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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Pashto Love story

The resurrection of Kharamar
By Salman Rashid
The success of Kharamar is ample proof that all is not lost, and the environment can be saved, provided the will is there.
Yusuf Khan of Tarlandi (on the high road between Mardan and Swabi in the NWFP) was a hunter. That this passion for the chase be satisfied, he walked daily from his village to the nearby massif of the Kharamar hill. Towering a full five hundred metres above the fertile Yusufzai plains, Kharamar in those days was thickly covered with pine, acacia and wild olive and in those thicket-covered chasms the ravine deer and partridge teemed. It was a rare day that Yusuf Khan returned from the hill with an empty bag.

Between his home and Kharamar lay the village of the fair Sher Bano. And so it was only a matter of time that the two saw each other. Cupid's arrows flew and the two hearts were kindled with the warmth of love. Now, much ink has been spilled on the subject of the cousin (tarboor) among the Pukhtuns, its convoluted jealousies and intrigues and how its venom only increases in the event of one's father's death. And since Yusuf Khan's father had long been dead, his cousins now ganged up to deny him not only his father's legacy, but his loved one as well.
The intrigues that followed forced young Yusuf Khan to abandon his home and his aged mother and young sister to seek employment in distant Delhi. There our hero found service in the army of the great king Akbar. Time flew and Yusuf Khan rose in standing until he was assigned command of a body of troops. If that was to uplift his spirits, depressing news arrived from distant home under the dark loom of Kharamar: despite the resistance by his mother, sister and Sher Bano herself, his cousins had contrived Sher Bano's betrothal with another man.
Taking leave from the court Yusuf Khan rode out westward at the head of his contingent of Mughal soldiers. As luck would have it he arrived on the day his Sher Bano was being forcibly wedded off to the other man. Yusuf Khan rode rough-shod into the celebrations, disrupting everything and slaying some of the vilest of his cousins. Those of his cousins that survived, overawed by the power given him by imperial service, made peace with him - or at least pretended to do so.
Yusuf Khan then wedded his ladylove and together they began a new and happy life. One day, not long afterwards, as Yusuf Khan returned home after a day in the field, Sher Bano was disappointed to see he had brought home no game to be cooked. She spoke her sentiment and Yusuf Khan set out for Kharamar with two of his cousins who now pretended to be his friends. Upon the mountain they shot a deer that fell down a gully. As he was lowering himself down the gorge, Yusuf Khan's cousins, forever looking to avenge their brothers' death, cut the rope. Our hero fell to his death. Upon hearing of the end of her man, Sher Bano came up the mountain and there gave up her own ghost.
Kharamar carries the memory of Yusuf Khan and Sher Bano to this day, but its forest where the hero chased the deer and the partridge is a thing of the past. While the last of its ungulates were exterminated half a century or more ago, its birds and trees stubbornly held on until very recently. What happened to these latter is an interesting study of the death and resurrection of a mini-ecosystem.
Aligned in an east-west direction, the north side of Kharamar is owned by the people of village Sheva while the south side falls under the jurisdiction of villages Adina and Kalu Khan. As is common elsewhere, the natural resources of Kharamar too were subject to unsustainable harvesting as well as theft and pilferage. Consequently in 1973 a joint decision by a jirga of Sheva elders and members of Sheva Educated Social Workers Association (SESWA), a local NGO, opted to hand over management of their part of the mountain to the Forest Department.
This move was made under the impression that professional management would save the rapidly dwindling forest. Unfortunately the department fared even worse. Pilferage increased and while wind-fallen trees were being spirited away, standing trees were being damaged and felled to appear as wind-fall. Since the owners knew the number of felled trees, every time they were confronted regarding their disappearance, the guards said a fire had destroyed them. Of course they had no logical answer for the question as to why only fallen trees were consumed by fire while standing trees nearby did not even get so much as a scorching.
By the mid-1980s the Kharamar forest had been heavily depleted. The ungulates were a distant memory; now even the trees, the partridges, kestrels and merlins were becoming rare. In 1990 after considerable effort, ownership of the north flank of Kharamar was again reverted to the people of Sheva. But the practice of thievery prospered and the owners recognized that whatever little remained would soon be gone. In 1993 the jirga decided to sell off whatever little remained of the forest on Kharamar's north flank. By 1995 it was completely denuded: not a tree was left standing by the timber contractor.
The Rs7.3 million that this sale fetched was put away in a bank where it sat for five years growing fat with interest. Subsequently, Rs5 million was distributed among the owners while the Rs3.5 million of accumulated interest was spent through SESWA on their various education projects in the village. (Sheva must be the only village of its size anywhere in Pakistan with twelve boys' and girls' school as well as a college.) Militating with the jirga the NGO was successful in getting Rs1.3/- million earmarked for the restoration of the exhausted forest. This was easier said than done because for most people trees were only meant to be cut. Their regeneration was God's work with man having no part in it. The jirga and the community were convinced only after a good deal of SESWA effort and the money was put away in a bank account.
In 1995 after the last of the old trees on Kharamar had been cut down by timber contractors, the men of SESWA began planting chir (Pinus longifolia) trees on their part of the mountain. A total of over three hundred thousand saplings were planted. Though all of them may not have survived, the northern flank of Kharamar today fairly bristles with young pine trees. In the years since they were planted, they have grown to a height of over five metres. Also planted, besides chir, are a large number of Phulai - Palosa in Pashto - (Acacia modesta) and sanatha (Dodonaea viscosa) - all indigenous species.
In June as we stood under the lee of the hill shading our eyes against the setting sun, the evening air was filled with the call of partridges. Above the skyline a raptor, dark against the pale sky, hung on fluttering wings in pursuit of its quarry. The hillside was literally awash with greenery. Three hundred thousand trees are an awful lot. Though I have no way of verifying if that is the number I saw, I can at least say I saw a good deal of pine trees. In stark contrast, the southern flank of the hill, owned by two other villages, is bare save for a stand of the pestilential eucalyptus near its base.
In 1996 the men of SESWA had first told me the story of the selling of the Kharamar forest. I was livid for I did not believe their projected rehabilitation of the forest would ever take place. I railed at them condemning them with all I had. In the intervening years every time I drove past Kharamar (and I did over a dozen times), I silently cursed SESWA and the jirga that had ravaged an entire ecosystem. I could not be blamed for the road skirts the southern flank of the hill and I had no idea of the change taking place on the far side.
Having utilized only the mark-up and kept the principal sum safe, SESWA now has capital to hire forest guards. Today four armed guards take turns to thwart any attempts to damage the regenerating forest. Moreover, a strict control on grazing on Kharamar is in place. Fodder collection and the grazing of cows and buffaloes are permitted in selected areas of the hill. Goats and hunting or trapping are expressly forbidden and assiduously enforced: the chorus of partridge calls was testimony to this enforcement. A close examination would surely have revealed hedgehogs, pikas, perhaps even foxes.
Kharamar, the hill sacred to the memory of Yusuf Khan and Sher Bano, had all but died in the mid 1990s. Now, with only a little money and a good deal of right thinking and commitment it has been resurrected.

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