The first time I ever heard gunshots take a person’s life, I was in the fourth grade. They would often blow up chunks of the surrounding mountain range with bundles of dynamite, but this sounded different. My Dad would later explain to me that a Sunni had shot a Shiite dead in the bazaar.
It was the mid 90s, and I was living in the small mountain town of Gilgit, nestled in the Himalayas in northern Pakistan. My parents were aid workers and had started an eye clinic next to the Gilgit River, and we had three continuous dangers that seemed to loom over us: nuclear war with India, rising tensions against westerners, and the ongoing conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. It always seemed to revolve from one to the other, as if there had to be something, but two at a time would be too much.
The Sunnis and the Shiites would typically ignore foreigners when they were targeting each other. While the tensions between the locals and foreigners certainly existed, I never felt unsafe as a westerner prior to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. Still, in a world boiling over with conflict, getting caught in the crossfire was a legitimate concern.
Later I would attend a British boarding school and visit my Dad in Gilgit just after one of these conflicts. He wore a hefty beard, and it was the only time I would ever see him with one. All the windows were bricked up in our entire house; three bolts were secured to every door — interior and exterior. He carried a shotgun and a handgun everywhere he went. While we were gone, the local police had enforced a curfew, and anyone that was caught outside after 8 p.m. would likely catch a bullet. It was the only way they could keep gunfights out of the streets.