Still from Armed with Faith.Terrorism, that singular and repulsive act of human devastation, is so often characterised by its ability to rupture the fabric of daily life, to suspend reality over a cliff edge while trauma takes over. But even the most extreme forms of societal violence cannot operate in a vacuum. Bound tightly to specific political contexts, terror actors use maximal destruction to enforce their will or attack target communities. Against such aberration and abomination, popular resistance to terrorism and its aftershocks produces inspiring displays of empathy and solidarity, a blanket of human compassion that incubates, however briefly, a genuine sense of collectivism.
As ordinary people come together, so do the organs of the establishment. They probe and pathologise the circumstances of terror, decry its horrors and make fevered pledges for its eradication. The young, male perpetrators are investigated exhaustively. Fingers are pointed and accusations are exchanged. Ugly discourses take shape, demanding ‘tough talk’ and ‘hard truths’, sometimes oblivious to the suffering of the victims and of their families and communities in mourning.
Then, normality returns. The event and its immediate repercussions are necessarily sealed off, so that life can continue unmitigated by fear. Reality climbs back up on its feet.
Throughout the recent, harrowing spate of terror attacks in the UK, #WeAreNotAfraid has become one prominent mantra of this process, a collective statement that tries to nullify terrorism’s psychological impact. By drawing a sharp contrast between daily life and the terror event, we can assure ourselves of its abnormality and monstrosity.
But what happens when terror is normality? Can its inhumanity ever become mundane? This is the dystopia glimpsed in Armed With Faith, a new documentary that profiles a tireless local bomb disposal unit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Pakistan’s north-west frontier province. KPK borders Afghanistan and encloses many of the rural areas from which terrorist groups have historically drawn their strength. In recent years it has been rocked by more terrorist attacks than anywhere else in Pakistan, playing host to the Taliban, al-Qaeda and, as of 2016, ISIS.
Far from cyclical western debates on doctrines and drone strikes, the conflict on Pakistani streets has become almost quotidian.
Armed With Faith depicts a fractured society in which the threat of bombs, landmines and other indiscriminately destructive weapons is both constant and inescapable. Terror is so common here that it has become an instrument not just of politics, but of crime and extortion as well. Across all of Pakistan, terrorism has claimed over 60,000 lives since 2001. Here, the war on terror is as real as it gets – far from cyclical western debates on doctrines and drone strikes, the conflict on Pakistani streets has become almost quotidian.
Headed up by their sharp and assured commander, Shafqat Malik, KPK’s bomb disposal unit is an extraordinary collection of public servants, whose unending task is to disarm every terror weapon they can find. Day by day, they step into the unknown and risk their lives to restore safety, often garbed in ordinary clothes and frequently without specialist equipment or body protection. Co-directors Geeta Gandbhir and Asad Faruqi worked hard to gain intimate access to the 34-member bomb squad both at work and at home – and in the technicians they found powerful examples of courage and perseverance, but also a startling insight into the war on terror’s most violent and least reported front.
“We are at the gate, the gate of the war zone,” Shafqat tells us bluntly in an early scene, as his squad investigates a terror incident in the town of Essa Khel Ghari. Two suicide bombers have detonated a bomb on a dusty road – killing only themselves – but you wouldn’t know it. There are men everywhere, pacing, chatting and gesturing as they crowd around the small craters left by the explosion.
The directors found a startling insight into the war on terror’s most violent and least reported front.
Shafqat pushes through with his team: already it is clear that their role extends beyond bomb disposal. They sift the ground for evidence, finding a charred piece of clothing and small detonation switch as residents look on curiously. The latter is important, we learn, for the number engraved on its metal surface. “We can get a lead from this. And they’ve left it here.” Hoping to track down the third bomber who had escaped the scene, Shafqat then moves on to a press conference, where he suggests several more bomb sites for the reporters to visit. “It never ends,” he says.
Armed With Faith unfolds into a dramatic succession of terror scenes much like this, drawing a nightmarish picture. This unfaltering suspense, and Faruqi’s probing, hands-on cinematography, make for captivating yet uncomfortable viewing, over swells of discordant music.
This tension is punctuated by interviews with the technicians, who speak openly about their personal lives. Amid the violence, it is sobering to hear of the aspirations and commitments of these men as we watch them dine with their families and play with their children. For Abdur Rahim – who for years hoped to become an actor, only to have his dreams deflated by his conservative parents – daily life is a precarious balancing act between his three kids and his strong sense of duty to save innocent lives. “I trust their fate is in God’s hands,” he says as the sun sets over their walled home, just across the river from a Taliban stronghold. Nowadays, he reveals, he dreams of bombs.
Nowadays, he reveals, he dreams of bombs.
Abdur and many of his comrades share Pashtun heritage with the terrorists whose bombs they defuse and whose traps they disarm. Pashtun tribes like those across the river from Abdur’s house are a poor and marginalised minority in Pakistan, with any sense of stability swept away by the war on terror. This divide is a key theme in Armed With Faith: though both sides hold strong and relatively traditional Islamic beliefs, they purpose their faith in utterly contrasting ways.
The bomb disposal unit is clearly sensitive to this dynamic, lamenting the social division and failures in education that have exacerbated this situation. “We suffer the brunt of their helplessness,” says Tiger, an impassioned bomb disposal veteran who is not afraid to blame widespread radicalisation on the blind violence of US drone strikes. Having removed many suicide jackets from the stiffened bodies of young would-be terrorists, having looked into their eyes and seen both familiarity and fear, he is not an easy man to doubt.
It is hard to grasp the meaning and power of religious belief in such a calamitous context, but Armed With Faith does so with such lucidity that even the most distant viewers will find themselves surprised. Faith, it becomes clear, underpins almost all the work of the bomb disposal unit.
We watch composed and unarmoured technicians prepare live bombs for detonation, squatting with wires in hand as they implore passers-by to stay back. They borrow knives from the locals, who also chime in with advice. As they trot away from the device, confident that it will explode with zero casualties, the extent of their faith – but also their skill – is laid bare.
This fight against terrorism is worlds away from our own. Even our own cinematic imagination of bomb disposal – embodied in 2008’s The Hurt Locker – has not captured its intensity as Gandbhir and Faruqi have. Kathryn Bigelow’s award-winning film was a landmark achievement (Bigelow is the only woman to have won both best picture and best director at the Oscars), but it is remarkable that Armed With Faith is able to match it without the Hollywood apparatus. When she describes her film as “different from a documentary, moving past that into something that was raw, immediate, and visceral,” she could well be talking about Armed With Faith.