The sun had long gone down. Sher Khan, a Pakistani climber on his first major expedition, had been dozing in his sleeping bag for an hour. Above the camp, the snowy flanks of Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain, were pale in the deepening night. Suddenly, Khan heard shouts of “Surrender! We are al-Qaida! Taliban!” then, in Urdu “Where are the Americans?”
Awake now and very frightened, Khan looked out of his tent. Men in camouflage fatigues and carrying AK47s were moving through the camp, pitched at around 3,500m below the famous Diamer Face of what is known among mountaineers as “the Killer Mountain”.
Good weather meant most of the 40 mountaineers who had been camping on the lush meadow amid pine trees were high up on the 8,125m peak. But the sick and the tired were not. Nor were the support staff. They were dragged out, tied, lined up and shot. Khan, from a village a few hours drive away, was spared. A Shia cook died. A Chinese climber managed to flee.
“It was so bad, so bad. I was so lucky to get out alive. I still cannot sleep,” Khan told the Guardian.
The attack, a month ago, was the first to directly target foreigners in the area. The dead included three Ukrainians, two Slovaks, a Nepali, a Lithuanian, two Chinese and a Chinese-US dual national. It shocked many locally, and made headlines around the world.
A candlelit vigil was held in Gilgit, the local administrative centre 150kms from the site of the attack.
“We wanted to send a message that we are against this killing of innocent tourists. We have such beautiful mountains, beautiful valleys. We want to share them with the world,” said Mohammed Zaeem Zia, the local doctor who organised the demonstration.
In the aftermath of the attack, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) said one of the factions that form part of the group had been responsible. The aim, a spokesman said, was to exact revenge for the killing of a senior TTP leader in a recent US drone strike.
Investigations are still underway. Ali Sher, senior officer in charge of the inquiry, told the Guardian that 60 people had been questioned, 16 were still being investigated and four were in custody after being surrendered by elders.
“We have recovered weapons and the camouflaged uniforms. The situation is now under control,” he said.
Sher, the climber who was spared, said the gunmen spoke mainly Urdu, the Pakistani national language, rather than Pashto, spoken in the restive western regions, or Shina, the local language of communities close to the mountain.
“The use of Urdu probably indicates they were a mixed bag and Urdu was the one language they all had in common,” said one local official. Many appear to be from in or around the scruffy town of Chilas which sits astride the crucial Karakoram Highway, the winding road which runs from Pakistan’s northern plains through the gorges carved by the Indus up into the Himalayas and on to China, a distance of 1,250 kilometres.
Liwer Das, a local guide who works regularly with international expeditions, dismissed any possibility of local villages helping the militants.
“These people earn their livings from the climbers. Any development at all and any jobs in the valley depend on the tourists coming,” he said.
Sher Khan’s account gives an insight into the mixed motives of the attackers. Though they identified themselves as “al-Qaida” or “Taliban”, their first priority seemed straightforward robbery, he said. Some were teenagers, most in their 20s. Their leader was older.
“They were shouting ‘where are the Americans?’ but they were also shouting for money. Everyone brought out what they had: dollars, euros, rupees, whatever,” he said.
It was only after the camp had been systematically ransacked that the captives were lined up and then shot.
“They were shouting God is Great, long live Islam and long live Osama bin Laden,” Khan remembered. “They kept shouting as they left. I remember one shouting: ‘this is revenge for Sheikh bin Laden.”
The 2013 climbing season in Gilgit-Baltistan is now ruined, expedition organisers say, with little hope that next year will bring the climbers back.
Mohammed Ali, a local expedition organiser, had sent a small team to Nanga Parbat last month. His climbers were already high on the mountain when the militants came and so escaped the attack. But a cook, 28, who had three young children, was among those shot.
“In the past there was no problem. This was a peaceful region. This is something [new]. It is very sad,” said Mohammed Ali. “I think now the situation is better. I pray to God that this is so.”