Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Thursday, 3 December 2009

Pakistan madrassa mixes drugs rehab and fighter training

By Julia Rooke
BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents

Urfan outside the mosque of the madrassa
Urfan was shocked to see the mosque is all that is left of the madrassa

Urfan was a heroin dealer and an addict. He was introduced to me as a former gangster.

He had been feared and respected on his home turf in Reading, Berkshire, UK.

Ten years ago, Urfan reached rock bottom. He was almost killed in a knife attack by rival dealers and he was desperate to change his life.

He felt unable to get the help he needed from British drug services.

So Urfan decided to seek alternative therapy in Pakistan, at a madrassa, an Islamic religious school.

He was keen to revisit it, so I joined him on his journey to north-west Pakistan.

We soon discovered that there was more to this school than met the eye.

'Destroyed' by the army

The huge madrassa is in the remote Tangir valley, virtually inaccessible to ordinary traffic.

Map of North Pakistan region, showing Tangir

We travelled for 18 hours along the Karakorum highway - a treacherous road marred by pot holes, small avalanches and sheer drops.

Tangir is a village of 5,000 people with no running water and limited electricity. It huddles round the madrassa.

We were greeted by the village leader, Shezada Khan, a religious teacher with a long white beard, leather socks - similar to those the Prophet Mohammed is said to have worn - and a black mujaheddin battle cap.

'Training fighters'

Urfan was shocked to hear that the rehabilitation centre, which was located higher up in the mountain, had been destroyed by the Pakistani army six years ago.

The military has not confirmed this to the BBC.

Shezada Khan said he did not know why it had been destroyed.

"The government didn't give any reason or warning. We don't know why they destroyed it."

We were taught to crawl on the ground with guns. They made me strip an AK-47 and put it back together again

Urfan then asked him whether it was because they were training fighters to join the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Shezada Khan only replied: "They didn't say we were doing anything we shouldn't."

The next day we began the two-hour climb on foot up the mountain to see what remained of the rehabilitation centre.

Urfan recalled that when he first arrived he was suffering withdrawal symptoms. He was in great pain and afraid.

"I was taken to a place isolated from anywhere. I felt like I'd been kidnapped," he said.

Yet as we approached the summit Urfan had tears of joy in his eyes.

"You don't understand how happy I am. This place changed my life. Thank God."

No more gangster

When we arrived, we discovered that a stone mosque with a mud roof is all that remains.

Abdul Rahman, the village leader's son, explained that the army had spared the mosque because villagers occupied it and refused to leave.

Former shooting range at madrassa
Urfan says this is where recovering addicts were trained to shoot

"Three hundred soldiers invaded this place with two helicopters," he said. "They came and blew up two buildings."

Urfan recalled how each day began long before dawn with a roll call, then prayer.

"Two o'clock in the morning was not a good time for drug dealers to get up in the UK," he said with a wry smile

"To get spiritually started in the morning, we used to chant so loud. It was as if we were releasing our illness from ourselves. It sounded like horses galloping."

As a punishment for sleeping in, he was once forced to strip down to his waist in the pouring rain, run up to the top of the mountain and sit there for eight hours.

"That soon broke my 'gangster' drug dealer attitude," he said.

Fighting in Afghanistan

Urfan said not everyone managed to kick the habit. But for him the important thing was the combination of discipline, religious learning and prayer.

"You are continuously practising your religion. All day, all night. Sooner or later God helps you."

Man on horseback, in turban and gown, unlike others who are on foot.
This religious teacher, on horseback, used to teach at the madrassa

Then Urfan revealed another side to the madrassa.

He pointed to a flat surface the size of a football pitch along the mountain slope. It was here that the addicts and criminals were given military training, he says.

"We were taught to crawl on the ground with guns. They made me strip an AK-47 and put it back together again."

Faith-based rehab

Some left the centre to fight in Afghanistan.

Urfan told me that the village now boasted 338 "martyrs". Two had been killed very recently in Afghanistan.

"When I came back to England, I was off drugs, but I was pumped full of hate," he says.

View from Karakoram highway down into river valley
Travel along the Karakoram highway can be scenic and vertiginous

But with further study and guidance, he came to understand that the Prophet Mohammed forbids extremism.

"I can understand how these people become radicalised. What they need to understand is that this religion isn't based on our own emotions, it's based upon what the Prophet taught us."

Today Urfan specialises in drug and alcohol rehabilitation for Black and Asian minorities. He offers a faith-based approach to those who want it.

He is also working on a local government project to help young Muslims who are vulnerable to extremism.

Crossing Continents: Pakistan Drugs is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 3 December 2009 at 1100 GMT and repeated on Monday 7 December at 2030 GMT.

You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast .

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