ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The intensifying conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan has claimed considerable collateral damage, including the kidnapping of Greek teacher and aid worker Thanassis Lerounis.
Lerounis was the only Westerner living in a series of lush interconnected valleys inhabited by a lost pre-Islamic tribe on Pakistan's mountainous frontier.
The Greek national thought the valley's isolation and his 15-year presence there ensured him safety, but he was kidnapped by a Taliban group in a violent dawn raid in September on the valleys of the Kalasha, the last remaining pagans of Central and Southeast Asia.
On Sept. 8, Taliban gunmen swarmed into the sparsely defended compound where Lerounis lived among 3,000 non-Muslim tribesmen called the Kalasha. They hauled him off, forcing a local shepherd to carry him on his back. Before leaving, they reportedly shot to death one of the two guards the Pakistani government assigned Lerounis and heavily wounded a servant and another guard.
Lerounis is now held captive in an unknown location in southeastern Afghanistan's Nuristan Province. As ransom, his captors are demanding the release from a Pakistani jail of several comrades, 2 million dollars and/or his conversion to Islam.
Lerounis, a schoolteacher from Athens, stumbled across the Kalasha tribes while mountain climbing in Pakistan in the mid-1980s. Fascinated by the myth that the fair-skinned Kalash are the genetic descendants of Macedonian settlers who arrived with the ranks of Alexander the Great's armies, Lerounis raised funds in Greece to build a school. Since then he lived in the Kalash valleys for up to six months every year and continued to raise funds for infrastructure projects.
For centuries the Kalash have lived in Chitral, an independent kingdom that upon the creation of Pakistan became its northwestern corner. Even then, Chitral remained an isolated mountain redoubt, closer to Afghanistan than the country of which it is a part. Visitors still ask passengers arriving on the shaky twin-engined airplanes that fly in from nearby Peshawar: "What is the news from Pakistan?"
In the eighth year of the war on terror, Pakistan has emerged as its pre-eminent battlefield and it has spread to the remote Kalash vallies. Now Lerounis, too, has fallen victim to the tensions suffusing the valley.
Lerounis' greatest failing, in the eyes of the local Islamists, was to build a school designed exclusively for the Kalash community. Aimed at nurturing Kalash pride in their heritage through teaching their language and customs to an all Kalash student body, the three-floor stone-and-wood building raised the ire of local Muslim organizations. To add insult to injury, the Greek Foreign Ministry-funded building, which includes a hospital and museum alongside the school, has been so successful since its opening that several Muslim families have sought to enroll their children in it.
"There were very strong rumors every single day that people were coming to attack Mr. Lerounis but nobody seemed to take it seriously or they were avoiding it," said Sikandar Khan, a Kalash who studies economics at Greece's Aristotelion University.
When I met Lerounis in 2007, I struggled to understand why he insisted on remaining in an area increasingly infiltrated by Wahhabi Islamic missionaries from the south and Taliban-style Islam from across the nearby Afghan border. During that year's Joshi Spring solstice festival, more armed police were present than ever before and fewer Kalash made the trek from distant valleys, worried that a suicide bomber might attack the gathering of dancing, singing and wine-drinking revellers.
The increasingly lawless area was rumoured to be the very hub of Al Qaeda activities in southeast Asia. Locals claim that Osama Bin Laden used Chitral as a hideout during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. The Pakistani newspaper "Dawn" reported that Lerounis had been threatened by local Taliban sympathisers and was warned to stop his work with the Kalash, whom the majority of Pakistani Muslims view as impure pagans.
"(The school) is viewed by the Islamists as the Kalash World Trade Center and they want to topple it," a local Kalash who lives in the conservative city of Peshawar told me when I visited.
The idyllic landscape and true love with which Lerounis approached his work with the Kalash obscured the risks he braved. He cultivated pride in Kalash identity, created jobs for the subsistence economy and offered an economic alternative to the tempting financial rewards dangled by the Islamists to get tribespeople to convert.
At the same time, Lerounis had a deep respect for Islam. He spoke at length with Muslim Pakistani visitors about the Muslim translation movement of the Abbasid Empire, which safeguarded Greek philosophical texts in the Arabic language even as war ravaged Europe and then retransmitted them to Europe from the Middle Ages onwards.
After the only other Westerner to live in the valley, Jordi Magraner, was assassinated in 2002, Lerounis became the only remaining foreigner to be permanently based in the valleys. He reluctantly accepted two armed guards provided by the Pakistani government to shadow his every move as he continued his work.
But signs that the fissures of the war were spreading through Pakistan started registering even before Magraner's murder. Six months before Magraner's murder, an Al Qaeda-affiliated militia kidnapped and decapitated the American Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl.
The pacifist Lerounis believed that he would remain untouched, either by the petty rivalries that coursed through the district or the great geopolitical conflict of our time. He felt that as long as he remained a respected and non-interventionist figure, there was no reason to think he might be targeted. Despite the dangers, he remained committed to working with the Kalasha.
"It never occurred to me to leave the valley," Lerounis told me as the late afternoon light drained from the wall of rock rising above the valley. "Ever."
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