By Sa’adia Khan
Before leaving for a photojournalism assignment I write a letter to my children. The hope is that I will return to dispose of the letter myself, but there is a real chance that I will not. As a photojournalist, working in developing countries, I fully appreciate the imminent dangers of certain regions; travel to these areas can be riddled with challenges such as landslides, flooding, and landmines. In one of my first assignments I was commissioned to travel to FATA [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area], when my then 13-year-old son, asked me if it was safe to go there. The answer was no it wasn’t safe, but to lay his fears to rest I explained the importance of the work I do and why it was necessary for me to go. I can only imagine the anguish he felt. But as the years have passed, and after numerous such trips, my son now sends me messages of encouragement and shares his sense of pride in my work.
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I didn’t stumble into photojournalism; I endeavored from the outset to work in this field, particularly in developing countries. I had the notion of making a difference, with the desire to help others and the deepest commitment to enable people in far-flung areas. These people are often without a voice or means to share their hardships and day-to-day challenges in simply attaining an education or access to basic healthcare. These factors have driven me to set aside the dangers facing me and focus on the bigger picture. So, this summer, when I was enlisted by Central Asia Institute to cover their projects in northern Pakistan, I did not hesitate. Their mission is to empower local communities through literacy and education, especially girls and that for me is the crux of where change begins. Therefore, any risk factor is mitigated purely because my own ethos is ‘to risk nothing is to have nothing.’ And that feeling of empowering others, of affecting change, is unparalleled.
One of the projects that I was going to cover was the school in Korphe. Korphe is a village in northeast of Pakistan, situated at the foothills of the Karakorum mountain range and the banks of the Braldu River. The Haji Ali Memorial School in Korphe was the first school built by CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson, in 1995. A tentative date to visit was agreed upon but subject to the school being accessible, as word had reached the office of a landslide that had completely washed away the road into the Braldu River.
As anyone going to Concordia base camp of summiting K2 will testify, the only vehicles able to traverse the gravel road to Korphe are four-wheel, off-road vehicles. We set off in our Jeep for Korphe, at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. We were aware that a portion of the road was still inaccessible due to the landslide, but there was a good chance that by the time we got to that point it would have been cleared.
The other passengers, including Taha Ali, the son of Haji Ali (the namesake of the school in Korphe), and Taha’s daughter, Jahan. Jahan was one of the first students to receive a scholarship from CAI and currently holds a master’s degree. Our driver was Mohammad Khan. Mohammad left me with no doubt that he was familiar with the route and its dangerous hairpin bends, often accelerating into uphill bends to gain momentum. Unfortunately, once we reached the point at which the landslide had occurred, the road was inaccessible and the only way to get to the other side would be on foot. It appeared to be an approximate incline of 60-70 degrees, with no foot holdings nor any means to climb up. Nothing can really prepare you for the altitude; at 3,100 meters above sea level it was difficult to maintain a fast pace. Taha’s advice to me, a Balti proverb, was “walk as if you are tiring the mountain, don’t let the mountain tire you.” Then he and his daughter scurried up the mountainside with ease. I made my way across with much less grace. Despite slipping twice and stopping to catch my breath every ten yards, I did it.
We made it to the village of Korphe with a few hours of sunlight left and were given a tour of the village. We met some of the elders who were part of the team involved in construction of the first school. They carried materials on their back for up to three days across the mountains to enable the Haji Ali Memorial School to be built.
The next day was an early 5am start, it was a beautiful Sunday morning and I relished waking to pin drop silence and the sight of the mountains. We set off on our return journey, fully aware that the road was still blocked. We trekked on foot for two hours to reach the area impacted by the landslide, where another driver was already waiting for us. It was decided that scrabbling across the rubble was the best possible route across, subject to a key instruction from both drivers – regardless of any stones dropping from above, I was not to stop. That was the predominant danger, as it would cause you to immediately slide down the mountain toward the raging river below.
Initially I felt very confident, but I hadn’t factored in that we had been trekking for two hours by the time we reached this point. My first recollection is the sound of the stones falling around me, getting louder and louder. As it was a narrow valley the sound was magnified. The second thought was, I am in trouble. I had frozen. It all happened in a heartbeat, even less maybe. The moment I realized it, was a moment too late. I leaned further into the mountain, but that only made me slide further down towards the Braldu River. The nano-thought I remember is that of my children, and the sorrow of them having to open the letter I left them.
It was only because of the quick mindedness of Mohammad that I’m here today writing this piece. Mohammad realized I was in trouble and dropped the bags to rush back across the rocks to grab my arm and hoist me on to his back. With me limp with shock on his shoulders, he carried me to the other side and safety.
Gratitude is to simple a term for what I feel for Mohammad’s actions. In no uncertain terms he saved my life and risked his own in the process.
Although I would do it all again, it is people like Mohammad who are the real unsung heroes of the work that is being done. Bringing education to remote parts of Pakistan is not a one-time assignment for him. Every day he puts his life on the line, driving dangerous roads in dangerous conditions. Not just Mohammad, but many people who provide education in inaccessible areas, where schools are an unattainable notion or simple a dream. I wonder if they leave letters for their children, or if their children just know that this is what it takes to make the world a better place.
Sa’adia Khan is a freelance photojournalist based in Pakistan. Having worked in the region for over a decade she is in tune with the nuances and challenges of working within the development sector. She was commissioned for a rolling exhibition which has been presented to date nine time in three countries.