PESHAWAR, Pakistan Four sacred books lie under layers of embroidered cloth in a softly lit glass case.
“These books are like people. They’re resting for the night,” said Parwinder Singh, 17, a member of the Bai Joga Singh Temple in downtown Peshawar.
In the midst of the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, these particular books of Sikh scripture have come to represent the latest uprooting of the Afghan people, who have suffered through wars going back more than two decades.
Within Afghanistan, millions of people have fled their homes to escape the U.S. bombing or to find food after three years of drought. Thousands more refugees line up each day on icy mountain trails to slip through the porous border with Pakistan, which remains officially closed. The refugees include hundreds of people from Afghanistan’s dwindling Sikh population, who have fled to Pakistan since the September 11 attacks by Islamic terrorists on the United States.
The Peshawar temple, or gurudwara, as it is known, serves as a focal point for some 500 Sikhs about one-third of Afghanistan’s total who recently fled fighting there. And a focal point of the temple is the four dictionary-sized texts of Sikh scripture that contain revelations received by an 18th-century guru.
On Oct. 10, three days after the United States began bombing Afghanistan, Sikhs from the Jalalabad temple brought the books to the Torkham border crossing and handed them to Sona Singh, the priest of the Peshawar temple.
Barefooted in freshly starched robes, he placed each book on his head and slowly walked to a waiting car. There he carefully placed each text in a silk-lined box to be driven to safety in Peshawar.
“We decided to bring the books here so they would not be destroyed,” said Sona Singh a soft-spoken man with an oversized turban and thin gray beard, after leading an evening prayer service this week.
Parwinder Singh, who is studying engineering at a nearby college, explained the value of the sacred books to the 500-year-old faith that combines elements of Islam and Hinduism.
“To leave the books [in Afghanistan] where they could be disturbed would be an insult,” he said. “If anything happened to them, we would want to kill ourselves.”
Kultar Singh, 17, fled Afghanistan with his parents and younger sister just days before the Oct. 7 onset of U.S. bombing.
“We fled to save our lives,” he said. The family got a ride to a spot close to the Torkham crossing, where they began a dangerous trek through the mountains on foot to a waiting car in Pakistan.
Today, he and his family live in the one-room apartment of a brother who is a school teacher in Peshawar.
Like many other recently arrived refugees, Kultar Singh longs to go back after the war ends against the Taliban regime and its “guest,” Osama bin Laden, suspected leader of the terrorist network that destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon. But back home under the rule of the Taliban and its severe brand of Islam, religious minorities such as the Sikhs face an uncertain future.
In May, the Taliban required Afghanistan’s Hindu population of about 500 to wear yellow badges and fly yellow flags outside their homes, measures reminiscent of Nazi Germany, which forced Jews to wear a gold Star of David.
A month earlier, Taliban fighters pulverized the two giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan archaeological treasures from ancient times on the grounds they were blasphemous.
Thus far, the Taliban has left the Sikhs alone.
“We wear turbans and have beards, so we kind of blend in,” said Parwinder Singh. But he said that after the Buddha statues were blown up and Hindus were told to wear pieces of yellow cloth, many of Afghanistan’s Sikhs feared they would be targeted next.
“Sikhs felt the danger, but thus far the Taliban has told us nothing,” he said.