‘Salaam forever, Erni’
“I lost my friend, Ernestas. All day long I tried to stay in touch with the concerned people with the hope that he’s safe, but we lost him. He was a very dear friend and a die-hard lover of Pakistan. Every time we used to communicate, he tried his best to speak in Urdu. His messages, emails and phone conversations were filled with love for Pakistan and its culture. I never knew that it was going to be his last call when he called me from Islamabad.
Sorry, Erni, we couldn’t save you. As he always said, ‘Salaam, dost.’ Tonight, I say: Salaam forever, Erni. RIP.”
This poignant comment by Babar Khan Niazi, a young Pakistani mountaineer and broadcast engineer, gives a human face to the gruesome tragedy that unfolded on the night of June 22, 2013, at the snow-covered Nanga Parbat (Naked Mountain) in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Militants disguised as members of the paramilitary Gilgit Scouts attacked a base camp there, having forced two local porters at gunpoint to take them there. They killed one of the porters (the other escaped and is being interrogated by security forces), and shot the climbers — execution-style, in the head and neck.
Besides Ernestas Marksaitis, a Lithuanian, the murdered men included Igor Svergun, Kashaev Badawi and Konyaev Sergeyevich (Ukrainian), Anton Dobes and Peter Sperka (Slovakian), Rao Jianfeng and Yang Chunfeng (Chinese), Sona Sherpa (Nepali), and Honglu Chen (Chinese-American), and their Pakistani cook.
The murderers must have trekked in the snow for several hours to reach the base camp, undertaking a journey usually only tackled by foreign climbers — the base camp was located on the Diamir side of the Nanga Parbat, the most challenging face of the mountain. This was the worst attack on foreigners in Pakistan in years.
The killers belonged to well-trained Taliban-linked militants who carried out the killings to avenge the death of TTP commander Waliur Rehman, claimed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan. Rehman was killed in a drone strike on May 29, 2013, in North Waziristan. Those who claim that these killings are a result of drone strikes in Pakistan forget that the ideological allies of TTP were killing people in Pakistan long before drones claimed their first victim in 2004. Such murders are part of the TTP’s cold-blooded agenda of killing innocents in order to gain power and enforce their warped ideology.
Besides Ernestas Marksaitis, a Lithuanian, the murdered men included Igor Svergun, Kashaev Badawi, Konyaev Sergeyevich (Ukrainian), Anton Dobes, Peter Sperka (Slovakian), Rao Jianfeng, Yang Chunfeng (Chinese), Sona Sherpa (Nepali), Honglu Chen (Chinese-American), and their Pakistani cook
Last year, on his first visit to Pakistan, Lithuanian Ernestas Marksaitis, 35, had done a solo climb of Broad Peak (K3, the world’s twelfth highest mountain) at night. On the same trip, he had also unsuccessfully tackled K2, the world’s second highest but most difficult to climb mountain.
This year, Ernestas was part of an international expedition to Nanga Parbat comprising some two dozen climbers from various European countries, besides China, Nepal and Azerbaijan. Wanting to tackle K2 again, he had asked Niazi to accompany him to the base camp and wait there for 10 days while Ernestas went up the mountain.
“He was planning to go alpine style, which is the most difficult since it involves a non-stop climb but takes less time,” explains Niazi. “I used to joke with him that what if he doesn’t return after 10 days?”
The day news of the massacre hit the media “was one of the worst days of my life,” he adds. “What more love do you want from a foreign friend who promotes Pakistan whereever he travels? He was never even nervous about travelling to Pakistan.”
The Nanga Parbat expedition — which included several women who wore the traditional salwar-kameez during their short stay in Islamabad and loved it — has been called off. So have other climbing expeditions. This is a huge blow to what is left of Pakistan’s tourism industry.
A British climber who arrived in Pakistan on June 24 and heard the news of the massacre the day he landed, described being stuck in an Islamabad hotel “full of climbers and trekkers,” many of whom turned back en route to the Karakorum mountain range.
However, beyond the damage this incident has done to tourism, it highlights the need for a clear counter-terrorism policy in Pakistan, as the country continues to reel under such senseless attacks.