The Pagosa Springs Town Council and Mayor Ross Aragon have adopted a proclamation recognizing Gurez, a small village located in the mountains of Northern Pakistan, as our sister village.
Gurez (or Gurais) is a collection of small villages with a total population of approximately 15,000, located in the Neelum Valley. Like Pagosa Springs, Gurez is at high elevation and isolated. The one road leading to Gurez is closed for approximately four months every winter.
Unlike Pagosa Springs, Gurez has experienced little development. There is no telephone service to Gurez, little electrical power, no mail service and no primary school system.
The movement to adopt Gurez started this summer when Habitat for Humanity of Archuleta County and several local churches hosted volunteers from the Pakistan Relief organization, which has its headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan. While in Pagosa Springs, these volunteer ambassadors of Pakistan worked on the Habitat houses, met town officials, and participated in a cultural evening that included a typical Pakistani dinner. More than $2,300 in donations were collected to establish the Pagosa Springs sewing skill development center in Gurez.
In September, four Pakistan Relief volunteers loaded 12 sewing machines, an ample supply of fabric and other sewing supplies into a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle and started the 19-hour journey to Gurez. After three days in Gurez, they located a nice room in a new building to house the sewing skill center, installed the sewing machines and found a highly qualified tailor to instruct classes. Although a little mystified by the interest and generosity of their new friends in Pagosa Springs, the Gurez residents were most grateful for this kind and unexpected act. A more complete description of Gurez and the Pagosa Springs’ Skill Development Center follows in this article.
The Gurez residents are about to have another surprise. Children at Community United Methodist Church, under the supervision of Janet Rainey, have just sent a box containing photos, coloring books, crayons, paintings, toys and story books to the children in Gurez. These gifts will show the children of Gurez what the children in Pagosa Springs look like, and a little about their lives. We are hopeful that we may receive similar gifts, but not until spring when the road to Gurez has reopened.
Having established a very real and practical relationship with this small village in the mountains of Pakistan, there will be many opportunities for Pagosans to actively encourage intercultural harmony and to combat cultural extremism. For example, during their visit to Gurez, the Pakistan Relief volunteers learned that there are no primary schools in Gurez, and that the residents would very much like to have their children educated. Perhaps Pagosans will want to make possible construction of a primary school in Gurez? Although this project was initiated by Habitat for Humanity, we encourage other civic groups, churches, schools and individuals to join us as we look for ways to strengthen our relationship with the Pagosa Springs sister village, Gurez.
The following, “The Hidden Valley 3,” was written by Mujtaba Imran Haider, president of Pakistan Relief. This article describes how the Pagosa Springs Sewing Skill Center was set up in Gurez.
“On Saturday, 20th September, we started our travel to an exotic valley which lies out of sight of the populace of the world. We were heading towards the enchanting Gurez Valley, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, from Islamabad.
“Kashmir is cradled in the Himalayas, under the crystal blue skies, against the background of snow-capped mountains. It is an oval plateau framed by three Himalayan ranges — the Karakoram, Zanskar and Pir Panjal.
“With an estimated elevation of 2,300 meters, Gurez Valley is situated in the North-East of Pakistan and at the extreme end of the State of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. This is one of the prettiest places of Kashmir and Pakistan. The famous river Neelum, that means ‘Sapphire,’ enters from Indian-held Kashmir to this valley at Tao Butt, which is just one and a half miles away from the Nekrun village. Prior to entering in Azad Kashmir it is called ‘Krishan Ganga.’ Its water blends into the Jhelum River at Domel in Muzaffarabad and then the Neelum loses its identity. Whilst moving towards Gurez the greenish-blue water of the Neelum flows alongside the zigzag road. The road from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad, the capital city of Azad Kashmir, is very fine but the trail ahead is severely ruined because of the earthquake in October 2005. Frequent landslides cause further disruption in the smooth movement of vehicles.
“There are no means of communication available to contact anybody at Gurez so we delivered a message regarding our visit through phone to a friend at the state capital, Muzaffarabad. Now, soon after the Sehri (the meal at the dawn in the fasting month of Ramadan) we four — Najam Khan, Asim Farooq, Ikram ul Haq Sulehri and Mujtaba Haider Imran — all members of Pakistan Relief, were on the way to Nekrun.
