendar Khatri