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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Pakistani Villagers Feel Snubbed by Arrests in U.S.

Detentions: Three men who worked in America illegally are heroes in the dirt-poor Swat River Valley's islands of pro-U.S. sentiment.

November 08, 2001|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DHERAI BABA, Pakistan — To U.S. authorities, the three men are illegal immigrants from a volatile region who were arrested in roundups after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

To the villagers here in Pakistan's dirt-poor Swat River Valley, the men are local heroes whose foreign earnings are a vital source of income for the community. In a region dominated by fundamentalist religious firebrands who have called for a holy war against the United States, the men have also forged a special connection from America that has made Dherai Baba an island of pro-U.S. sentiment.

"We are poor people. We have benefited from America. Why should we fight America?" said Malik Bakhtiar, who said federal agents arrested his brother Rashid Khan, a hot-dog vendor in Philadelphia, in the post-Sept. 11 roundups.

Like most of the 1,147 people U.S. authorities say they have detained, the three men from this farming village are not believed to be suspects in the terrorist attacks--just illegal immigrants who come from Muslim countries where terrorists are known to operate. The largest number of those arrested come from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan.

While the detentions may make sense to many Americans concerned about the ease with which the suspected Sept. 11 terrorists entered the country, they have become a sore point in Pakistan, where the arrests are viewed as shoddy treatment for a front-line country that has gone out on a limb to back the U.S. cause.

"We have taken up the issue with the United States through our embassy in Washington," Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Khan said this week. "We are looking at this issue and regard it as a serious one."

Stories about the mass detentions have been front-page news in Pakistan, focusing on the case of a 55-year-old Pakistani man who died in a New Jersey jail of an apparent heart attack.

In Monday's editions, the Jang group of Urdu- and English-language newspapers described the arrests as a "ruthless manhunt not seen in the U.S. since World War II." The newspapers estimated that 200 Pakistanis remain unaccounted for in New York City alone and criticized a reported immigration raid conducted in a Coney Island mosque.

"It's like Nazi camps," said Huma Ali, who was identified as a New York Pakistani community leader in one of the Jang accounts. "They raid the residences of Pakistanis without any notice, search their houses and take them away. For days, you can't tell where these people are."

U.S. federal authorities are steadfastly refusing to provide any details on most of the detainees.

Here in Dherai Baba, an ethnic Pushtun village of about 1,000 people surrounded by snowy mountains and clear, fast-running rivers, the indignation is more personal.

"Tell my daddy we are very worried about him. Ask him to get in touch with us as soon as possible," said Ambreen Mano, 13, one of four children of Rahmanuddin Mano, 40, who villagers say was detained by U.S. authorities along with his brother, Mohammed Nazeer, 30.

Mano's family members said they learned of his arrest from an uncle also living in America. Villagers said about 15 local men live in the United States. Given what appears to be the standard route taken to the United States, it is doubtful that any are there legally.

Dherai Baba is known as a town of "ship jumpers" who have developed their own system for sneaking illegally into the United States.

Despite its landlocked mountainous location, about 700 miles from the nearest port, the village has a large number of licensed merchant seamen. As a crowd of villagers gathered around a visiting reporter on a recent evening, several of the men produced Pakistani merchant seaman identity cards.

One of the men, Mohammed Zamin Khan, 52, the uncle of the two arrested brothers, explained how his two nephews went to the United States three years ago.

After collecting money from relatives, he said, the men paid 300,000 Pakistan rupees--about $5,000--to a Greek merchant shipping broker in the Pakistani port city of Karachi to obtain jobs on a cargo ship. The men were given air tickets to travel to a port where their assigned ship awaited. They worked on the ship until it reached New York, where they went ashore and melted into the large Pakistani community, taking jobs as construction workers.

Relatives said the two men were able to send $300 to $600 a month back to their families. In a country where the per capita gross domestic product is only $2,000, this is a handsome amount, sufficient to keep the families in comfortable housing.

"They were happy, making lots of money," Khan said. Like others, he blamed the terrorist attacks and the resulting military campaign in Afghanistan for the arrests and the hardships they have caused here.

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