“In the daylight, traveling is rather easier so we moved swiftly; but after the sunset, a few miles away from the destination, the rain caught us and the dirt track became awfully slippery. The river Neelum flows hundreds of feet deep in the bottom of the ravines. The poor visibility forced us either stopping or moving at a snail’s pace to avoid falling in the river. We passed by a number of small settlements hence we didn’t see any human being after 10 p.m. Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn and thus missed the road to our destination and started traveling in another direction. After half an hour we realized that the terrain doesn’t seem to be familiar anymore. We returned to find someone to ask of the Nekrun — our destination. It was going to be 1:50 at night and we had no idea how far the Nekrun was. We presumed that the host family would be anxiously waiting for us. The temperature outside the Jeep was 5, whilst we had left Islamabad with 31 degree Celsius. Eventually we were bunged by a small contingent of soldiers who asked for identification. After seeing our identity cards they informed us that we were just half a mile away from the village. So, after a 19-hour drive we reached Nekrun. When we entered that small town it was wrapped in the mist and we didn’t see anyone. We comprehended the veracity that our host might have become disappointed and would have gone to their homes after midnight. Najam Khan knew the village since he had visited it many times, so he suggested that instead of bothering the host family we may go to the mosque where we may find a small room called ‘Hujra’ in the native language, to stay there till the Sheri and to have some rest. We guessed that prior to Serhi meal someone will come to mosque and we may enquire of our host Shafiq Syed. We stepped in the wooden structure, small building and found the Hujra successfully, though it was absolute dark and we had no torch. Whilst traveling in the vehicle we remained warm but here it was too cold to stay without blankets. Our thin jackets failed to protect us from the cold and we started shivering. We had identified a wood stove called ‘Angethi’ in the middle of the Hujra. We started looking for some wood to burn up and luckily we found some. Meanwhile we discovered a lantern. Shortly, the blazing pine wood started warming the little Hujra with a wonderful aroma of smoke. Within no time we got relaxed and slept within a few minutes.
“At 5:15 we woke up with alarm. It was time to have Sehri for the next day’s fast, so we tossed some potatoes in the fire to bake them. Normally, we use to have paratha, chapati or roghani nans and black tea but this time everyone just took one apple, a couple of scorched potatoes and a mug of ice-cold water. After a few moments, an old man entered in the mosque and was surprised to see five strangers inside. After saying ‘Assalam-u-Alaikum-peace be upon you’ he asked who we are and where we were heading. We told him of ourselves and the hosts Shafiq Syed and others. ‘They have been waiting for you guys till midnight near the doorway of the parish,’ he replied. He invited us to his home for the meal but we informed him that we had already eaten. He postponed the ‘Azan,’ the prayer call, for a while and went out to call Shafiq. After five minutes or so he returned along with the Shafiq’s elder brother Shabir. He started saying sorry to all of us for not waiting us till morning due to rain. We justified that it was none of their fault because we arrived too late but everyone was feeling guilty that we could neither sleep comfortably nor start our fast with any proper meal. In the meantime, almost 35 to 40 people had gathered in the mosque and became part of the ongoing conversation. They didn’t accept at all that it was our fault, replying that the villagers should have waited for us and that its first-ever incident that their guests were maltreated.
“We all offered Fajar (morning prayers) together. Then the old man addressed them in the native Kashmiri language and they all started praying loudly. They recited verses of Quran for 10 minutes. Afterwards, we came to know that they were requesting God for forgiveness. They felt so much embarrassment that everyone requested us again and again to forgive them because God may get annoyed with them for not taking care of the guests. Now we started feeling guilty for arriving late. We thanked all of them for their sentiments, love and sympathy and our hosts took us to their home where cotton-made warm quilts and blankets were waiting for us to enjoy a sleep.
“At 9:30 Najam Khan woke us up and after having a bath with cold water we started visiting the village Nekrun and surroundings. Having a population of 12,000 to 15,000, the Gurez is a Union Council, ‘the government’s smallest administrative entity,’ and consists of 23 small and medium sized villages having 250 to 1,200 persons each. The entire area is divided into Upper and Lower Valley. Its very exceptional and amazing too that just in a seven-mile radius there are five different clans, each with diverse ethnic backgrounds and speaking different languages like Hindko, Kashmiri, Gojri, Shina and Pushto.
“We walked through Nekrun, Karimabad and Tao Butt in the Upper Gurez that is the last village of Azad Kashmir and then it starts the world renowned LoC-Line of Control. On the other side the Indian-held Kashmir’s villages can be seen at a distance of 100 yards. Everywhere, the natural beauty is just stunning. It’s an enchanting valley of singing silvery streams and silky white clouds. The pine, deodar, kail, fir, maple and wild walnut trees are in abundance. More than 34 species of feral herbs and medicinal plants are found here. The organic Amri apple is a matchless fruit. The locale is also a sanctuary for the rare wildlife like black bear, brown bear, common leopards and pheasants.
“We watched old men and women, and even the children working in the miniature fields. The yellow and white corn is the foremost crop there. They grow potatoes, rice and kidney beans as well. Shafiq, our host, told us the winter is going to set in within a week or so and everyone is in a hurry collecting and storing their own food and fodder for their animals. He said after the snowfall the only access track gets blocked for three to four months and people remain confined to the valley. We came across tens of shepherds migrating towards the plain and warmer areas of Punjab along with hundreds of sheep, goats and mules. They will return back to the Gurez and Neelum valleys in the month of May. These Bakarwals keep on moving back and forth and never face harsh summer or winter at either place.
