ORDINARILY in winter, we would wear thick woolen clothing, turn on the heat in our homes and take hot soup or tea to stay warm.
But for the 2,000 or so inhabitants up in the remote Boroghil valley in northern Chitral bordering the Wakhan Corridor, where maximum daytime winter temperatures are below freezing point and mobility is hindered by five to six feet of snowfall, it is a time for opium-induced hibernation and survival on food previously stored.
Situated 280 kms from the district headquarters, the 13 contiguous villages in Boroghil valley can only be reached after covering 90 kms by jeep on a dirt track and then two to three days by foot.
Yet the area is potentially significant because of a proposed land link to Central Asia via the two-km wide Wakhan Corridor into Tajikistan .
Not only is keeping warm a major challenge in Boroghil, ensuring a sufficient food supply is also a concern, particularly during December to February when inhabitants are practically imprisoned in their homes for weeks on end because of the weather conditions.
With no modern facilities like electricity or gas, the mainly pastoral farming community of 143 households – according to the statistics of an NGO – depends on the dried dung of yak and other animals for heating and cooking purposes.
“For the winter season, we store and consume items which have the highest amount of calories,” says Umar Rafi who is the first matriculate in the valley.
The main food items include cheese and butter as well as bread made of wild bean flour. Every household also slaughters two or three yaks and fat-tailed sheep (locally called bakhta) and stores their meat to add to the routine menu.
Lashkargaz, Garil, Chilmarabad, Ishkarwaz, Chikar, Pechus, Vadinkhot, Jungle and Koi are the major villages with a household density ranging from 7 to 30. Chilmarabad is the largest village with a population of 321, according to the statistics of the NGO.
“The meat of yak and bakhta are known to be cold resistant and it helps to keep the people warm in the extreme chilly weather,” says Mr Rafi.To further minimise the effects of the cold, continues Mr Rafi, the inhabitants use opium. According to the NGO, the opium addiction rate in the Boroghil valley is 87 per cent of the population. Opium addiction starts early: it is given to the new-born as a medicine.
Due to the extreme climatic conditions, agriculture is nominal in the valley where only wild species of wheat and potato can be grown. Modern farming methods are unknown in the area which comprises mountainous tracts, widely stretched grassy plains and meadows with elevations ranging from 10,765 to 14,121 feet.
The major source of sustenance is livestock farming, mostly of yak but sheep, goat and cattle are also kept. These animals not only meet the food requirements of the inhabitants but their fuel energy needs as well for which the dung of animals are dried and stockpiled in the summer season.
Also in the summer season, the locals bring their yaks, goats and sheep to the nearest markets in Chitral or GilgitBaltistan and sell these to purchase daily-use commodities like tea, sugar, salt, rice and kerosene for the cold winter season.
The difficulties of the inhabitants of Boroghil valley in securing food during the long winters were first brought to light way back in 1975, as some inhabitants fondly recall, when the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto rushed sup plies to the area by airdropping food for both people and their animals.
Thereafter a contingency food source was established for the inhabitants comprising local warehouses run by the food department where supplies of wheat are supposed to be stocked for the harsh winter. But, as one inhabitant complains, these are not always dependable.
Narrates Master Mohammad Yaqub of Chilmarabad, ?Last winter, the wheat stock in the local warehouse was exhausted by January. The villagers had to pool their edible items together in the house of one Shaheen Baig and they were fed from there for a whole week until the replenishment of wheat stock from another warehouse nearby.? Apart from the food warehouses, primary schools and dispensaries have also been established in the valley but the challenging weather conditions and the inaccessibility of the valley have had a negative impact on the functioning of these public facilities.
Inhabitants claim that not a single government functionary above the rank of a naib-tehsildar has ever visited Boroghil.
The lack of economically productive as well as leisure activities in the valley, especially during the long winters, are major factors driving the inhabitants into opium addiction and misery.
With its snow-clad peaks, glaciated passes, scenic lakes and lush green meadows, the Boroghil area has considerable potential for development ? in the economic and tourist sectors and in energy generation, especially hydropower on the Chitral River and its tributaries.
The main hurdle in the way is the lack of a proper road infrastructure. Only through a focused attention by the state on harnessing the development potential of Boroghil can its inhabitants hope for improvement in their lives.