Blown by winds, not war

Pakistan: Where much has changed, little changes for a nomad unaware of world events.

War On Terrorism

The World

October 18, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - A cold north wind tells Khudhi Ram that it's time, once again, to be on the move. All of his family's possessions - some clothing, pots and pans, two goats and a chicken - are ready to go. His home, a patchwork tent, collapses and folds up in less than 10 minutes.

Ram and his family await only a friendly truck or tractor driver to give them a lift. Maybe one will come today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. They don't care where it takes them, so long as it's to a warmer place.

Such is the life of a nomad. Trucks and tractors have replaced camels; airplanes race through the sky above. Otherwise, little has changed for centuries, at least as far as Ram knows.

"I was born like this. As long as I can remember, I have lived in the same tent," he says, sitting by the side of the busy airport bypass highway in northern Quetta. "I asked my father, and he is a very old person. And as far as he can remember, his father lived this way, too."

Lately, it is a way of life that has sheltered Ram and his family from earthshaking world events just outside his tent flap.

He has no idea that for the past several weeks the world has fixed its gaze on Quetta, an oasis city 80 miles from the Afghanistan border and directly on the fault line of pro-Taliban sympathies that threaten to destabilize Pakistan.

Thousands of Afghan refugees and Pakistanis have assembled in violent protest against the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan, destroying a movie theater, four banks and a United Nations office. Strikes have crippled businesses.

That comes as news to the Ram family. They sit in their tent at the edge of the city, unaware of it all. Ram, who guesses he's between 40 and 45 years old, can't read or write. He has never watched television. He doesn't own a radio. He has never sent or received a piece of mail. He has never heard of Osama bin Laden, knows nothing about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and isn't aware there is war on in neighboring Afghanistan. America, to him, is a thing, not a place.

"I've heard that there's something called America," he says. "If America comes here, I would like to see it."

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, says the majority of Pakistanis supports his decision to cooperate with the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Only a very vocal minority, he says, do not.

Ram has never heard of Musharraf.

"I don't belong to Afghanistan," he says. "I belong to this place. May God give Afghanistan a good government and make them happy over there. I won't go there. I live over here, and I know this place very well. This is good for me. I don't care about Afghanistan."

Ram displays the marks of a life lived in the outdoors: His skin is powdered with a thick coat of dust. A long black beard, as tangled as a Brillo pad, hangs from his chin. His eyes squint constantly from years living under the sun.

Thousands of nomads wander Baluchistan province, an unforgiving landscape of jagged mountain peaks and harsh deserts. The nomads are Pashtuns and Baluchs, the two main ethnic groups here.

Like birds, they obey the logic of the seasons. In summer, they migrate with their sheep, goats and camels to the higher country. In winter, they retreat to the warm plains near the Indus River.

Ram can't tell you the day, month or year, but he knows when it is time to move. It is autumn in Quetta. The nights have grown crisp. Hawkers with pushcarts piled high with apples peddle the season's final harvest. The men who wear the traditional long shirt and baggy trousers now walk about the city wrapped in heavy woolen shawls. Winter, Ram knows, is not far away.

"It just comes in my mind. Whenever God tells me it's time to move, I move," he explains. "When the cold disturbs us here, we go. And over there, when the heat disturbs us, we go."

Since camels gave way to tractors, some nomads get work delivering bricks and soil to building sites. Poorer families scratch out a living doing odd jobs or breaking rocks by hand for road construction.

Ram is a woodcutter by profession. In winter, he usually settles in Sind Province, about 400 miles to the east, and chops wood. In summer, he delivers it to the city. Last year, he earned 32,000 rupees for his labor, about $500.

Ram, his wife and four children can rarely afford to eat meat. Most meals are bread and strong, dark tea. They have never seen a movie. In all his years, Ram has shuttled back and forth from the mountains to the Indus River plain, but never outside the country.

The dusty lot he calls home is not far from the Quetta airport. Jets land and take off overhead, linking passengers to destinations far away. Yesterday, as a jet climbed into the sky, Ram considered where he would go if he could board one.

"I would like to go once only to Mecca," he says, excited by the possibility. "There are no conspiracies there. Just me, my life and my God."

Ram has not attended school for a day in his life. His children are following the same path, and he makes no apologies.

"Sometimes I don't like this way of life," he confesses. "But when I look at the people living in the city and their problems, I decide my tent is good. Whenever I want to go, I go."

Where he's off to next, he doesn't know, but he hopes it is a place where his children may one day go to school and maybe stay for longer than a season.

"I don't like this life for them. But what should I do? We don't have any choice. I am stuck in my life. But what to do?" he asks.

Some nomadic families, he says, are settling down and building houses. But that's not a life for him.

Pointing his finger at his ragged tent, he smiles.

"This is my home."

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