“There are no job opportunities available. A small number of young men go to other cities like Muzaffarabad or Pakistan in search of job. The average family consists of eight to 14 members and they have an income of $60-$90 U.S. per family. Its hard to calculate and then understand how they survive with such little income. Furthermore, the prices of daily consumables are getting higher and higher every day, and this makes them more vulnerable.
“After a five-hour walk, we returned back at Shafiq’s home and it started raining again. We slept again for an hour and woke up by the sunset for Iftar — the meal to finish the daylong fast. At 8:15 some people from the valley came to meet us and we discussed several issues We came to know of their problems and shared our ideas to eradicate some of their sufferings, focusing upon the sectors of education, health, and sustainable livelihoods. They repeated many times that no other organization is working here since it’s a far-flung area having no facilities. Even the phone, electricity and a hospital are not available. They informed us that a couple of people came here in the past and promised to extend help but nobody returned and the villagers got frustrated. They were really glad and hopeful that we were not there just for a need assessment, but we had brought sewing machines, cloth and the accessories for them to establish the first Skill Development Center in the entire valley. They added that now they believe the Pakistan Relief will help them in the future.
“We shared the idea of Sister Villages with them and told of the sponsorship for the first SDC by our American friends. They couldn’t understand exactly what will happen after declaring Pagosa Springs and Gurez Valley as Sister villages, yet they were glad that some friends in America can help solve some of their genuine problems. They offered to donate a piece of land for constructing a primary school to provide their children with access to quality education. They told us wood there is cheap and can be arranged for construction in the next spring.
“After the day’s visit and this interesting and informative meeting we had all the important details. Najam Khan, Asim Farooq, Ikram-ul-Haq and Shafiqe Syed were very enthused and motivated. We discussed the scope of several projects in the various sectors that can bring a visible and authentic change in a short span of time. We liked the idea of establishing a primary school there. Surprisingly, they agreed to send both their daughters and sons to the same school, even in the same classroom. Its matter of satisfaction that they are aware of the significance of the education, even though they live in a very isolated and neglected area where, apparently, they cant find any realistic utilization of higher education or any job opportunities.
“At night the local villagers arranged a spacious room at the second floor of a newly-built wooden home. (They keep their animals on the first floor.) They further offered to spare one more room for a carpet weaving class in the future. Though Nekrun is a small community, it is fairly the center of a few more villages and is easily accessible to the students from these settlements. That’s why we decided to set up the SDC there.
“Then we faced an existent problem: There was no lady instructor available to teach the girls, but the villagers took another bold step and agreed appointing a male as a teacher who had lived in Lahore and knew tailoring. Its really unusual and amazing. It depicts their spirit and interest to bring change in their lives. It’s our first experience where, in such a backward village, the locals had no objection sending their daughters to get guidance from a male teacher.
“Early in the morning the women started gathering at the announced SDC and some youths helped us bring the heavy sewing machines to the SDC from our Jeep. The room was cold but we felt the same warmth because of the gleaming faces and whispers indicating the happiness of the students. A lady said that they all are thankful to Pakistan Relief and friends in America for providing them with an opportunity to utilize their boring winter and to learn an interesting and useful skill. Another lady said they had no idea that suddenly one morning they would have a full-fledged Skill Center established.
“Ikram took a piece of white cloth and wrote a sentence in Urdu language: ‘We hope this SDC is going to be the point of start for a struggle to make Gurez Valley peaceful and prosperous.’ Some males also wrote words of thanks yet ladies were shy and they wanted some time to express their feelings so we left that piece of cloth there and we intend to send it to Pagosa Springs after bringing it to Islamabad after the next visit.
“They handed over some corn and apples to us as a gift from the community as a traditional gesture of friendship and we started our travel back to Islamabad in the morning. The entangled Neelum River was taking its course to be our companion, again. I thought of the lately rehabilitated association with the loving people of Gurais valley and smiled because we had taken such a pleasurable initiative for these people in need after a decade, so successfully.
“The jeep kept on going away from charismatic Gurez valley, with every turn of the wheels. Though it was a long and hectic travel of 19 hours, it was the first journey of my life during which we all never stopped chatting. The theme was single — what else to do for the poor people of Gurez valley. There is a lot to do to alleviate poverty and bring some ease in their lives. I hope we, together with friends from America, can light the candle of hope and make it a model area to set an example for others. This hidden valley and its people existed in our minds since 1999 and we became familiar with Pagosa Springs and Canandaigua in July 2008, yet these regions and many of their inhabitants reside somewhere in the bottomless depths of our hearts, now. I really don’t know why, but have a little clue that we human beings are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, having a delicate heart that feels and reacts. A good word, even a smile can be more influential to win these fragile hearts than conquering just a piece of land and bodies without souls.”
For more information about Pagosa’s Pakistani Sister Village, or Habitat for Humanity, contact Cindi Galabota, 264 6960, or David Smith, 264 6647.