It was October 2009 when Thanasis Lerounis, a Greek teacher, 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 about twenty 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, 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.
Police said he was sleeping in his room inside the Kalashadur (Cultural Centre of Kalasha) when approximately twenty masked gunmen broke into the building and carried him away.
A policeman deployed for his security was killed when he resisted.
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 Kalash helped in his release means that they valued his work immensely.
According to information provided by Chitral, Taliban envoys in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province demanded two million dollars for his release and the release of three high-ranking Taliban members.
After locating Lerounis, Pakistani local official Abdul Majid was to meet with the Taliban and demand the release of the the Greek teacher.
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, since the moment of his abduction, a six-member committee of citizens comprised 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 the Kalash and Muslims marched together in the city of Nazim.
It was the first time that the Kalash had ever protested such acts, even including women in the march.
The demonstration ended outside the city government building, where the Kalash group spoke—teary-eyed—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 request for a two million dollar ransom. 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, revealing that he had lived with a Taliban group the whole 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 twenty-three centuries ago.
Currently, the Kalash number about only 4,000, which means that their unique culture is in danger of extinction.
Many Kalash 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 of the valley which they call home.
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 fundamentalists. During festivals, the Kalash drink homemade wine and dance to the sound of drums— activities that are strictly forbidden to Muslims.
Unlike Muslim women, the female Kalash are not only allowed to choose their own husbands, but they can also divorce them and may even elope.
However, their traditions are being threatened, as many convert to Islam. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Kalash 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 been stalled.
The Pakistani government has also been making efforts to protect and preserve Kalash culture. Authorities worry that the culture is under threat from exploitative tourism.