It was October 2009 when Greek teacher Thanasis Lerounis was kidnapped by the Taliban while running a welfare center for the Kalash people in northern Pakistan.
Lerounis, who ran the center and school, located in the village of Brun in the Chitral district, had lived in northern Pakistan since the mid-1990s before being kidnapped by some 20 gunmen from neighboring Afghanistan.
The Taliban held the man hostage for seven months and was freed — under unclear circumstances — in April of 2010.
The Greek teacher and activist had spent much of his life helping the Kalash tribe, who are located in a remote area of northern Pakistan, near Afghanistan.
The light-skinned, pagan Kalash people have claimed to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s conquering armies, which invaded this region in the 4th century BC, setting up outposts in the region 2,300 years ago.
Abduction of Thanasis Lerounis shook the international community
At the time, Lerounis was working toward the construction of a three-story building to preserve and promote the unique culture of the Kalash valleys area.
Police said he was sleeping in his room inside the Kalashadur (Cultural Centre of Kalasha) when about 20 masked gunmen broke into the building and carried him away.
A policeman deployed for his security was killed when he put up resistance.
The abduction of Lerounis by the Taliban was news not only in Greece but in the international community as well.
The Greek teacher had offered invaluable help to the Kalash people both in matters of infrastructure and education.
The fact that the Kalasha helped in his release means that they valued his work greatly.
According to information provided by Chitral, Taliban envoys in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, demanded $2 million for his release and the release of three high-ranking Taliban.
Pakistani local official Abdul Majid, after locating Lerounis, was to meet with the Taliban and demand the Greek teacher’s release.
His statement that Lerounis’ alleged abductors were asking for ransom was not confirmed by the websites commonly used by the Afghan Taliban for their announcements.
The Kalash people, however, shocked by Lerounis’ abduction, had stated that they were willing to sell their property to pay the ransom, in an attempt to put pressure on the Pakistani government.
The release of the Greek teacher
The circumstances of the Greek teacher’s release have been unclear.
However, from the moment of his abduction, a six-member committee of citizens made up of Sikh Muslims and members of the Kalash community visited the Nuristan Valley, where Lerounis was held, for talks.
The mobilization of the Kalash community for the Greek activist’s release was unprecedented. It was striking that both Kalash and Muslim people marched together in the city of Nazim.
It was the first time that the Kalasha had ever protested such acts, even including women in the march.
The demonstration ended outside the city government building, where the Kalash group spoke with tears in their eyes about Lerounis and his contribution to the progress of their small, isolated society.
As a result of the locals’ negotiating effort, the Taliban withdrew their $2 million ransom demand. The kidnappers, however, insisted on the release of their leaders, who were being held in Pakistani prisons.
In April 2010, Pakistani government official Rehmatullah Wazir in Chitral told Reuters that the Taliban had released Lerounis in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province.
“They had various demands, but we did not accept them and we managed to secure his release through negotiations and pressure,” Wazir said.
Abdul Majid said that after his release Lerounis was “well and was treated with dignity.” He even carried a letter from the 55-year-old teacher, in which he wrote that he had lived with a Taliban group all that time.
The Kalash claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s army
The people of the Kalash tribe, who live in the Chitral district of Pakistan, believe they are descendants of Alexander the Great’s troops who settled in the area 23 centuries ago.
Currently, the Kalasha number about only 4,000, which means that their unique culture is in danger of extinction.
Many Kalasha are fair-skinned and blue-eyed, their features contributing to the age-old legend that they are indeed descendants of Greek soldiers who fought with Alexander the Great around 300 BC.
The Kalash people are polytheists, much like the ancient Greeks, and worship nature, holding festivals celebrating the abundance the area valley offers them.
In reality, their culture and beliefs are much closer to Indo-Iranian (pre-Zoroastrian-Vedic) traditions.
Yet they live in an area surrounded by Muslim communities and Islamist fundamendalists. During the festivals, the Kalasha drink homemade wine and dance to the sound of drums — activities that are strictly forbidden to Muslims.
Also, unlike Muslim women, the female Kalasha are not only allowed to choose their own husbands, but they can also divorce them and are even allowed to elope.
However, their traditions are quickly becoming extinct, as many convert to Islam. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Kalasha were converted to Islam by force.
Today, this continues to be the case, and the recent developments with the Taliban taking over in neighboring Afghanistan are a warning that the Kalash culture is in imminent danger.
Human rights organizations have been campaigning since 2008 to include the unique Kalash culture in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, but efforts have now stalled.
The Pakistani government has also been making efforts to protect and preserve Kalash culture. The authorities also worry that it is under threat from exploitative tourism.